OBJECTS AND STORIES – A Chalice and a Memoir of Dr. Leo Meurin, Archbishop of Bombay (1867 – 1886)

OBJECTS AND STORIES – A Chalice and a Memoir of Dr. Leo Meurin, Archbishop of Bombay (1867 – 1886)

September 1, 1886 was a watershed in the history of the Archdiocese of Bombay. H.H. Pope Leo XIII issued a bull titled ‘Humanae Salutis’ by which Bombay was raised from the status of a Vicariate to that of an Archdiocese.

While this news served as an occasion of jubilation, the Catholics of Bombay were apprehensive. Their beloved Archbishop – Dr. Leo Meurin – who was summoned to Rome by Pope Leo XIII in July 1886 had not returned since. The Padroadists believed it was because of the two pamphlets the Archbishop had written against the patronage of the Portuguese kings while others surmised that the Pope would honour the Archbishop by conferring upon him the title of Cardinal.

Whatsoever the case, it was soon clear that Dr. Leo Meurin was not returning to back to the island city.  Instead, in 1887 he was nominated titular Archbishop of Nisibis and took charge of the diocese of Port Louis in Mauritius where he fought the good-fight against freemasonry and published a book titled ‘Freemasonry: Synagogue of Satan.’

 But who was Dr. Leo Meurin and why was his service so significant to our Archdiocese?

Johann Gabriel Leon Louis Meurin was born on January 23, 1825 in Berlin, Germany. He entered the novitiate of the Society of Jesus and was ordained priest on September 23, 1848. Shortly after his ordination he was chosen secretary to Cardinal Johannes von Geissel, the Archbishop of Cologne. After nearly a decade, Dr. Meurin, along with other German Jesuits, set sail to India and landed in Bombay on October 27, 1858. Here, he served as a military chaplain in Pune and as a parish priest in Candolim, Goa.  However amidst the uncertainties of looming epidemics, a virulent attack of cholera left this enthusiastic priest handicapped among the lonely hills of Khandala. 

Bombay, in the mid-nineteenth century, was no longer that ‘poor little island’ that supposedly breathed ‘pestilential vapours’. Rather the island was now brewing gold for the East India Company. With its transfer to the British crown in 1857, Bombay soon emerged as the ‘Urbs Prima in Indis.’

The winds of change found momentum in the support of the Church. On June 4, 1867, Archbishop Leo Meurin was appointed Apostolic Vicar of Bombay, India. During the next 20 years the Archbishop strived to revive the Catholic community and the society at large. His educational endeavours led to the foundation of several schools and colleges, the most notable being St. Xavier’s College, St. Xavier’s High School, the Fort Young Gentleman’s School, St. Mary’s Institutions and St. John Baretto School.

In 1868, when Bishop Meurin left for Rome to participate in the First Vatican Council, he recruited 40 Jesuits to take care of the Church in Bombay. Under his benevolent patronage the following Chapels  and Shelter homes were instituted – St. Ignatius, Mandvi, St. Joseph’s, Grant Road and Juhu, St. Anne’s Mazagaon; the Albless Leper Home in Trombay and the Deaf and Dumb Institute in Mazagaon.

The Archbishop was always on the move and sometimes travelled by a bullock cart to make pastoral visits. He was an excellent lecturer, a brilliant conversationalist, an accomplished musician and an eminent preacher even in the local Marathi language. He often conducted a series of public lectures on a variety of topics such as the Existence of God; Time and Eternity; God and Brahma etc. These sessions were frequented by members of all religions and communities. He was respected by the elite and the poor and was known as the Pastor of his people.

As a token of love and gratitude this chalice was gifted to the Archbishop by the ‘secular’ clergy of Bombay. Gilt washed on the inside the false cup of the Chalice bears scallop motifs suspended by a cross at every edge. The design resembles the famous Indian Lotus, renowned for its purity. The octagonal base of the Chalice is segmented into eight reserves. The words etched on the base are:

‘AS A TOKEN OF THEIR LOVE & GRATITUDE FROM HIS FORMER SECULAR CLERGY OF BOMBAY AND POONA NAMELY THE REV FATHERS TO THE MOST REVD DR LEO MEURIN SJ’.  Upon the reverse of the Chalice is the acronym – ‘S.F.X.C.’ which stands for St. Francis Xavier College.

Thus this magnificent Chalice stands a testimony to a story hidden in history of monumental figure of memory.

Joynel Fernandes- Ast. Director- Archdiocesan Heritage Museum

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