In 1876, Pope Pius IX offered Don Bosco twelve vicariates in India which were in urgent need of personnel. Don Bosco agreed to take up one of these, and requested twenty months to prepare his men. Returning from Rome, he told his sons, "Those of you who wish to go to India have twenty months to get ready." A little later he wrote to Fr. Cagliero in Argentina: "I really feel you must return to Europe in 1877 and make a trip to Ceylon in India. That place needs a Castelnuovo boy..." He wrote to Cagliero again: "We shall accept the vicariate of Mangador (Mangalore) in India, and Fr. Cagliero will be the vicar apostolic." Despite these plans, it took another 30 years for the sons of Don Bosco to reach India. And when they did come in 1906, it was not to Ceylon or Mangalore, but Thanjavur in Tamil Nadu.
The Bishops of Padroado diocese of Mylapore were instrumental in bringing the Salesians to India. Negotiations were started as early as 1896 by Msgr. Antonio de Souza Barroso who had heard that it was Don Bosco’s desire to send the Salesians to India. His successor, the Rt. Rev. Teutonio de Castro, had a personal reason to pursue this cause. As a young seminarian, he was an ardent admirer of Don Bosco and, after his ordination, had travelled twice to Turin to meet the saint. Blessing him and his future works, Don Bosco told him, "You will do much good".
After protracted negotiations, the first group of Salesian missionaries to India landed in Bombay on January 6, 1906, under the leadership of Fr. George Tomatis. With him were two other priests, one brother, a scholastic and an aspirant. Travelling by train from Bombay they reached Thanjavur on January 14, 1906.
At Thanjavur the new missionaries began their work with six orphans at the St. Francis Xavier’s Orphanage. The numbers soon rose steadily, till it reached 800 in 1928. Vocations were steady. The first Indian boy to join was Karunal who was sent to Italy in 1907 as an aspirant. From Italy he proceeded to Portugal for his novitiate. Unfortunately he fell ill and died in Lisbon in 1909. Two others opted to follow Don Bosco. They were Ignatius Muthu and Arulsamy, both of whom were also sent to Italy in 1908 and later proceeded to Portugal for the novitiate. They professed in 1911. Ignatius Muthu was ordained priest in Mylapore in 1916.
In 1907, Fr. Ernest Vigneron, one of the pioneers, passed away after a surgery in 1908 and Fr. Eugene Mederlet, originally destined for China, substituted him. In 1909, Fr. Tomatis left Thanjavur under the care of Fr. Mederlet and went to Mylapore to start the second foundation in India: the San Thome Orphanage.
Meanwhile, the Holy See was pressing the Salesians of Don Bosco to take up the vast mission of Assam. It was accepted on July 21, 1921.
Each European province was requested to send volunteers for the Assam Mission. Two priests each from Italy, Spain and France were accepted and Fr. Louis Mathias, a French Salesian, then working in Sicily as Rector of the Salesian House of Catania, was chosen as their leader. Five brothers from Italy and Spain were included in the pioneering group at the special request of Fr. Mathias. He had ample opportunity to be briefed at length on the Assam mission in his meeting with Msgr. Christopher Becker, a Salvatorian and the first Prefect Apostolic of Assam, who is considered the real pioneer of the Assam mission. They reached Shillong on January 13, 1922. Barely three weeks later, on February 5, they began work in various centres: four going to Raliang, two to Guwahati, and four with Fr. Mathias, who on December 15, 1922 was appointed the Prefect Apostolic of Assam.
From 1906 to 1912 the Salesians in India were part of the province of Portugal. From 1912 to 1923 they were under the care of the Roman province of St. Peter. In 1923 a Visitatoria (Vice Province) was formed with Mgr. Louis Mathias as superior. The new Visitatoria (Vice Province), headquartered at Shillong and under the patronage of St. Thomas the apostle, consisted of all the Salesian works in northeast India and those of Tanjavur and Mylapore, in the south.
Despite the lack of personnel and means, the work progressed rapidly. In less than a year, six centres were opened. In 1925 a novitiate was started in Shillong and novices were brought from Europe to be trained along with their Indian counterparts. In 1925 they assumed charge also of the Catholic Orphan Press and the Cathedral parish of Calcutta, and also started the new mission of Jowai.
