The Church in Varanasi town was born in the barracks, where the British troops were stationed. The available records show us that in 1840, Catholic soldiers were attended to from Ghazipur. Some documents do mention cases of ministration from Chunar. This only emphasizes the fact that the three Stations shared the zeal of a single Chaplain, who resided in the then important Cantonment of Ghazipur. The territory came under the Vicariate Apostolic of Agra, a vast unit with a handful of personnel. In 1848, Rome passed the triplet to the Vicariate of Patna, in the care of Bishop Hartmann.
That man of duty came right away in October of the same year, with the intention to study the needs of this new portion of his flock around Varanasi. He selected a decent house which he blessed as a temporary Church, dedicating it to Our Lady of Assumption. He did not have the time to provide it with a Pastor as an urgent transfer took him to Bombay. The saintly old man was to rush again to Banares in order to comfort the agony of the first Visitor Apostolic to India, Bishop Clement Bonnand (of Pondicherry) and to bury him (March 1861) in the still young Church.
Banares got its first Parish Priest in 1851, a Swiss Capuchin,
Fr. Athansius Zuber. He opened the Parochial Registers of Baptisms, marriages, burials which continue to our day. From the Government, he obtained an old building, the disused Treasury. With alms gathered from Catholics and Protestants, he furnished the Church and the presbytery attached to it. Rome soon appointed him Bishop instead of Dr. Hartmann. Thus, it was he, who performed the solemn blessing of St. Mary’s in 1854, retaining for it the initial title : Our Lady of the Assumption : a fond memory of Bishop Hartmann for the little Church of Lhasa of the pioneering Capuchins of eighteenth century.
The long line of Fr. Zuber’s successors accomplished, at varying rhythm, the passage from the unwiedly military jurisdiction of those days – the not cosy stretch between Buxar and Sultanpur to the Parish of our time. With the establishment of the Hierarchy in India (1886), when the Vicariate of Patna became the Diocese of Allahabad, the pace accelerated. Around 1920, Fr. Anthony of Persiceto, Capuchin, gave to the Priest’s house a new look: a solid structure apart from the church in red brick, and surrounded by a fine verandah. A little later, a most gracious episode of the local lore singled out the name of Fr. Paul of St. Leo for fond memory. It is after making a vow to the lady of Lourdes that her Highness Bhagirathi Devi – Kumar Rani of Vizianagaram – provided an heir for her house. And so, in 1929, at the behest of this Princess, Fr. Paul erected the grotto, which we still admire and which, to this day, bears an authenticating ex-voto of marble.
Fr. Lewis of Persiceto built the marble altar of the sanctury in 1930.
Round about those years, religious communities brought to Banares Parish the elements of an enlarged development, of a diversified service.
The Missionary Sisters of the Queen of the Apostles simply walked into their own: their German founder had willed them to India, especially to Banares, its Spiritual Capital. Landing in 1927, they had taken up work in Chunar and Theresapur, at the gate of the Holy City, poised for the earliest opening to it. That same year 1927, Fr. Paul had boldly launched with Miss Florence Mellar as the only teacher, the first Catholic School in the history of this Parish. Within a couple of years, the sheer number of pupils overwhelmed her good will and dedication. Heeding Father’s plea, Bishop Poli entrusted the venture to the Sisters. They took charge in May 1932, gladly availing themselves of the whole-hearted help of the excellent Miss Mellar, in bringing about the birth of St. Mary’s convent school. After the 1934 earthquake had done away with the original building, the first block of the present St. Mary’s complex came up, sheltering both the school and the convent. It was blessed in 1936.
The coming of Sisters proved a manifold boon to the Parish. By 1935 two of them were serving as nurses in Ishwari Memorial Hospital (Kabir Choura Hospital). In 1937, Mother Hieronyma found herself Matron of that State Institution, followed, in the same capacity, by Mother Mercedes. All the while, Sisters filled more and more posts of responsibility: pharmacist, anaesthetist, incharge of the Mid-wifery Training School. Gladly the Father’s assured a daily Mass at the neat Hospital Chapel, grateful for the untold good afforded to inumerable women and children of their fold through that sustained medical endeavour.
In 1947, Queen of the Apostles Sisters occupied a vacant building in the compound, the large Bungalow No. 45 and refitted it as St. Philomena’s orphange. Another religious family, the Indian Missionary Society, belongs by birth to Varanasi; its foundation goes back to 1941. At that date, a diocesan priest from Mangalore pitched his tent in Chandmari, a locality barely out of the town, with the name: “Mission House”. This place grew into Christnagar.
