Agnel Baba, ‘Servant of God’

Like Saibaba of Shirdi, Moin–ud–din Chisti of Ajmer and Ayappa of Sabarimalai, the devotion to Fr. Agnel unites all faiths and communities

Overlooking the bay at Bandstand in Bandra stands a landmark commonly known as Fr. Agnel Ashram. To the thousands of devotees that throng the shrine week after week, it is an isle of solace and succour from the grind of city life and its attendant problems. If one were to visit the place on a Sunday, one would be surprised to find a motley crowd comprising of almost every religious denomination in the country fervently praying as one family.  

Agnel Baba, as his devotees fondly call him, has carved a niche for himself in the secular pantheon of modern India. Like Saibaba of Shirdi, Moin–ud–din Chisti of Ajmer and Ayappa of Sabarimalai, the devotion to Fr. Agnel unites all faiths and communities. The weekly services are held in Gujarati, Tamil, Marathi, Konkani, Hindi and English to cater to the spiritual needs of his diverse following.

Who is this charismatic Agnel Baba? Born in 1869 at Anjuna, Goa, Agnelo D’Souza was an archetypal Goan Catholic born and brought up in the faith under the colonial Portuguese rule. His piety and intense spirituality made him an ideal candidate for priesthood. After being ordained a priest, he set about his vocation with ardent fervour and lived a saintly life serving the least of his brethren. 

He died at the age of 58 having collapsed immediately after preaching his last sermon. But myth followed the man. His saintly bearing and selfless service caused him to be remembered long after his death. Soon reports of miraculous happenings trickled in. People began to turn to him in distress. Cures and other favours were attributed to his intercession.

Then public acclaim pushed the Church to begin the process for his canonisation as a saint. As an interim step, he has been declared Venerable and his cause is under process by the Holy See.

Though Fr. Agnel was a non-controversial ‘Servant of God’ as he was called, the religious society to which he belonged has been in the eye of a storm since the last few decades. It is a quirk of fate that brought together his almost defunct Society of Pilar with one solitary active member and the founders of the New Society in 1939.

​Conceicao Rodrigues and Francisco Siquiera were two young seminarians being trained for priesthood at the Rachol Seminary in Goa. These young men had a dream to establish a missionary order that was dedicated to India. It must be remembered that at that time, the Portuguese missionaries had established their presence in India. The prophetic words of Pope Leo XIII served as inspiration to them. The Pope had said, “Your own sons, O India, will be the heralds of your salvation.”

This was the birth of their endeavour to start an Indian Missionary Society for the evangelisation of their motherland. The term “evangelisation” has been a subject of controversial interpretation for some time. The four disciples of Christ — Matthew, Mark, Luke and John — were called the “Evangelists”. They followed Christ during the course of his ministry and recorded his words and acts for posterity. The New Testament is a compilation of the written works of these four called the gospels. 

The term evangelise has been defined in numerous ways. While the most acceptable would be “spreading the message of the gospels”, the methodology adopted for doing so is varied. To some, it means distributing Bibles to those who have never heard of Christ before. To others it means preaching the message of Christ. To the radicals it might mean converting the “non–believers” to the Christian faith. To the liberation theologians, it would mean identifying with the struggling masses to bring about salvation from material want. The definition keeps evolving depending on the needs of the times and the predisposition of the Church leaders of that epoch.

To the founder of the New Society, Frs. C. Rodrigues, the term evangelisation of the motherland held a different significance. According to Fr. C Rodrigues, “conversion” or proselytisation was not the object of evangelisation. 

To quote him: “This missionary concept, besides being genuine and apostolic, opens new perspectives to the missionary apostolate. The missionary, free from the preoccupation of “conversion”, gives himself with redoubled ardour to the evangelisation of all his parishioners, Catholics or non–Catholics. He sees to their education, opening schools wherein the knowledge of the Law of God is imparted to them. He interests himself in their social uplift establishing co-operatives and institutions of social assistance and strives against injustice and oppression.  

‘It is our endeavour to foster respect for all faiths and encourage people to work together unitedly to remove social injustice’ – Agnel Ashram

He does not exclude them from his creches, orphanages, asylums, hospitals and other works of beneficence. He teaches them the Word of God, the ten Commandments, the virtues, illustrating them with the examples of saints and heroes from Hagiology, also from history and tradition, in organised conferences, taking opportunity for promoting meetings of common interest, as theatres, cinemas, cultural conferences, through good press; in private conversation; he visits them and does not miss the occasion to get acquainted with them.  

