This week, as Philadelphia prepares for the upcoming visit of Pope Francis, I have been researching another significant Catholic gathering: the National Eucharistic Congress of India held in Chennai (then Madras) in 1937. A beautiful scrapbook in the Kislak Center’s collection documents this event, and illuminates the magnitude of the Congress, as well as some of the history of Catholicism in India.
Pius XI, whose papacy stretched from 1922 to 1939 was invested in creating a sense of united identity and dedication in Catholics all over this world. He worked towards this end partly through the Vatican Radio, which allowed his speeches to be broadcast globally, but also through promoting National and International Eucharistic Congresses. These events, which drew large numbers of attendees and typically lasted for a few days, featured legates from the Vatican and centered around a mass adoration of the Eucharist.
The 1937 Eucharistic Congress ran from December 29th to 31st in the southern coastal city of Chennai. Drawing Catholics from across the country as well as from Myanmar and Sri Lanka, the city filled with visitors: “Nearly all the Archbishops and Bishops of India and heads of missions, over 50 in number, in their picturesque scarlet robes, and nearly 1,000 priests, mostly Indian, and the laity in their thousands in small groups and large pilgrimages poured into Madras, unmindful of inconvenience or expense, displaying the keenest interest and enthusiasm from start to finish.”
The scrapbook that I have been working on features seventeen black and white photos of this spectacular event. The images show the boulevards of Chennai adorned with banners and flags, an enormous decorated altar and crowds of thousands observing the procession of the Eucharist. It is unknown who composed the scrapbook in this collection, but it seems likely that he or she was involved in the planning of the Congress or had some authority over the event. An inscription at the beginning of the scrapbook reads, “May we who have done our bit for the Eucharistic Congress in Madras be found to deserve well always of our Eucharistic King”, which suggests that the owner of the scrapbook also contributed to the Congress. Additionally, the photographs in the scrapbook show a high level of access to the altar enclosure. Although the album in this collection contains little to no commentary on the event, it does illuminate certain aspects of Catholicism in India at the time, and shows ways in which the religion adapted to its environment. For example, one photograph of the Eucharistic altar is labeled “Approach to Altar Pandal”; the word ‘pandal’ is from the Tamil-Malayalam pantal and refers to a temporary pavilion roofed with bamboo.
In a few days, Philadelphia will be transformed by thousands of visitors, like Chennai was in December of 1937. Although this event is sure to cause some changes in the typical operations of the city, it is remarkable to consider the impact and extent of such a celebration of faith. And one thing is for certain: I’ll be sure to take pictures.