Young Gaspar A. Pinto had been the catechist of Jesuit Fr. Corti, at Moodbidri in Mangalore diocese, South Canara; from those days, the vision of this missionary inspired his life. “Next to the Name of Jesus Christ” we read in his Memories, ” no name has fascinated me, no influence changed the tide of my life, so much, as that of Fr. Corti. I wanted to continue Father’s work, as he himself pursued it”. Shortly after ordination, Fr. Pinto carried right to the Rome of Hinduism the dream of his mentor. “Gaspar,” the veteran had insisted, “we won’t last here…………at any rate, we cannot remold our foreign minds in its very fabric ……. raise up dedicated colleagues from among your own people, and get going for Christ!”
In his Mission House, better known now as Christnagar, the energetic founder got going. He gathered together an association of committed Indian Priests. Perhaps somewhat of a free lance, Fr. Gaspar Pinto retains, beyond a shadow of doubt, a singular merit: he offered a direct and genuine response to the clarion call of Pope Leo XIII: “Thy sons, O India, shall minister to thy salvation” in this Parish.
Period of Apostolic Prefecture, 1946-1970
In July 1946, the erection of the Prefecture Apostolic of Gorakhpur brought to the Parish the fresh blood of the Canadian Capuchins, with novel and bold re-orientation of the ministry.
Fr. Bernardine, for instance, caused no small wonderment when, in 1951, he took the Good Lord to the National Exhibition of Industries and Arts. In the largest hall of the Swadeshi Mill, he had asked for “a worth-while space!” With the aid of charts, maps, photos, books and pamphlets, he presented the Life of Christ and the whole history of the Church. For two months, he personally welcomed, as much as he could, thousands of Hindus and answered their queries; a minimum of two select parishioners kept helping him or substituting for him.
A couple of years later (Nov. 1953), Fr. Donat addressed himself again to the large public desiring to give to the seekers of Truth the opportunity of meeting Christ. Right in the bazar, he opened a Centre of information well furnished with folders, tracts, books, paintings and statues. He made it a point of honour to give that Centre at least two hours a day. All the while, one or two competent attendants remained there, at the disposal of the visitors.
The same Parish Priest tackled yet another thorny problem: the education of the children. Railway employees, Army personnel, Civil Servants, coming from different linguistic area, often found the schooling of their boys and girls an almost inseparable problem. For them in 1954, Father started an English Medium School in a room of the then Clergy House of the Parish compound.
Even the Banares Hindu University profited by this rejuvenated effort in the town. In 1956 Msgr. Malenfant seized upon the charism of Fr. Raimon Panikker. He gave him his full blessing to settle among the student community, with an eye on the possibility of leavening the intelligentia. “Vishnu Bhavan” and his ‘philosophic teas’ did much good, which has been continued later on at Assisi Bhavan and Maitri Bhavan.
There have been sporadic efforts at direct missionary action from the Parish. Even before the Prefecture existed, Fr. Raimon had started from Theresapur a Mission at Bareman, a bare twenty kilometers to the North-West of the Holy City. In June 1954, Fr. Donat initiated a fortnightly service to Gopiganj, half way to Allahabad. He did get some conversions, and for many years, his successors in Varanasi continued to hope and to labour for a break-through. The boldest attempt, though still-born, was at Naugarh, 90 kilometers from the Parish in January 1957. Unfortunately, heroic though it was, it ended the day it started. But later another attempt was made in the same direction and another station was initiated, today it is known to be Majhgain.
Inculturation also came in a big way to the Parish at this stage. Respectfully bared feet, oil lamps, bhajans and kirtans to the accompaniment of tablas, jhals and the whole battery of Indian musical instruments became common at religious functions. It certainly has been one of the most important contributions of the Parish Priests of Banares to the Diocese.
St. Mary’s Convent School continued to prosper. In 1957 the line of classrooms more than doubled in length, occupying all the straight space available up to the Northern boundary.
This phase witnessed the establishment in this Parish: the centre of widespread apostolate of SRA Sisters. The local convent became officially the Regional Headquarters in 1950. Even after the creation of Southern Region in 1959, Varanasi was to remain “the nerve centre of all our missionary activities in India.” The novitiate, launched in 1940 amidst the crowded accommodation of St. Mary’s got its separate and spacious building in 1970. Their chapel of lovely simplicity and unobstructed light, was erected (1966) in partial fulfillment of their Founder’s vow “to raise a worthy temple in honour of the immaculate conception in the city of Banares”. This chapel is thus a sacred legacy, calling for a long, long presence of Sisters in the Parish.
