The History of the Salesians in India begins with the 1886 missionary dream of Don Bosco, in which he is asked to draw a line starting from Santiago in Chile to Peking in China, cutting across Africa and India, passing through the city of Kolkata. Twenty years later, on 6 January 1906, the first group of six Salesians, with Fr. George Tomatis as leader, landed in Bombay to begin work in India, starting from Thanjavur.
Initially, Salesian works in India (Tanjore and Mylapore) were under the jurisdiction of the Province of Portugal (1906-1912) and then of the Roman province of St. Peter (1912-1922). However, after the first group of the Salesian missionaries to Assam, led by Fr. Louis Mathias, arrived in the North East in January 1922, Salesian works both in the South and the North East were for a year placed directly under the General Council, and then in 1923 India was made a visitatoria (vice-province) with Fr. Louis Mathias as its Superior.
Three years later, on 28 May 1926, the visitatoria was raised to the status of a full-fledged province – the Province of India – with St. Thomas the Apostle as its patron and Mgr. Mathias as its Provincial. Shillong was chosen as the headquarters of the province since the provincial Mgr. Mathias, being also the Prefect Apostolic of Assam, Bhutan and Manipur, had his sede there.
In 1931 the Indian province was divided into two – the North Indian Province of St. John Bosco which continued with headquarters in Shillong, and the South Indian Province of St. Thomas the Apostle, with headquarters in Vellore. Frs. Vincent Scuderi and Eligio Cinato were appointed provincials of the North and the South, respectively. In 1937, the provincial house of the Northern Province was shifted to Kolkata and that of the Southern province to Chennai.
In September 1959, the Province of North India was bifurcated to form a new province in North-East India, with headquarters in Guwahati and Mary Help of Christians as patroness. Fr. Anthony Alessi, who was the provincial of the mother province, was nominated provincial of the new Province of Guwahati, while Fr. Orestes Paviotti was appointed provincial of the North Indian Province which continued to have its headquarters in Kolkata.
The Kolkata Province was further divided in 1996 and 2004 to form the province of New Delhi and the vice-province of Myanmar respectively.
To get a bird’s eye view of the geographical distribution of the province and the commencement of salesian work there, the province may be divided into five zones according to the principal language spoken by the people of the area.
The Salesians officially entered Kolkata, the dream city of Don Bosco on 11 November 1925, coinciding with the Golden Jubilee of the Salesian Missions. The three Salesians who took up residence in Calcutta and began the apostolate in the city were Fr. Paul Bonardi, Fr. Gil and Br. Peter Aprile. The first work entrusted to the Salesians in Calcutta was the Catholic Orphan Press (COP) and the Cathedral parish attached to it. These were acquired from the archdiocese of Calcutta and the Jesuits who were administering them. The COP and the Cathedral were handed back to the Archdiocese in 1972, but the work in and outside Calcutta had already taken good shape by then.
Almost immediately after the arrival of the Salesians in the city of Kolkata, they branched out also into the outlying areas, encountering Bengali language and culture. Thus for example, Krishnagar witnessed the establishment and growth of a Don Bosco institution already from the year 1928. That was when the Salesians were entrusted with the primary school of Sts. Peter and Paul, raised to the level of a High School in 1951. In 1964 the school was officially handed over to the Salesians by Rt. Rev. Louis Morrow, the then Bishop of Krishnagar. Eventually the Salesians spread their pastoral work to Chapra, Ranabondo, Maliapota, Bongaon, Monsadah, Ranagaht, and Kalyani. Some of these centres were handed over to the diocese in the course of time.
The Santhal Zone
The Santhal missions hold a very special place in the history of the Province of Kolkata. This mission initially was limited to Murshidabad and Birbhum districrts of West Bengal and later spread to parts of Bihar, Nepal and finally Hooghly district. Berhampore was the first parish accepted by the Salesians in the Santhal belt. It was entrusted to the Salesians in 1928 as part of Krishnagar diocese. Only in 1955 it was reopened as residential parish by Fr. Vincent Lazarro.
The cradle of Santhal Missions for the Salesians is Azimganj. In 1957, Fr. John Topno, while staying at Berhampore, launched out into the interior villages of the district. In 1964 Fr. Sergi was sent to Azimganj to build a centre there. Following these pioneering efforts the Don Bosco Welfare Centre was founded there on 18 July 1966, with the opening of the boarding school. In the year that followed the first parish church was erected and with the efforts and resources of Fr. J. Gimenez the parish progressed by leaps and bounds. Eventually other parishes or centres of Polsondamore, Monigram, Joypur, Barapahari, Purnea, Dumka, Sirsia and Hooghly came into the map of Santhal mission. Some of these were handed over to the diocese.
The Nepali Zone
The fourth zone of Salesian presence in the province is the Nepali speaking regions of North Bengal, Sikkim and Nepal. The association with Nepalis has been of long standing origin – from the time Salesian College at Sonada was set up, way back in 1938. In 1963 the parish of Sonada in Darjeeling diocese was entrusted to the Salesians. The civil authorities of Sikkim state offered assistance to start education services in Malbasey, West Sikkim and in 1989 Don Bosco School was inaugurated.
The Salesians of Don Bosco were present in the territory now known as Bangladesh from 1928 to 1952 at a few places in what is now the diocese of Khulna, namely at Jessore, Khulna, Boborpara and Shimulia. After the partition of India into India and Pakistan in 1947, these areas came to be included in what was then called East Pakistan. As it was difficult to move freely from one country to the other, the Salesians withdrew from these regions after the creation of the diocese of Khulna, which was entrusted by the Holy See to the Xavarian Missionaries.
In 2009 at the invitation of the Bishop of Mymensingh the Salesians of Don Bosco accepted the mission of Utrail in the Netrokona district and opened their first presence there. After two years they opened a second presence at Lokhikul in the diocese of Rajshahi. The pioneering missionaries in these presences are Fr. Francis Alencherry sdb and Fr. Emil Ekka sdb. Eventually Salesian missionaries from Poland, Nigeria, East Timor, Vietnam and India volunteered for the mission in Bangladesh which presently is under the Province of Kolkata.