The St. Sebastian Parish of the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Colombo, the Madras Diocese of the Malankara Orthodox Syrian Church, and the Forum Internationale Wissenschaft of Universität Bonn jointly organize an international workshop at Caritas, Kynsey Rd, Colombo 00800, Sri Lanka on 22 & 23 November 2018.

The theme of this workshop is:

A Global and Local History of the Buona Morte Church.

 On 21 February 1845 a piece of land in Belmont Street, Hulsdorf, was granted by the British authorities to a group of Burghers, self-identified as “Independent Catholics”, to build on it a Cathedral entitled to Our Lady of Good Death, often known as Buona Morte Church. The leader of this group, the Catholic surgeon Dr. John Bonifacio Misso (1797-1864), was Consul General of Portugal and an adamant supporter of Padroado, the royal patronage of the Portuguese crown over the Catholic missions in Asia.

When Ceylon became a British colony by the end of the eighteenth century, the Roman Curia started to re-organise the ecclesiastical jurisdiction in British India and Ceylon conferring the padroado churches to the Roman Congregation of Propaganda Fide, namely the Papal secretariate for missions. The Goan priests loyal to the Portuguese Padroado, who had maintained the Catholic faith in Ceylon alive throughout the Dutch colonization, were supposed to leave their churches. The Catholics of Ceylon were entrusted to new missionaries, particularly from France, Italy and the German-speaking world. Like Dr. Misso, thousands of Catholics across South Asia publicly refused the decision of the Holy See and protested against the acquiescence by the Archbishopric of Goa.

 A wave of local divisions spread throughout the Catholic milieus in India and Ceylon, at a time in which -particularly among the native élites- new autonomous identities and aspirations towards spiritual and political independence were emerging. Following a historical trajectory still to be explored, forty years after the foundation of the church in Belmont Street the suspended Goan Catholic priest Fr. Antonio Francisco Xavier Álvares (1836-1923) and the medical doctor Pedro Manuel Lisboa Pinto (1857-1898) from Bombay gave origin to a new Independent Catholic experiment that brought new life to the community of Buona Morte.

The purpose of this workshop is not only to analyze the leading figures of the Independent Catholic movement (whether reformist priests or lay activists), but also to give voice to all traceable members and families who were once associated with the Buona Morte Church. While our effort has a concrete local reference, the Buona Morte Church was also a pole around which thousands of Christian families in Northern Sri Lanka and Southern India rotated, with descendants that can still be found in cities like Colombo, Mannar, Brahmavar, Dindigul, Tiruchirapalli, and Kanyakumari. Through a careful contextualization of the above-mentioned missions, this workshop will try also to bridge the gap between the historiographies on Christianity in India and Sri Lanka, usually studied separately, even though closely associated by phenomena such as the Padroado controversies.

Adopting a “glocal” approach, the workshop will link the historical processes around the Buona Morte Church to phenomena occurring in distant parts of the globe, ranging from the Altkatholische Kirche (“Old Catholic Church”) emerged in the Germanic world in reaction to the Vatican Council I, to the nationalist Iglesia Filipina Independiente (“Philippine Independent Church”) established at the end of the nineteenth century in the Philippines against the ecclesiastical establishment allied with Spanish colonialism. Ultimately, our “glocal” history of the Buona Morte Church is dedicated to its parishioners in the past, in the present and in future, as well as to all the Independent Catholics in Goa, Karnataka, Kerala and Tamil Nadu, who had once their spiritual center in the Cathedral of Buona Morte. This wide perspective is paired by a close attention to the urban evolution of Colombo, and particularly of the neighbourhood of Hulsdorf as a witness to the historical vicissitudes of the church.

This two-day workshop is divided in four panels:

  1. Oriental Christianity in Ceylon: from the Persian Christians to the Malankara Syrian Orthodox Church
  2. The Religious context of nineteenth century Ceylon
  3. Churches, cities and neighborhood in transformation
  4. Connectivity and globalization

 A group of 20 historians and theologians from Sri Lanka, India, and Germany will present papers and engage in discussions on Christianity in colonial South Asia and the urban history of Colombo. The workshop is in English.  

All are invited