In those days also the Foundation of Fr. Pinto came of age. From 1947 to 1959, Msgr. Jose A.E. Fernandez, his successor, gave the simple Association of the early days a Constitution and formed it into a religious congregation of both Priests and Brothers: the Indian Missionary Society (1953). The first Sacerdotal Ordination had just taken place on August 15, 1952, of Fr. Amoolya and Fr. Jesudas. How to forget Fr. Amoolya, faithful at the confessional of the Parish Church, on Sundays of the late 50’s and well after!
It was the privilege of Very Rev. Fr. Silanath, IMS, the first Superior General (1949-1971), to launch from this Parish the long hoped for apostolate of his Society: in this diocese and in many others also, even beyond the seas in the Fiji Islands.
The fruitful era brought to Varanasi a third religious Fraternity: the Little Sisters of Jesus. The installation of Little Sisters here reads like a novel. When the foundress little Sr. Magdeleine brought her Sisters to Banares, on the January 19, 1953, she had still to provide them with a house! To find quickly a vacant house in the crowded Holy City…. evidently a pipe dream! While Fr. Yvon was guiding her through the maze of the narrow lanes, Little Sr. Magdeleine, suddenly, nearly lifted Fr. Yvon off the ground: “Here is the place where Jesus wants us to live!” She exclaimed pointing to a dilapidated, ‘haunted’ dwelling, on the bank of the Ganga. Yesu Ashram, this Nazareth-on-Ganga, assures a significant presence of the Church in the thick of our Hindu brethren: a presence of worship, of friendship of service.
Some important dates related to the diocese
1954, October 5, 6, 7 : the centenary of St. Mary’s Church. The Parish-Priest, Fr. Donat, and his Committee organized a vibrant thanksgiving and lovely pageantry. Of many events, two master-features certainly stood out.
An exhibition of Indian Christian Art displayed among the excellent works of local artists; the elaborate plan of a church, the architecture of which was of a purely Indian conception by Fr. Ernest; a collection of devotional and popular hymns (Ish-Kirtans) by
Fr. Liguori; three wooden ciboriums of intricate pattern and two statues of patently indigenous lines and garb by Msgr. Jerome.
The other choice piece of entertainment enthralled the public, to the point of rapture: evangelical scenes and parables set by Fr. Edmond into classical dance.
At this juncture also, the Cathedral underwent an alteration in its title, Bishop Zuber, following Bishop Hartmann, had maintained the patronage of Our Lady in her Assumption, as the beautiful statue above the high-altar proclaims to this day. A Roman rescript (28/11/58) granting the petition of Msgr. Malenfant made it over to Our Lady, Queen of the World.
1958, December 14 : Blessing of the Prefect’s House
St. Philomena’s Orphanage was transformed into the ‘Bishop’s House’ by Fr. Yvon, Bros. Gilles and Peter Baptist.
1967, December 10 : A diocesan priest, Fr. Lawrence Mendonca, took effective charge of the Parish, bridging a gap of exactly 20 years: in 1947, Fr. B.J. Pereira, a diocesan priest of Allahabad, had handed it over to Fr. Bernard of the Canadian Missionaries.
1968, September 30 : The blessing of the new Clergy House and Community Hall.
1970, August 13 : Bishop Patrick Paul D’ Souza, the first Bishop of Varanasi Diocese, took charge of the ecclesial responsibility.
1982, Christmas Mela began.
1984, October : Diocese of Gorakhpur was erected as independent ecclesial territory.
1993, February 11 : The new Cathedral of the Diocese of Varanasi was blessed.
2007, February 24 : The Holy Father appointed Rt. Rev. Raphy Manjaly was as Bishop of Varanasi.
2007, April 30 : Episcopal ordination and installation of Bishop Raphy Manjaly as Bishop of Varanasi.
2013, December 03 : Bishop Raphy Manjaly was installed as Bishop of Allahabad.
2013, December : Rev. Fr. Eugene Joseph was elected as the Administrator of Diocese of Varanasi.
2015, May 30 : The Holy Father Appointed Rev. Fr. Eugene Joseph as Bishop of Varanasi.
2015, August 24 : Episcopal ordination and installation of Bishop Eugene Joseph as Bishop of Varanasi.
St. Mary’s as Cathedral of the New Diocese
St. Mary’s Church attained its full status in June 1970, as the Cathedral of the new Diocese of Varanasi. The installation of Bishop Patrick Paul D’Souza took place on August 13, 1970. The fresh impetus affected first the Parish Compound: an increase of visitors!
Bro. Augustine, Ofm. Cap. built up the name of Varanasi into a by word of service and goodness.
Parish Priests, who followed one another, left their mark.
