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BRIEF HISTORY OF THE CATHOLIC CHURCH IN MYANMAR

As early as 1287, evidence of Christianity was found in the form of frescos containing crosses, Latin and Greek words in some places in Pagan, which was once a flourishing kingdom. After the discovery of the route to India by Vasco da Gama in 1497, Portuguese Missionaries set out for the Far East as chaplains to Portuguese soldiers, sailors and settlers. The rich land of Burma attracted these Portuguese traders and by 1510, after having founded Goa as the Sea port to the East, they came to Mergui, Tavoy, Syriam and Akyab befriending the King of Pegu.

The great Portuguese Missionary, Francis Xavier whose name is connected with Goa, Malaya and Japan wrote to his Jesuits in Europe mentioning Pegu and making it clear that the kind of missionary sent out should be of such stuff that it would be safe to send him unaccompanied or accompanied wherever needed, be it to the Moluccas, or China or Japan, or to the KINGDOM OF PEGU.

The commercial relations between Portugal and the Kingdom of Pegu and Ava increased. By1556 there were about 1000 Portuguese soldiers and sailors commanded by Antonio Ferreira de Branganza serving the King (Bayintnaung). Friar Peter Bonfer, a French Franciscan spent three years learning the language and customs of the people and wrote a book of his missionary experience in the Kingdom of Pegu between 1554-57.

Around 1595, serious  troubles began among all various kings in Burma and the king of Arakan entrusted a certain Philip de Britto, a captain of a band of mercenary troops to capture the port of Syriam. Philip de Britto captured Syriam but refused to return it to his master the Arakanese king. He won over the Poutuguese Viceroy at Goa and was given the rank of captain General and the Governor of Syriam. De Britto ruled supreme by this time.

In the north, King Anaukphetlun succeeded to the throne of Ava in 1610 and immediately began uniting the kingdom.  He conquered Prome and Taungoo and marched south with his victorious army.  De Britto formed alliance with a petty king, Nat Shin Naung and resisted King Anukphetlun but to no avail.

The king’s army besieged the fortress till De Britto and Nat Shin Naung were captured alive and put to death. The remainder of the garrison with their wives and children a total of 5000 were taken as prisoners to the North. These prisoners had a harsh time when they arrived in the kingdom of Ava. Along with them was a certain Father de Fonseca who was respected by the infidels, revered by the nobles of the court and regarded as a saint by his fellow captives. He was being helped with Mass vestments and cash by the Brothers of Mercy in Cochin.

King Thalun, who succeeded Anaukphetlun was a good administrator and made use of the services of the prisoners in whatever way they seemed qualified, gave them portions of land for their own use and allowed them to build a church of their own. Fr. Augustin de Jesus from Lisbon wrote saying that on his visit to Ava he found more than 4000 Christians, all of whom had been taken prisoners at the fortress of Syriam.

The “Annual letter” of the Jesuits in India mentioned some very valuable data about the growth of Christianity in the kingdom of Ava. The famous letter of 1644, listed the statistics of the Catholic Church at that time.
There were eight villages with these comments:

1. Ava. Patron: Our Lady of Hope. 150 Christians
2. Nabaca, the south of Ava, a distance of 30 leagues:   Patron: St John the Baptist 300 Christians
3. Latora (Chaung Oo)   400 Christians
4. Tabayam (Tabayin)   400 Christians
5. Machobo (Shwe Bo)   70 Christians
6. Allam (Halin) 60 Christians
7. Sikim   200 Christians
8. Simguem 80 Christians

Fr. Da Fonseca still continued working alone with a few helpers who used to come to him. Meanwhile, in 1622 Pope Gregory XV set up the Sacred Congregation of the Propagation of the Faith to take care of Christian missions independently of the secular governments like Spain and Portugal which had too many ulterior motives. The Foreign Mission of Paris (M.E.P) which was purely a missionary body was approved in 1659.

Throughout the 17th century, there were Christians and their priests in the ports of the kingdom of Pegu and Arakan: Fr. Sebastian Manrique, Augustinian in Arakan; other Augustinians in Syriam and Martaban; a Franciscan and a Dominican in Pegu; two Theatines, Fr. Gallo in Arakan and Fr. Bernard Arconati in Pegu. The first M.E.P. Fathers Genoud and Joret came to Burma from Siam, helped by the Burmese Ambassador in Siam.  These two reached Pegu and set up hospital work that achieved enormous success. But the King of Ava, fearing their influence over the people, condemned them to death.

In 1719 Pope Clement XI sent a mission to China headed by Msgr. Carlambrogio Mezzabarba from the Barnabite society. The papal legate who returned from China selected Fr. Calchi, a Barnabite priest, for the kingdoms of Ava and Pegu. This formal act gave Burma her first papal missionary. Fr. Calchi became the first Vicar Apostolic of Burma, though he was still a priest, and Fr. Vittoni, a secular priest was appointed to assist Fr. Calchi. Because of some misunderstanding, Fr. Calchi was taken to the north and was given permission to preach Christianity in the kingdom of Ava.

The Holy See divided the Mission of Burma into two. The secular priests were entrusted with the Mission of Ava, and the Mission of Pegu was left to the Barnabites.

After the death of Fr. Calchi in 1730, the separation of the two kingdoms did not work effectively as it was planned previously because of lack of personnel. Listening to the difficulties of Fr. Gallizia, the Holy See eventually combined the two kingdoms into one unit thus creating a Vicariate Apostolic, and Father Gallizia was appointed as its first Vicar.