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UK: Pope sets up new eparchy for Indian Christians

The Vatican has established a new eparchy or leadership structure for the Syro-Malabar community with an ancient church in north England as its cathedral, marking a new high in the little known history of Indian Christians in Britain that began with Goan “lascars” arriving in the 16th century.

world Updated: Jul 30, 2016 21:34 IST
Prasun Sonwalkar
Pope Francis has appointed Kottayam-born Fr Joseph Srampickal as the first bishop of the eparchy.
Pope Francis has appointed Kottayam-born Fr Joseph Srampickal as the first bishop of the eparchy.(Reuters)

The Vatican has established a new eparchy or leadership structure for the Syro-Malabar community with an ancient church in north England as its cathedral, marking a new high in the little known history of Indian Christians in Britain that began with Goan “lascars” arriving in the 16th century.

The eparchy – akin to a diocese – has been set up in St Ignatius Church in Preston, north England, 370 km from London. The church, handed over to the community in October 2015, was this week named by the Vatican as the cathedral of the eparchy. 

Pope Francis also appointed Kottayam-born Fr Joseph Srampickal as the first bishop of the eparchy. He is currently vice-rector of the Pontifical Urban College “De Propaganda Fide” in Rome. Members of the Syro-Malabar community in Britain number nearly 40,000.

Services at St Ignatius Church have been held in Malayalam since it was handed over to the community. Some members of the local community protested against the handover at the time, and said they felt excluded since the services are no longer in English.

Bishop Michael Campbell of Lancaster said: “I welcome this exciting news and in particular Bishop Srampickal as the first Bishop of the Eparchy of the Syro-Malabars in Great Britain. I look forward to working with him as a close colleague and friend while he has care of his brothers and sisters throughout the whole country.”

He said the establishment of the eparchy was “a clear indication of the care of the Holy See for the thousands of Syro-Malabar Catholics who have settled in Great Britain. I am particularly pleased that the seat of the new Eparchy will be the wonderful St Ignatius Church.”

The history of Indian Christians in Britain includes three distinct groups arriving at various times, with origins in south India (mainly Kerala), Goa and Punjab. Each group conducts services in their own languages - Malayalam, Konkani (and English), Punjabi - across the country.

The Goan link is the oldest, with members of the community now boosting congregations in Swindon, nearly 130 km west of London, where thousands have settled in recent years after acquiring Portuguese passports (Goans born before the Indian state’s liberation in 1961 and their two generations are entitled to Portuguese citizenship).

Punjabi Christians from the Jalandhar Doaba region mostly migrated from the 1950s onwards and are based in Bedford, Coventry, Oxford and Birmingham. Several denominations of the church in south India are represented across Britain.

The story of Indian Christians in Britain includes a reversal of the path trekked by Western missionaries in the 19th century to tribal areas in India’s northeast. The converted tribes now return the favour by moving to places such as Wales to meet a shortage of priests there.

One of the first to arrive in recent years was Rev Hmar Sangkhuma from the diocese of Mizoram, who offered spiritual guidance to the local population in Maesteg, near Bridgend in Wales. Several other Indian priests have taken over church services across Britain in recent years.