On this basis the missionary will not be held as a minister of an alien religion but a minister of God, an exemplary custodian of morality, a benefactor of humanity, a social worker and an intimate friend of every home”.  (Cfr. V. Ixtt. July 17, 1954).

With this vision of service to country and people, Fr. C Rodrigues set about his mission. The going was tough. It was most difficult to convince the authorities of the need for a new Indian religious order, the first of its kind. Persistence paid.

On July 2, 1939, the founders founded the new Society of Pilar and established a new constitution with a new charisma and mission. During the first 10 years, they set up 12 elementary schools, 1 middle school, 5 orphanages, 6 health centres and 6 rice banks at Nagar Haveli. The society had its own press and published 50 different publications, two of which were its own periodicals. The editor of these two publications was Fr. Conceicao Rodrigues — Vaurad-deancho Ixtt, a bilingual weekly in Konkani and Portuguese and India, a monthly magazine in English. 

Through these periodicals, Fr. Rodrigues took up the defence of various causes of social justice such as fair wages, casteless confraternities, housing etc. However, there was one issue on which the periodicals maintained a stony silence — liberation of Goa from Portuguese rule. 
While all the others in Goa toed the official line, these two refused to publish even the official press communiqués issued by the Portuguese government. This earned the ire of the censors and Fr. C Rodrigues was a “marked man”. This policy continued till 1954 when the authorities in Goa got tough. To quote Fr. Rodrigues, “The real motive of my leaving Goa is public knowledge. When the India Legation in Portugal was closed, there were protest meetings in Goa, public speeches, telegrams and a press campaign denouncing the “imperialistic aims” of Nehru and other Indian leaders.

Our paper did not give prominence to these events. Two successive deputations were sent to us with a diatribe against Nehru and other Indian leaders to be published. I did not yield and politely refused to publish.”

With no support from the Church hierarchy, that was heavily biased in favour of the Portuguese rulers, Fr. Rodrigues had no option but to flee to Bombay. His confreres in the Society however stood by him. In fact, the editorial policy of Vauraddeancho Ixtt held firm, until the government in 1961 suspended its publication.

In 1957, the Fr. Agnel Ashram at Bandra was established. In a manuscript he expressed these feelings, “Once out of Goa, freed from the shackles of slavery and oppression of the foreign dominators, in Bombay, I started breathing the pure and dignifying breeze of independent India.”
The liberation of Goa in 1961 did not bring a change of heart in ecclesiastical circles in Goa. With their allegiance to Portugal, many shared the belief that Indian civilisation and culture were inferior. This was anathema to Fr. Rodrigues.  He strongly believed in the unity of the nation. India had remained united for centuries despite its diversity of languages, castes, religions and kingdoms. He believed there was a common ethos that united India. The sages and bards of yore had walked through its villages inculcating these values, inspiring and giving birth to its great epics enshrining these values. Fr. Rodrigues believed that the Society had a mission of cultivating and nourishing these values.

However, this was not the happy ending. In order to break the resolute will of the “nationalist priests”, the government in league with certain sections of the Goan hierarchy tacitly began promoting and funding dissension within the Society. This led to a split in the Society in 1977. Despite laborious efforts towards reconciliation, the schism remains till date. The Pilar Society and the Agnel Ashram Fathers are the two factions caused by colonial manipulation with the active support of a partisan hierarchy.

However, the Agnel Ashram Fathers have grown by leaps and bounds. What began as a Technical Trade School at Bandra has matured into the famous Agnel Technical School. The Fr. Conceicao Rodrigues College of Engineering is one of the most prestigious in the city. The Bal Bhavan, housing 70 orphans and the Community Polytechnic, imparting technical training to the rural youth have made their mark.

The Agnel Ashram is the only Christian society in the country to run three engineering degree colleges, 4 polytechnics, 4 orphanages and various other services. The Bal Gram at Goa is a children’s village that helps children grow in tune with nature. 

The latest addition is a multi–storeyed Bal Bhavan at Noida, Delhi that can accommodate over 150 orphans. Interestingly, while being shown around the campus, this writer noticed a little recess in the wall in every room of the Bal Bhavan. On inquiring about its utility, he was informed that this was the children’s “mandir” that accommodated the different deities that the inmates wished to worship according to their own religions!  A lesson in secularism for the little ones.  This year the Agnel Seva Ashram was inaugurated at a function addressed by Swami Agnivesh, Maulana Wahiduddin Khan and Fr. Francis D’Sa. The object of this movement is to bring together people of all faiths to work for the common good and appreciate and understand the different religious faiths.

The road ahead is tough, but the Agnel Ashram Fathers are resolute in their mission.      



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