For older generations of Malayalis, the word Lithuania evokes memories of Soviet Lithuania, which was part of the former USSR. Younger people see the country as a gateway to Western Europe and an open society with an ancient culture. Few outside the Catholic community of Ernakulam, or rather parishioners of the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Verapoly, know the story of a Lithuanian-born priest who made Kerala his home for more than two decades.
Nicolaus Szostak (also spelled as Mikolaj Szostak or Mikalojus Sostakas) was born in 1710 to a Polish family in Vilnius, then a major city in the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth (a bi-federation of Poland and Lithuania). According to Catholic Church records, Szostak became a member of the Carmelite order when he was 18 years old. His connection with modern Kerala began in 1746 when he was appointed Coadjutor Apostolic Vicar of Malabar. The Lithuanian-Polish moved to Ernakulam in 1752 to serve as Vicar Apostolic of Malabar. Unlike the case of many priests, whose diaries were preserved and published posthumously with basic changes, there are no first-hand accounts of the Lithuanian-Polish bishop and therefore we know little about Szostak’s life in Kerala in the 18th century.
He was called Father Florence by the people of Kerala and was believed to be an adored figure among the devotees. In an academic article published in 1984 and entitled Polish Orientality, Famous Polish historian and retired diplomat Jan Kieniewicz made a brief mention of Szostak. According to Kieniewicz, Szostak “wielded supreme authority over the dioceses of Verapoly, Cochin and Kodungallur”. The areas in question were under Dutch control and were known as Dutch Malabar.
Adriaan Moens, who was the governor of Dutch Malabar from 1770 to 1781, wrote about Szostak in one of his reports, which was quoted by Kieniewicz in his article. “The Carmelite Father Fra Florentinus, a Jesu, a Pole by birth was chosen in place of Father IB Maria of Saint Teresa in 1751 with the title of Bishop of Areopolis,” Moens wrote. “This bishop, after having valiantly fought against many difficulties, died in the month of July 1773 at Verapoly.” The Dutch governor seemed to have a particularly high opinion of Szostak. He added: “I have spoken with him more than once and he seems to me to be a pleasant, edifying and learned man.
A Publish on the website of the Lithuanian Embassy in New Delhi, Szostak was approached by the leader of Travancore to settle disputes within various Christian communities.
Heritage claimed by Lithuania
Lithuania, which declared independence from the Soviet Union in 1990, has been keen to establish good diplomatic relations with India. Lithuanian diplomats and intellectuals always talk about the closeness between the Lithuanian language and Sanskrit. However, they have only a few specific examples of cultural and people-to-people ties between India and Lithuania. Szostak’s legacy was happily claimed by Lithuania.
In 2016, the Lithuanian government organized a memorial plaque for Szostak. The plaque which was cast in white marble stone with a Latin inscription was installed at the Varapuzha Basilica in Kochi. Szostak was also featured in a comic called The first Lithuanians in India (Pirmieji lietuviai Indijoje). Along with Szostak, the comic highlights the stories of five fellow Lithuanians, including Hermann Kallenbach, the architect who became close friends with Mahatma Gandhi in South Africa. The book, which is the work of comic artist Miglė Anušauskaitė, was published by the National Library of Lithuania in 2021.
The story of the Priest of Vilinius, who lived in Kerala, also found it on the AV medium. Prominent Lithuanian documentary maker and journalist Edita Mildažytė released a documentary in 2017 titled Lithuanian doves (Lietuvos kolumbai), who mentions Szostak. A subtitled version of the film was projected for students of Aluva Seminary in Ernakulam one year after its release.
It is truly sad that we know so little about Szostak’s life in 18th century Kerala and his interactions with the Malayalis. However, a lucky seeker might just find an ancient and hitherto unknown Dutch account of the Lithuanian-Polish priest who spent the last two decades of his life in the distant tropics, thousands of miles from the cold Baltic Sea.
(Ajay Kamalakaran is the author of ‘A Week in the Life of Svitlana’ and ‘Globetrotting for Love and Other Stories from Sakhalin Island’)