By Dr Pratima P Kamat
On account of his deep-seated interest in the amelioration of the conditions of the poor and the downtrodden, his consequent intolerance of the oppressive and corrupt colonial administration of the day,
and his fiery speeches and writings, Alvares faced a number of adversities in public life, be it as a priest or as a journalist. Yet, he persisted to the very end, setting a glorious example not only through his writings but by his deeds in service of his people, his home-land and the Syrian Orthodox Church he had embraced.
Last year, as Goa was celebrating the Golden Jubilee of its Liberation, the 175th birth anniversary of this great Goan, nay Indian, was commemorated, with the majority of the celebrants hailing from the Malankara Orthodox Syrian community of Goa, and India. Today, on the occasion of the 176th birth anniversary of this revolutionary priest and dedicated apostle of charity, it would be pertinent to highlight his ideology and socio-political contributions which continue to have much relevance to the times we live in.
António Francisco Xavier Alvares was born in Verna on April 29, 1836. The Alvares family was hailed as “devanghar” in acknowledgement of the many acts of charity performed by its members. True to the principles of his family, Padre Alvares championed the cause of the downtrodden, extending succour to the needy and taking up cudgels against the oppressive rule of the colonial administrators.
After completing his education at the Rachol Seminary in 1859, Alvares proceeded to Bombay where he was ordained priest on November 6, 1864. He served as an assistant priest at Bandra and in 1865 proceeded to Belgaum in a similar posting. Upon his return to Goa in 1867, for the next couple of decades, Padre Alvares exercised his sacerdotal functions as an apostle of charity, an educator, a firebrand journalist and later as a political activist.
Apostle of Charity
Alvares started Associations of Charity in Panaji, at Verna and elsewhere in Goa which gave alms to the poor, free medical assistance to the sick and the infirm and decent burials to solitary souls. A dedicated social worker, Alvares had also launched a determined preventive campaign against epidemics like cholera, small pox and the bubonic plague and worked hard for the recovery of the afflicted, especially in 1877, when Goa was subjected to the ravages of a cholera epidemic. He published a booklet entitled ‘Directions for the Treatment for Cholera’. He was particularly well known for his social service to the bhangi community of Fontainhas.
Padre Alvares was also a founder of educational institutions like the Colégio dos Sagrados Corações de Jesus e Maria, a secondary school, which he started in Panaji in 1877. Later, in 1913, when he returned to Goa for good, he started a school in the English medium.
His strong patriotism and journalistic acumen led Padre Alvares to be associated with the publication of several newspapers where he used his pen to fight corruption and the malpractices that prevailed in the contemporary colonial administration of Goa, both civil and ecclesiastical. These included ‘A Cruz’ (The Cross), ‘A Verdade’ (The Truth), ‘O Progresso de Goa’ (The Progress of Goa), ‘The Times of Goa’ and ‘O Brado Indiano’ (The Indian Cry). The titles of these newspapers are by themselves a clear indication of the nature of his activities. It is quite explicit that he was interested in “the truth” and in “the progress of Goa” and that he was very much concerned about the (anguished) cry of the Portuguese Indians (Goans).
Padre Alvares was a strong advocate of consumption of local goods in the place of their foreign substitutes. In ‘O Brado Indiano’, he highlighted the advantages of the “national customs” in clothes, food habits, houses and the like, and his ‘Association against Luxury’ prohibited the use of luxurious items from abroad and encouraged the use of their local substitutes instead.
In order to increase the income of his motherland and make it as self-sufficient as possible, Padre Alvares advocated the optimum utilisation of its existing natural resources. He highlighted Goa’s vast mineral potential and urged Goans to use this raw material, not for earning a fast buck by exporting it, but to industrialise Goa. He also made a case for the introduction of new, high-yielding crops, like mandioca, and called upon the people to develop agro-based industries. Above all, this ‘swadeshi’-minded prelate made a special appeal to the Goan youth to “…channelise the superficial pleasures of dancing and feasting into the true joys of work, sweat and sacrifice.”
Alvares was equally critical of the colonial administration of the day that dealt with the local people in an unjust, harsh and, at times, racist manner. ‘O Brado Indiano’ conducted a determined campaign against the corrupt officials of the Portuguese administration. This, in turn, led to charges of sedition being levelled against him.
