To trace the development of Christianity in the district during the 17th century we have to have recourse to the Annual Letters of Madurai from Fr. Emmanual Martin (1638) to Fr. De Mello (1689). We learn also from the unpublished manuscripts of Fr. Causanel regarding the churches on the western border of the district during that period. From the latter source we come to know that after the destruction of Thadhampatty church, Periayyah the elder son of Thanavathipillai went with the statue of St. Peter and planted a church at Sendamangalam — Naduvapatty, while the younger son Sinnaiyah went to Kurukalpatty and built up a Christian community there and a church to Our Lady. During that period there was a Christian community at Punnvanam also. From the Madurai mission letters, we hear of a determined concentration in the region of Kayatar which seems to have been a base for conversion activities from 1640 to 1688 when Kamanayakanpatty became a Residence of the district. The missionary efforts at Kayatar produced remarkable results. A good number of Vellala and Nadar communities accepted the teaching of Christ. The most significant conversion centre was Kamanayakanpatty. It was Fr. Freyre who planted the church there with the help of catechist Gnanapragasam baptising some 200 people in the year 1666. In consequence a persecution started but the 25th Zamindar of Ettiapuram, Jagavira Rama KetchilaNayakarIyan (1659-1691) threw all his weight on the side of the Christian missionary and the Christians and protected them. 25 years later, his successor on the occasion of ascending the Gadhi at which time St. John De Britto was at Kamanayakanpatty issued a proclamation inscribing it on a stone tablet now preserved in the local church : "Year 865, the 19th day of the month Chitra, We JegaviraEttayappaNayakarAvargal" (makes proclamation as follows): "As in our father's day, 25 years ago, this church of God in our territory and the Matha of the ascetics of the city of Rome were preserved from harm, so now we being resolved to do the same have visited this church and the priests and have given and set up this stone. Wherefore if any person should do any harm to this church of God or the priests, or their disciples, not only will he become a traitor to us, but let him also incur the guilt which would ensue from slaying a black cow and brahmans on the banks of the Ganges. Thus, we have ordained as long as sun and moon endure. Jega-Vira-EttayappaNayakar. May the Lord preserve us. "Before that momentous event already in 1684 St. John De Britto as superior of the mission posted the newly arrived Fr. Berghese of the Italian nobility at Kayatar and with a view to creating Kamanayakanpatty the Residence and Kaspa of the southern district built a church there. After assiduously cultivating the friendship of the Raja of Ettayapuram, Fr. Berghese transferred the Residence to Kamanayakanpatty in the year 1688. Thus, Kamanayakanpatty became the headquarters of the Jesuit Mission from that year till the suppression in 1773.
To know the growth of the Tirunelveli Church in the 18th century we have but to follow the fortunes of the Kamanayakanpatty Residence. By the opening of the 18th century the southern province of the Madurai mission was pretty well organised and there seems to have been a regular succession of missionaries in charge of this Residence taking care of the 7 important churches spread through the district. Starting from Fr. Berghese in 1688 up to Fr. Felix Orti in 1756 (we have no more Jesuit Letters thereafter), some 18 stalwart missionaries have laboured in the Kamanayakanpatty Residence. The most illustrious of them is Fr. Constant Joseph Beschi who was not only an intrepid missionary but the great Tamil poet of Thembavani fame. During the 56 years of the 18th century for which records are available, there have been 6828 baptisms of which more than 5000 were adult baptisms. It is worth-while to relate here briefly the Kurukalpattyepisode: In 1714 Fr. Beschi being in charge of Kamanayakanpatty proposed to celebrate Christmas at Kurukalpatty. On 21st December evening he has busy preparing the crib least suspecting the plot that was hatched against him by an apostate Christian. Being refused alms by the missionary at Vadakankulam he traced his steps towards Kurukalpatty. On his way he happened to stop at a Christian village where there was Savariadian one of Fr. Beschi's catechists. As the apostate pretended to be a teacher of religion with a mixture of Christianity, Hinduism and Islam, the catechist out of misguided zeal tied the pretender to a tree and flogged him to blood. Wailing and threatening vengeance the offended man was nearing Kurukalpatty when he found an army camped nearby. Seeing a great number of Muslim soldiers, he donned a Fakir's cap and appealed to them in the name of Allah to avenge him. Taking up his cause the Muslim soldiers went in a body to the army commander who was a Hindu Brahmin named Elleyamnaraja and demanded the punishment of the catechist and his Guru Fr. Beschi. The commander got the father and his catechist arrested. Being questioned on his religious teaching the Father said that the teaching of Jesus Christ was superior to all other teachings even to that of the Brahmins. At this moment the commander got wild and threatened to kill him and passed the death sentence on The Father only welcomed the decision. But not his Christians. A few of the Raja caste new converts went to the commander and threatened to stab themselves if the sentence was not revoked. The commanders had to yield and release the prisoners who felt extremely unhappy. So Fr. Beschi wrote to Fr. General in 1615.
