Home > THE MYSTERY OF FATHER GEORGE BRITTO AND THE RELICS OF ST THOMAS
THE MYSTERY OF FATHER GEORGE BRITTO AND THE RELICS OF ST THOMAS
Submitted by - JOSEPH RAYAN
There is a belief that St. Thomas the Apostle, a man who lived and witnessed Jesus Christ's crucifixion 2000 years ago, visited India in 52 AD, some years after the death of Jesus, landing by ship at a port near Calicut in present day Kerala. Popularly it is believed that St. Thomas preached in South India and was murdered near Chennai. Today, as you know, there is a place called St. Thomas Mount in Mylapore, Chennai, where his remains are buried.
There is also a mysterious story that St. Thomas gave four silver coins to a Hindu Family whose descendants are still there, living in Kerala. These four silver coins are believed to be from among the famous thirty silver coins used to bribe a man called Judas Iscariot to show or point out Jesus to the Roman guards so that he could be arrested. In fact the arrest of Jesus because of these 30 coins and his subsequent torture and crucifixion is what started "Christianity" as a religion. So you can imagine the importance of these four coins if they are indeed still lying in India in the hands of a Hindu. (Nobody appears to know what happened to the other 26 coins out of the 30)
For centuries it has been rumored that four coins called the Rakta Velli (ancient Biblical Judean coins referred to as “blood-silver” in the Malayalam language of Kerala, South India), from among the infamous “thirty pieces of silver” that Judas Iscariot received as stated in the New Testament, were in the possession of a Hindu family in the Malabar region of Kerala. Now identified by numismatic experts as truely a version of the Shekels of Tyre, these four silver coins are believed to have been brought to India by none other than St. Thomas the Apostle himself. The Portuguese colonists were known to have been in pursuit of members of this family for some centuries, even tortured and executed some of them in their efforts to acquire the coins as relics for their church. Many documents related to the quest for these coins were burnt when the Portuguese clergy destroyed records of the Goan inquisition. The Portuguese adopted St. Thomas the Apostle as their patron saint, despite their revulsion of the so-called St. Thomas Christian tradition and practices which they encountered on their arrival at Malabar in the 15th and 16th century.
Though much of the credit for the revived interest in these relics is ascribed to Paula Gruber, a German lady from Munich, let me show you that this story goes much deeper than her recent discovery of the same in the hands of some Nair lady in Kerala. Well before the internet clamor caused by her investigative articles, my father obtained details of the Rakta Velli coins many years before Paula’s disclosure of the same.
My father, Julius Susairayan was the great-grandson of a jati thalavan, a chieftain of Tuticorin during the late 1800s and the only English-educated son of his father, Arulanna Susairayan.
According to my father’s diary, much of his account of the events described were pieced together from personal interviews and church records and put together by Aleixo Manuel da Costa, a Goan curator at the Biblioteca Nacional Vasco da Gama about the year 1955. Though it was never published, it remained a favorite story of Aleixo whenever St. Thomas the Apostle was discussed. My father, a devout Tuticorin Tamil Catholic, who was posted to Goa after the liberation and who was close to Aleixo in the early 1960s obtained the details of the story and recorded it in his native Tamil language in his diary. Here is the English translation.
The story begins in the early part of the twentieth century, during the Franco-Portuguese confusion and riots over the spiritual jurisdiction of the Parava churches of the Madras Presidency, South India, when there arrived at the Nossa Senhora das Neves (The church Our Lady of Snows) Tuticorin, a certain young priest called Fr. George Britto “of Salem” along with a few Portuguese priests from Goa to help in the paper-work, translation, communication and documentation that was required by the Vatican leading to the reorganization of the diocese. It was November 1921 and the Paravas were awaiting the papal bull to ascertain which diocese their churches would be aligned with - the French or the Portuguese. Since 1857, the so-called Double Jurisdiction caused serious administrative and fidelity issues among the Parava-Christians of Pearl Fishery Coast leading to ill-will and unrest. In the same diocese and sometimes even within the same parish the Padroado Goa Mission of the Portuguese government and the Propaganda Fide of the French Mission held parallel and overlapping jurisdiction over Catholic communities and parishes within the Presidency. This was shortly before the creation of the Diocese of Thoothukudi ( Tuticorin ). So given the situation, in 1921, it wasn’t surprising to see a variety of provisional priests from Goa, Cochin, Cranganore and Mylapore diocese arrive and serve in these parishes in a temporary capacity.