Fr. Wilfred Lewis (1975-81) brought two processes to their final stage. For quite a few years already, Hindi had its place in the Parish, alternating on a par with English; sometime in 1976 it won over completely. By internal re-adjustments and the enclosing of the verandahs, Fr. Wilfred provided a vastly enlarged dining room, stores, and pantry, even a gallery for the library.
St. Mary’s Convent School had absorbed into its regular curriculum the English Section, initiated by Fr. Donat in 1954. The development called for repeated construction: 1965, a block to the East of the central structure; 1973, another block on the Northern boundary of the campus; as late as 1983, a couple of classrooms came up not far from the main entrance. It now serves over 2000 students of both the Hindi and English components of its Junior High School.
In 1976, the number of candidates and postulants warranted the acquisition of a separate house for them, Nav Jeevan, at Sona Talab, on the town’s eastern outskirts.
In 1978 Sisters accepted an assignment at the heart of Hinduism : Mariammayee Ashram. Apostolically, Mariammayee constitutes a tabernacle ensuring a tangible presence of Jesus near the celebrated Vishwanath Temple; its consecrated custodians from a benefiting guard of honour.
In 1971 the Sisters of Mother Teresa brought to the Holy City one more witness to Jesus’ selfless love. For six months, they operated from provisional quarters at Bishop’s House. Their present base Nirmal Hriday at Shivala Ghat, caters primarily for the sick and dying destitutes picked up from the streets. Sisters make the rounds of the slums, visiting the unwanted, the lonely; for them and their children they manage mobile dispensaries and make-shift schools.
The same Religious have opened a second Home (1973) at Shivpur: Shishu Bhavan, for the abandoned or neglected children. Here also the Sisters serve the under privileged in the surrounding villages: mobile dispensaries, village schools, tailoring classes.
Daughters of Our Lady of Providence, the Providence Sisters, joined Varanasi in 1981. A novitiate was established in 1982.
St. Joseph’s Primary School welcomed its initial batch of students in July 1982; it functioned for a while at Bhojubir. Now it occupies its own building at Barlai, exactly on the divide of the urban and rural areas in the Northern sector of the Parish. Soon a dispensary started. In 1986, the novitiate was shifted to Ashapur. Since 1991 it has its own building at Harahua. In 2005 the novitiate house has been shifted from Harahua to Tarna and in 2006 the Regional house, Ekta Vihar, was also built.
‘Khrist Panthi Ashram’, an appealing name graciously willed by Pastor R.C. Das, came to life in a rented dwelling at Sigra, on March 01, 1972. The founder, Acharya Swami Ishwar Prasad, IMS and Swami Ishwaranand, a Kurushumala Ashram inmate, took the ashram to its present location at Nagwa in August of the same year, within a stone’s throw of the sacred river. At present the sisters of Dina Sevana Sabha reside in this house and run a health centre for the slum area people and also run balwadi for the street children.
In the best teaching tradition of the ashrams, Khrist Panthi Ashram, with the approval of all the Bishops of the Region, planned a specifically Indian training for priests intending to work among the Hindus: from 1974 to 1976 a bold, perhaps a bit premature, attempt was made to conduct Masih Gurukul or Pilot Seminary in this place.
Satsang Sadan blessed in January 1977 aimed at establishing a religious fellowship between Christians and believers of other faiths by inter-mingling with them in respect and love. Fr. Roque D’Costa was on feet to build friendly relationship and make the presence of Christ felt in the heart of Hindu City. A library was established with several periodicals and magazines for public use. With the help of Hindu friends Satsang Sadan grew in the heart of the city until minor seminary of the diocese came into the same house in 1982.
In February 1981 Maitri Bhavan came into being a centre for religious involvement mainly among the intelligentia of the University milieu. The Home of Friendship wanted to unite the thinking elite, and in a sharing spirit, reflect with them on the country’s vital problems, keeping religious values in mind.
In 1982, it was felt that time was ripe for the diocese to start its own minor seminary. On July 18, the Minor Seminary was inaugurated in the premises of Satsang Sadan with in the Parish.
Fr. Raimon Panikker had launched the first serious ministry among Catholics of Banaras Hindu University regularly from September 1956 to May 1960, more and more intermittently after 1965. It was a small affair at the beginning, in a hired room, next to the University; then two rooms in Vishnu Bhavan at Lanka. In 1982, the Diocese acquired a spacious, double-storeyed house in the locality of Nagwa, Assisi Bhavan. Assisi Bhavan was later developed as the independent parish to cater to the spiritual needs of the nurses and others in and around BHU.
