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The Archdiocese of Colombo, situated on the western seaboard of the Island of Ceylon, includes two of the nine provinces into which the island is divided, viz. the Western and the Northwestern. The history of the see begins in 1518, when Christianity was introduced by the Franciscans. The religion spread rapidly, the town and the surrounding districts were soon erected into a diocese, and Don Juan de Monteiro was created first Bishop of Colombo. This prelate received into the church Don Juan Dharmapala, the grandson of the Cingalese King Buwenekabahu VII. The young prince succeeded his grandfather in 1542. Six years after his accession, Colombo contained a Catholic population of 12,000, with two parish churches, Our Lady's and St. Laurence's, four monasteries or convents under the Cordeliers, Dominicans, Augustinians, and Capuchins, and a college conducted by the Jesuits.
In 1597 Don Juan Dharmapala died. By that time the Portuguese had established their authority throughout the whole island except in the Kingdom of Kandy in the centre of the island, and religion was free to develop in Jaffna and in the other parts of Ceylon. But peace was of short duration, for the Dutch arrived in the island and, after a struggle of more than fifty years, succeeded in obtaining possession of all the territory that had been held by the Portuguese; Colombo fell in 1656 and Jaffna in 1658. The new rulers made no secret of their attitude towards the Church, for in 1642 they concluded with the King of Kandy a treaty by which "all priests, friars and clergymen " were to be banished from Ceylon. The Reformed Church of Holland was declared established, and a series of severe penal enactments against Catholics followed. Catholic education was forbidden, Catholic worship abolished, and harbouring a priest was declared a capital offence. In 1796 Colombo was taken by the English, and one of their first acts was to repeal all the Dutch laws against the Catholics (1806); soon afterwards the rights restored to the Catholics of the United Kingdom by the Emancipation Act were conceded to their coreligionists in Ceylon.
During the Dutch period the ecclesiastical administration of the island had been in the hands of the Bishop of Cochin on the neighbouring continent; but in 1830 Gregory XVI constituted Ceylon a vicariate Apostolic and the first vicar Apostolic, Don Vicente de Rozario, was consecrated in 1836. In 1845 Propaganda found it necessary to increase the number of missionaries in the island, and sent the Sylvestrine Benedictines for that purpose. In 1847 Jaffna in the north of the island, was severed from the Vicariate of Colombo, and erected into a separate vicariate with Bishop H. Bettachini as vicar Apostolic. At his death in 1857, the northern vicariate was given over to the Oblates of Mary Immaculate who had arrived in Ceylon two years after the Benedictines. Bishop Semeria, O. M. I., was appointed Vicar Apostolic of Jaffna, while Bishop Bravi, O. S. B., succeeded Bishop Caetano Antonio (1843-57) as Vicar Apostolic of Colombo.
A further partition was made in 1883, when the southern vicariate was divided into two, Colombo and Kandy. The Benedictines retained the latter, the former being given to the Oblates, in whose hands it has since remained, and Bishop C. Bonjean, O. M. I., was transferred from Jaffna to Colombo. Three years later (1886) the hierarchy was established in Ceylon, and the above-mentioned Bishop of Colombo, Dr. Bonjean, was made metropolitan with two suffragan sees, Jaffna and Kandy. In 1893 two new dioceses were created and entrusted to the Jesuits, Galle in the South being severed from Colombo, and Trincomali in the East, separated from Jaffna. In the same year Bishop Melizan, O. M. I., was transferred from Jaffna to Colombo as successor to Bishop Bonjean who had died in 1892; Bishop Melizan was succeeded in 1905 by Bishop Antoine Coudert, O. M. I., from 1898 coadjutor, with right of succession.
According to the last census returns the total population of the archdiocese is 1,274,000, of whom 206,000 are Catholics. There are 100 missionaries, 91 Oblates and 9 secular priests, and 295 churches and chapels. The Cathedral of Santa Lucia, a fine building in the Renaissance style, has accommodations for 6000. Attached to the cathedral are an English school for boys and one for girls, the former with over a thousand pupils, being taught by the Brothers of the Christian Schools, while in the latter, the Sisters of the Good Shepherd give instruction to 500 girls. All the charitable institutions in the archdiocese, and many educational institutions of the archdiocese are in the hands of religious congregations. These are as follows: Brothers of Christian Schools, 47 engaged in teaching; native Brothers of St. Vincent de Paul , 20, teaching; Sisters of the Good Shepherd, 23, over schools and orphanages ; Sisters of the Holy Family, 23, schools, orphanages, and hospitals ; Franciscan Sisters (Missionaries of Mary), 49, school, orphanages, and hospitals ; native Sisters of St. Francis Xavier, 117, teaching; native Sisters of St. Peter, 108, teaching. Three of the principal government hospitals have been entrusted to the sisters. A government reformatory for youthful offenders is in charge of the Oblates, the number of boys varying from 150 to 200. About the same number of old people are provided with a home by the Little Sisters of the Poor in Colombo. In the 397 schools of the archdiocese 35,520 children are educated. Of these schools 202 are for boys, with 20,826 pupils, and 195 for girls with 14,694 pupils. The management of the schools is entirely in the hands of the missionaries; but there is a government examination every year, on the results of which a grant is paid to the superintendent of schools. The archdiocese maintains for teachers of both sexes normal schools recognized by the Government. Higher education in English is provided for girls at the various convents in Colombo, and for boys at St. Joseph's College (800 students) conducted by the Oblate Fathers. The training of aspirants for the priesthood is carried on in two seminaries : the preparatory seminary of St. Aloysius with 24 students and St. Bernard's theological seminary with 20 students. There are 9 orphanages, 1 for boys and 8 for girls, which provide education for 673 orphans (104 boys and 569 girls). Two papers, both bi-weekly are published at the Colombo Catholic Press, the "Ceylon Catholic Messenger" in English, and the "Nanartha Pradipaya" in Cingalese. The management and editorial control of both papers are in the hands of the missionaries. A Cingalese monthly of a religious character is issued from the press of the boys' orphanage. Colombo has conferences of St. Vincent de Paul and of the Ladies of Charity. The Bonjean Memorial Hall is the head-quarters of the Ceylon Catholic Union, established in 1902, with branches in all the principal parts of the island. A Catholic Club was opened in 1900.