(Here, I have deliberately excluded a large portion of my father’s narrative from his diary that describes the situation in the Madras Presidency at that time as it perambulates around the Mappila riots of Malabar and the liturgical and ideological differences among the Parava community which are not the focus of our attention in this article.)
For some months during his stay in the parish quarters provided to him, Fr. Britto was referred to by the local parishioners as “the priest from Salem.” He was also known as a fervent, almost fanatic devotee of St. Thomas the Apostle whose teachings and exploits he expounded to the indigenous Paravas with a promise that once the jurisdictional problems of the diocese was overcome, he would see that the apostle is made the patron saint of the new diocese.
Very little else is known of this Salem priest’s background except that he was well-versed in many languages - Malayalam, Tamil, English and Portuguese. The other Goan priests whom he made it his duty to assist knew very little English and some French apart from their native Portuguese. It is also known that during his brief stay at the parish of Our Lady of Snows, Fr. Britto travelled from Tuticorin once to the Portuguese settlement of Goa, once to St. Mary's Orthodox Church, Thiruvithamcode, and thrice to Cannanore in the Malabar region. His last visit to Cannanore was ten days before the Easter celebrations of 1922, following which he returned to Tuticorin a day after Easter in a rather raucous and triumphant mood.
What transpired during Fr. Britto’s ten days in Cannanore is interesting as it was the subject of curious discussion and excitement at the parish of Our lady of Snows, Tuticorin, for some time then. Fr. Britto proudly recounted a story of how he, along with eleven other priests (including some who had travelled from Mangalore), each representing an apostle of Christ, celebrated mass in adoration of four silver coins believed to be the relics of St. Thomas, with the consent of a Hindu family (who called St.Thomas “Thondachan”) at a place called Thavam. How this was managed by Fr. Britto and his fellow-priests is not known, but Thavam is a short distance from Cherukunnu, where these venerated coins were believed to have been preserved. Fr. Britto even claimed he witnessed miracles among the congregation on that occasion. Particularly the case of one lady who experienced complete relief from arthritic pain, another breathing normally within minutes of commencement of the mass having been brought there with severe bronchial asthma and a spectacular case of an elderly man waking up from a month-long coma following a stroke and kneeling at the altar with tears of gratitude. Fr. Britto was of the opinion that even tracings or a photograph of these coins kept in one’s home was regarded as a blessing. He even distributed a few copies of tracings and sketches of the sacred coins among the Paravas.
However, the story goes that on 19th April, 1922, three days after Easter, Fr. Britto disappeared from the parish of Our lady of Snows without any prior information, never to be heard of again for some years. The reason for his sudden disappearance was not understood until a day later when an English officer of the 2nd Dorsets accompanied by two men from the Malabar Special Police arrived from Cannanore in the Malabar District carrying a written complaint registered at the Taliparamba Katcheri (Court at Taliparamba, Cannanore) against Fr. Britto by a prominent member of the Nair community accusing the young priest of using coercion and threats to wrest “four sacred Christian silver coins” from them. But Fr. Britto had disappeared without trace. And all that the two other Goan fellow-priests could say by way of explaining their acquaintance with this priest from Salem was that Fr. Britto had only recently joined them at Salem on their journey to Tuticorin from Goa. They had never known him before that. Though the English officer and his men returned empty handed, the event and the speculation that followed caused quite a stir in the region for sometime.
Later, a thorough search of Fr. Britto’s now abandoned quarters in the parish revealed a number of theological books, journals, a photograph and some personal items, including a small wooden chest which was found locked. However, inside one of the books on a shelf was found a paper with pencil or charcoal rubbing impressions of a coin that very few could recognize at that time, but which might have immediately drawn the attention of the visitors from Malabar had they still been present. Believed to be a Roman coin at that time, the traced impressions showed an emperor’s head on one side and an eagle on the other. The paper also contained some notes in Portuguese and the weights of “four” silver coins called Rakta Velli. It was evident that Fr. Britto was evading questioning and possible arrest and had abandoned his quarters in a hurry before dawn, somehow forewarned of the English officer’s visit. To avoid complications the discovery of the paper with the tracing of the coins was not reported and the matter laid to rest. In fact, the piece of paper was handed over to the new Bishop more than a year later by one of the Goan priests with a brief report on the incident. And for some years the entire episode was forgotten.
In the years to come, the new Tuticorin diocese would be separated from the diocese of Tiruchirapalli. In 1923 by the Apostolic Brief "Quae CatholicoNomini" of Pope Pius XI, Rt. Rev. Francis Tiburtius Roche was appointed as its first Indian Bishop of the Latin Rite. Much against the mysterious missing Fr. Britto’s wishes and promises, it was not St. Thomas but Saint Francis Xavier and Saint Theresa of Child Jesus who were decreed as the patron saints of the diocese.