On May 18, 1926, the Visitatoria (Vice Province) of India was made into the Province of India, with Fr. Mathias as Provincial. The province, with headquarters at Shillong, extended from the northeast of India to Thanjavur, a distance of some 4000 kms.
In the 1920’s, while work progressed rapidly in the northeast, those in the south were passing through a stage of uncertainty and indecision. As early as 1920, Fr. Albera, the then Rector Major, decided to withdraw the Salesians from Thanjavur and Mylapore, in deference to Rome to take over the vast mission of Assam. This decision was reversed following protestations and pleas from the confreres in the south as well as the Bishop of Mylapore.
Again in 1922, Turin decided to recall the Salesians from Mylapore. This decision too was reversed due to urgent entreaties from Mylapore. The relation between the Salesians and the diocese began to deteriorate. There was great anxiety and uncertainty regarding the continuance of their works. In both places, Salesians were merely administrators of diocesan property and the attitude of the Vicar General, Msgr. Texeira did not favour expansion or development.
In 1927 Fr. Peter Ricaldone visited Thanjavur and Mylapore to apprise himself of the situation. He presented the Vicar General, Msgr. Texeira, a report outlining the conditions under which the Salesians would continue to work in the diocese. As the diocese was in no mood to accept his proposal, it was decided to withdraw the Salesians from the diocese of Mylapore with effect from May 1, 1928.
Leaving Mylapore and Thanjavur was painful, but it paved the way for further expansion of Salesian works in the south. After handing over the San Thome orphanage to the diocese, Frs. Hauber and Dehlert went to Bombay to open a new house there. Fr. Mederlet and four others went to Vellore in May 1928 to start a new presence in North Arcot. This district was offered to the Salesians by the Archbishop of Pondicherry during the visit of Fr. Ricaldone in 1927.
In compensation for what the Salesians left behind at Thanjavur and Mylapore, the diocese gave them the ancient sanctuary of Our Lady of Happy Voyage at Bandel in West Bengal. The Salesians took charge on September 1, 1928.
In the reorganization of the dioceses, following double jurisdiction in the missions, by the Papal Bull Ad Maius Religionis Incrementum of July 3, 1928, North Arcot was joined to the archdiocese of Madras, which was entrusted to the Salesians, and Fr. Mederlet was nominated its Archbishop.
1928- SALESIANS ENTER BOMBAY
The Salesians entered Bombay (Mumbai) when they took over an existing Catholic school at Tardeo in 1928. The Bombay Catholic Welfare Organization which owned the school was finding it financially burdensome.
In 1928 the Holy See urged the Salesians to take up the diocese of Krishnagar, even though they pleaded that they had no personnel and means to develop it. For a number of years the few Salesians who were sent there were not able to bring about significant improvements.
However, the Don Bosco Technical School at Shillong became a show-piece of the Assam Mission.
In 1931 Fr. Louis Mathias started a new center at Dibrugarh in order to give closer attention to Upper Assam. This was followed by the opening of Tezpur in 1932 by Frs. Alessi and Ravalico and of Tura in the Garo Hills by Frs. Pianazzi and Rocca. In recognition of the substantial progress that was made, the Holy See raised Shillong to the status of a diocese in 1934 and appointed Msgr. Mathias as its first bishop. Fr. Vincent Scuderi took his place as Provincial of North India.
In 1934, the Salesian Province of India was divided into two provinces: the Province of North India, with St. John Bosco as its patron, Fr. Scuderi as Provincial and headquarters at Shillong (which later shifted to Calcutta) and the Province of South India, with St. Thomas the Apostle as its patron, had Fr. Cinato as Provincial and headquarters at Vellore (which later shifted to Madras).
Msgr. Mathias was appointed Bishop of Shillong in 1934 while Msgr. Stephen Ferrando took over as Bishop of Krishnagar. On December 21, the same year, Archbishop Mederlet of Madras passed away while hearing confessions at Pallikonda. Msgr. Mathias was then transferred to the See of Madras which he governed, faithful to his motto "Dare and Hope", from 1935 to 1965.