The year 1895 was a tumultuous year in the history of Goa, for its second half witnessed three events of immense political significance, one following the other, within the space of three months. These were the ‘Sedition’ of Padre Alvares in August, the Maratha Sipai Mutiny in September and the Dada Rane Revolt in October. All the three were said to have been woven together with the nativistic spirit of ‘India for the Indians.’ The accusation of sedition was made by the Administrator of Ilhas, Captain Manuel d’Oliveira Gomes da Costa, in order to condemn Padre Alvares, who had initiated a press campaign against him.
On August 19, 1895, Padre Alvares was charged with “inciting the people to fight for liberation,” “discrediting the Portuguese” and insulting government officials. He was arbitrarily arrested and locked up in a filthy, ill-lit and poorly ventilated cell – “a modern Bastille” – for the night. The judge censured the police for failing to adopt the correct procedure, and after questioning the accused, released him.
However, the following evening, Alvares was arrested once again. Despite a previous acquittal in 1890, when the court had permitted him to use his Syrian episcopal habit, Alvares Mar Julius was now accused of the same ‘crime’. The next day, he was stripped of his episcopal habit and ensigns and taken to the lock-up of the court in his underclothes. He was followed by a crowd, cheering him and denouncing Gomes da Costa.
In the court an attempt was made to revive the charges of sedition and high treason. The case was dismissed for want of evidence of sedition. In his ruling, the judge stated that although sedition was said to be in the air, he had not smelt it, most probably because he was suffering from chronic coryza!
Thus, Padre Alvares was primarily a social reformer and an economic thinker who sought to make the Church a veritable mother of the people, the economy more diversified and productive and the administration more in tune with the needs of the general public.
The ‘swadeshi’ ideology of Padre Alvares led him to leave the Roman Catholic Church in which he was born and embrace the Malankara Orthodox Syrian Church in 1887, believing it to be more Indian and Asian in its ideology and activities. Through the medium of his books, ‘A Supremacia Universal na Igreja do Christo and Antioch and Rome’, Padre Alvares made “a spirited plea on behalf of the Apostolic See of Antioch as against the claims of Rome”. The Patriarch of Antioch, being an Asian, was considered by him to be the rightful head of the Church since it was in Asia that God’s revelation had taken place.
On July 29, 1889, he was consecrated Metropolitan to the diocese of Ceylon, Goa and India (excluding Malabar), and given the title of Mar Julius. He founded the Brahmavar Mission near Udupi in Karnataka which soon had a congregation of over 5000. He introduced the Latin Rite in the Syrian Orthodox Church.
After the ‘sedition’ controversy, Alvares Mar Julius had gone back to Brahmavar where he was based till 1913 when he returned to Goa to serve the poor and the needy, especially the bhangi community of Fontainhas. He would literally move from house to house in tattered black robes and a bowl, collecting alms for the people he had chosen to minister.
This great social worker died on September 23, 1923, battling dysentery, in the hospital at Ribandar. Being a Syrian Orthodox to the very end, there was opposition to his burial in the St Inez cemetery of Panaji where he was finally laid to rest in a secluded corner. His admirers had constituted a citizens’ committee under the Chief Justice to oversee his funeral to which the Portuguese governor-general had sent his representative.
In 1967, the tomb of Alvares Mar Julius was discovered by the Syrian Orthodox Church and his relics were transferred to the newly-built St Mary’s Orthodox Syrian Church at Ribandar on October 5, 1979. After the renovation of this church, the holy relics were kept in its present kabar in 2001. Amongst other feasts, the Brahmavar Orthodox Christians celebrate the memorial feast (Shradha Perunnal) of Metropolitan Julius Alvares on September 23 every year. In 2008, the St Mary’s Syrian Orthodox Church was designated as a Pilgrim Centre.
The celebration of the 175th birth anniversary and 88th death anniversary of Padre Alvares in the Golden Jubilee year of Goa’s Liberation is, indeed, an apt occasion to recall the socio-political ideology of this “great humanitarian missionary and patriot”, which continues to have meaning in our lives today, especially his determined crusade against corruption and discriminatory practices, his stress on economic self-reliance, and to reiterate the clarion call that he gave to fellow Goans, especially the youth: “Povo de Goa: Surge e Trabalha”!
“I have fought the Good Fight
I have finished the race
I have kept the faith.”
— 2 Timothy 4:7-8