By the year 1930, following the Papal Bull "Quae ad Spirituale" of Pope Pius XI, the five parishes of Vaippar, Manapad (Holy Ghost Church), Punnaikayal, Kooduthalai, and Tuticorin (Our Lady of Snows Church) which were under the Padroado were merged with the diocese.
In 1942, two decades after the incident of Fr. Britto and the Malabar police enquiry, a middle-aged priest from Goa visited Bishop Francis T. Roche at Tuticorin. He carried a letter from the “ensayador” or Assaying Chief of a Portuguese mint in Goa requesting the bishop to hand over the books and personal effects of Fr. George Britto, if they were still available. The letter also contained details of a silver coin hand-drawn by a celebrated Portuguese numismatist named Augusto Carlos Teixeira de Aragao many years ago titled Moedas de St. Thomas. Teixeira de Aragao had been very curious about these coins and had left the sketch in the possession of some officers of the Goan government who had later passed it on to the Assaying Chief. The request letter further claimed that the late Teixeira D’Aragao had read about these four coins in an edition of a Portuguese periodical called the “O Ultramar” published in the mid-1800s as well as in many ephemeral periodicals produced by various Goan parishes. It quoted an article in the “O Heraldo” a daily newspaper of the early 1900s which makes a brief reference to these four silver coins, calling it “a relic holier than Francis Xavier’s body” because of many cases of healing of the sick that were attributed to these coins. To perhaps emphasize the antiquity of the story of these coins, the letter further stated that Teixeira de Aragao had also read an extensive article and seen sketches of these coins in the only surviving copy of the first literary journal of Goa called the Bibliotheca de Goa published more than a century ago.
The purpose of this priest’s visit to the Bishop’s house in Tuticorin all the way from Goa in 1942 is uncertain.
Fr. Britto’s property and personal effects had been apparently misplaced during the reorganization of the parish and were only rediscovered much later. The middle-aged priest from Goa, for the time being at least, had to leave ostensibly disappointed following a lengthy argument with Bishop Roche. The story however takes an interesting twist here. What surprised Bishop Francis Roche was that later, in the following days, after the priest from Goa had departed, older people in the parish claimed that the “visitor”, this so-called Goan priest, was none other than Fr. Britto himself, someone Bishop Francis Roche had not met before and therefore could not recognize. But some parishioners had fleetingly seen the man at the Bishop’s residence and seemed certain it was “Fr. Britto of Salem” even after an interval of two decades. Though aged, greying and balding slightly, the few who had set eyes on him swore that it was Fr. Britto of the “silver coins case”. Bishop Roche now became suspicious. “Britto” wasn’t the name the strange priest had given the parish staff on making his appointment to meet the bishop. Why was he hiding his identity? Did he still fear arrest by the British policemen after two decades? Suddenly everything about Fr. Britto appeared and sounded very dubious.
Sometime after India’s independence from British colonial rule in 1947 the photograph of the mysterious priest and a tracing of the coins traveled to Goa, possibly at the Bishop Roche’s instance, to perhaps try and make enquiries and some sense of the incidents surrounding the mysterious Fr. George Britto “of Salem”. Who was he? For whom was he working? What had he intended to do with these four coins after acquiring them? Where are the coins today?
However, nothing more was heard or is known of the mysterious Fr. George Britto. Many enquiries were made by my father’s friend Aleixo Manuel da Costa who finally believed that the priest must have migrated to Portugal incognito as a layman.
Who really was Fr. George Britto? Was Fr. George Britto working for the Portuguese government or its church? We will never know. But what we do know from the charcoal and pencil tracings is that a Catholic priest in South India had indeed seen the coins as early as 1921, had perhaps really celebrated mass in recognition of the St. Thomas relic at Thavam as he claimed, had unsuccessfully tried to acquire the coins, and in the absence of a camera, even managed to make tracings of them and measure their weights.
The weight of each coin recorded by Fr. Britto (in Indian gold-silver standard or tola, their being made of silver) were 1.20 tolas (14.0 gram), 1.18 tolas (13.8 gram), 1.17 tolas (13.7 gram) and 1.17 tolas (13.7 gram). Their diameter was recorded as approximately 1.1 inches
Paula Gruber’s "rediscovery" of the Rakta Velli in Kerala in 1972 was at least half a century later.