Bishop Louis Mathias of Shillong was transferred to Madras as the new Archbishop. During his thirty years in Madras, he proved to be one of the most energetic bishops in India. Whenever the interests of the Church were under attack from Governments in any part of India, he raised his voice in protest and often with success. Among the numerous institutions established by him, the Major Seminary at Poonamallee and the Catholic Centre at Madras stand out prominently.
The Salesians in Mumbai faced serious financial difficulties until Fr. Aurelius Maschio arrived on the scene in 1937. Already in his first year in Bombay Fr. Maschio started to publish a folder with the title Don Bosco’s Madonna. Its aim was to spread devotion to Mary Help of Christians and to St. John Bosco. Over the years the folder grew in size and appearance and in the number of copies issued. Today about 100,000 copies of this magazine go out to Catholic homes and institutions every month. Fr. Maschio shifted the school (already named Don Bosco High School) from its rented quarters at Tardeo to its own proper building at Matunga in 1941. In the course of time, other buildings were added, including the beautiful shrine of Our Lady, Help of Christians in 1957. Today there are several Salesian schools, boarding-houses, boys’ homes, parishes and technical schools in the city of Bombay.
The phenomenal growth of Salesian works in North-East India in the fifties led to the division of the Province of Calcutta in 1959, giving rise to the province of Guwahati, with Fr. Anthony Alessi as Provincial. The Guwahati Province was further divided in 1982 forming the Dimapur Province, with Fr. Mathew Pulingathil as Provincial. The diocese of Shillong was divided in 1951 and the new diocese of Dibrugarh came into being, with Msgr. Orestes Marengo as its bishop. This was the first of many divisions of ecclesiastical territory that would take place in Northeast India in the course of the next fifty-five years.
The arrival and expansion of the Salesian presence in India can thus be summarised in the following lines.
The Salesians arrived at Thanjavur (Tanjore) in India in 1906. In 1923, the Vice Province of India (Visitatoria) was formed with its headquarters in Shillong. In 1926, the Province of India was formed and Shillong continued to be its base.
In 1934, the Province of India with its base in Shillong, was divided. The Province of North India, one of the sub-divisions retained Shillong as its Provincial House for the first 11 years of its inception. Later on, in 1937 the Provincial House was shifted to Calcutta (Kolkata).
The other sub-division was the Province of South India with its Provincial House in Madras (Chennai).
In 1959, the Province of Gauhati (Guwahati) was carved out of the Province of North India. The Salesian Province of Bombay (Mumbai) was carved out of the Province of South India in 1972. A little later in 1979, the Bangalore (Bengaluru) province was formed out of the Province of South India. The Guwahati Province saw the formation of the Province of Dimapur in 1981. In 1992, the Province of Hyderabad was carved out of the Bangalore Province. In 1997, the Province of North India again saw a division with the Province of New Delhi coming into being.
The Province of South India once again saw the division of the Province of Tiruchy (Tiruchirapalli) in 1999. The Province of Bombay was divided further in 2004 with the Konkan Vice Province, today the Panjim Province coming into being.
The Province of South India saw the erection of the Vice Province of Sri Lanka in 2004.
In 2012 the Province of Guwahati marked the carving out of the Province of Silchar (Shillong) with its Provincial House at Shillong.
Today, the Salesians in the South Asia Region have their presences in 11 Provinces and 1 Vice Province :
Calcutta (Kolkata) (INC) 1934, Madras (Chennai) (INM) 1934, Guwahati (ING) 1959, Bombay (Mumbai) (INB) 1972, Bangalore (Bengaluru) (INK) 1979, Dimapur (IND) 1981, Hyderabad (INH) 1992, New Delhi (INN) 1997, Tiruchy (INT) 1999, Panjim (INP) 2004, Shillong (INS) 2012 and 1 Vice-Province of Sri Lanka (LKC) 2004.
While we are growing today in India we are approximating 2,700 Salesian priests and brothers, 1,300 Salesian Sisters, 27,000 Salesian Co-operators and over 50,000 registered Past Pupils.