The inauguration of Nav Sadhana, the Regional Centre of Renewal, took place on February 24, 1982 amidst a memorable assembly, the General Consultation on Priestly Formation for North India: 32 Bishops, Rectors of the Major Seminaries of the Region and their staff, a complement of Brothers and Sisters; all in total, 124 participants, the biggest gathering of Bishops seen in the Parish.
FSM sisters who after various efforts at Pahadia, Sarnath and Bhojubir, opened their Formation House named Amardeep at Sarang Talab, on May 27, 1984, started a heartwarming ministry: caring for the children of leprosy patients, many of whom they kept in hostel at Amardeep, now shifted to Lohata.
Holy Cross Sisters added to the number of Novitiates in the Parish. They started it in 1980 at Ashapur, and in 1986, it was shifted to Ganeshpur.
There has been much development work in the Parish, though not always coordinated. In 1986 Diocesan Social Developmental Centre was started at Bhojubir; ICM Sisters started an adult literacy and women’s uplift centre, Snehalaya at Sarnath in 1974; Jeevan Jyoti, the School for the Blind began at Bhojubir in 1972, found in 1984 a new and spacious building at Aktha; Nav Vani, the School for the Hearing Impaired, began at Bhojubir in 1988 in a humble way, was shifted to a spacious building at Koirajpur in 1998. Now Nav Vani has developed into a complete school for hearing impaired and it has also started special B. Ed. for the same.
An already existing building was bought in Sikraul, Bhojubir locality and CJ sisters started service for the mentally challenged and slow learners. Asha Niketan, special school for the Mentally handicapped at Sikraul, near Circuit House, added another feather to the yeomen services of the humanity.
Fr. Dilraj, IMS started a new ministry among the rag pickers and domestic workers in the city. He named the work : ‘ASMITA’ (Association for the Socially Marginalised Integrated Therapeutic Action). ASMITA has been recognized by the city universities for the practical training in MSW studies in Varanasi. Dina Sevana Sabha (DSS) sisters joined him in the work for slum dwellers and rag pickers. The FSM sisters are continuing to work with Fr. Dilraj, IMS. Fr. Dilraj has always been ever enthusiastic to reachout to all the rag pickers and domestic staff and the population in the slums of the holy city. Fr. Abhishiktanand IMS began his new ministry of taking care of railway platform children from the house at Sikraul.
Medical Service too has many centres in the Parish. Nityanand Ashram, started in 1974 as a Community health centre, in Sarnath area, has developed into a T.B. Clinic, Maternity Centre and general dispensary and now a well established hospital. There are smaller dispensaries at Providence Convent, Mariammayee Ashram, Shishu Bhavan and Nirmal Hriday.
On February 11, 1993, the new Cathedral, designed by
Mr. Krishna Menon, built under the supervision of Bro. Julian Crasto, Ofm. Cap. was blessed. The cathedral and the permanent exhibition in the basement began to draw many daily visitors. In 2005, Satyaseva Sisters have joined the diocese, to look after the Jeevan Darshan Bible Exhibition at St. Mary’s Cathedral.
With the new Cathedral, the Priest House was demolished. Rooms for the parish clergy were built in the hall; the hall itself was taken one floor higher.
Matridham Ashram has been developing into a popular centre of Charismatic prayer. It has become a reputed place of prayer and retreat centre. Thousands of people from almost 100 km radius flock into this ashram on the second and fourth Saturday of the month in order to listen to the Word of God. It has taken a mass movements of devotees numbering into thousands. They are termed as ‘Khrist Bhaktas’. Their need is very simple – it is a surmounting desire to listen to the Word. Now the movement is picking up almost all over northern region. Many religious men and women come here for spiritual experience.
Matridham Ashram has developed a centre for the mentally challenged known as ‘Ashray’ in 2005. It is well supported by various people of good will in Varanasi. The centre has several mentally disturbed patients who are given counseling by the Acharya himself and FCC sisters, who have happily joined the special ministry in the Ashram. Annually Ashram organizes ‘Ashram Aikya’ and annual day of discussions and prayer services for the people in the month of November.
Sisters of Adoration of Blessed Sacrament (SABS) joined the ministry on September 4, 2000. They started continuous Eucharistic Adoration in the Cathedral.
Satyaseva Catechist Sisters opened their first house in the Diocese at Patel Nagar for looking after the Jeevan Darshan Bible Exhibition at Cathedral from the year 2005.
As the need for pastoral care of the faithful expounded, new parishes in the city were established.
St. Francis of Assisi Parish, Nagwa year 2001
Fatima Mata Parish, Mawaiya year 2005
St. Joseph’s Parish, Lohata year 2006
St. John the Baptist Parish, Marhauli year 2007
Ish Mata Mandir, Hatia, Shivpur year 2011