The religious history of the second half of the 18th century, in the words of Fr. Houpert, "is that of a long disaster, almost a dark age. In 1759 there was struck at the Church in India a dangerous blow from unexpected quarters. Pombal brought about the ruin and suppression of the Society of Jesus in 1775." In 1780 we find eight missionaries in the Madurai Mission working under the Carmelite Bishop of Cochin. As they gradually passed away, no adequate provision was made by Goa and consequently the faithful languished for want of priests. Perhaps Kamanayakanpatty and Andipatty which rose from the ashes of Kurukalpatty were visited once a year from the west coast. This continued practically till 1838 when four French priests of the Restored Society arrived in the Mission to continue the work of the old Society. Despite great opposition from Goa the new missionaries worked with might and main.
The 19th century was the era of Pax Britannica. Though some fifty years were spent in regaining lost ground, conversions multiplied, new mission stations and parishes sprang up, schools and colleges were opened, charitable institutions started, religious institutions established, and diocesan clergy formed. In 1887 the new Madurai Mission became a diocese with its seat at Tiruchirapalli. While the Pandiyas had Tenkasi as their southern capital and the Nayaks and the Nawabs Tirunelveli, the British established themselves at Palayamkottai. The new Society therefore fixed its chief Residence of the district at Palayamkottai and carried on its mission activities constituting it as the southern district of the Tiruchirapalli Diocese. Coming finally to the 20th century, the century when Gandhiji spun the golden thread of India's independence, the diocese had in 1947, 2,45,300 Catholics while in 1886 it had only 1,66,500. In 1914 Bishop Faisandier took charge of the vast diocese and in 1923 we reach a new milestone when Tuticorin became the seat of a separate diocese comprising nearly half of the Tirunelveli district. Some 70000 Catholics were given to the new diocese. In 1935 Bishop Faisandier died and was succeeded by Mgr. Peter Leonard as the 4th Bishop of Tiruchirapalli. As a sign of further progress in Indianisation the Arch-diocese of Madurai was created leaving Tiruchirapalli to a son of the soil, Mgr. James Mendonca. Mgr. Leonard the Archbishop of Madurai brought up the new diocese to a very high water mark in every field of Church activity. Reaching the age of 75 the great Bishop retired in 1967 handing over the care of the Arch-diocese to the diocesan clergy in the able person of Mgr. Justin Diraviam. It is under him that the bifurcation of His See and diocese of Palayamkottai took place in 1973. Ultimately it is truly an eloquent testimony to the zeal and selfless labours of the French Jesuits that within 181 years of the new Madurai Mission, the Catholic church could count numerous flocks is her fold the most in comparison with the rest of Tamil Nadu. The fervour of Catholics in the South has earned a special name – ‘faith of the South’ as being very exceptional and outstanding. No wonder why, when the restoration of tradition in India after the disastrous Vatican II, would find its origin and growth. On the eve of the arrival of SSPX, there existed in Palayamkottai a movement calling for restoration of Tradition. Many of them had links with ‘Una voce federation’ no doubt. And in 1999, the only SSPX priory in India would establish itself in Palayamkottai, and now also houses two traditional congregation of nuns. All hail to those missionaries!
Arriving at the mouth of the Thamiraparni at Punnakayal in 1542 and looking towards Vanathirtham of the Agasthiar peak, St. Francis Xavier should have found the beautiful district of Tirunelveli sitting in the darkness of sin and shadow of death unlit by the sun of justice; but now that the district he loved so much has today SSPX missionaries, who leave their fatherland, just like himself to ‘restore all things in Christ’, he must be surely smiling with joy and satisfaction in his heavenly home. May He intercede for these missionaries they too be imbued with zeal akin to their ‘beloved father in faith!’
Compiled from various sources by Fr. Therasian Xavier SSPX