For older generations of Malayalis the word Lithuania evokes memories of Soviet Lithuania, which was a part of the erstwhile USSR. The younger lot sees the country as a gateway to Western Europe and an open society with an ancient culture. Not many people 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 called Kerala home for more than two decades.
Nicolaus Szostak (also spelt as Mikolaj Szostak or Mikalojus Sostakas) was born in 1710 into a Polish family in Vilnius, which was 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 at the age of 18. His connection with modern day Kerala began in 1746 when he was appointed Coadjutor Vicar Apostolic of Malabar. The Lithuanian-Pole moved to Ernakulam in 1752 to serve as Vicar Apostolic of Malabar. Unlike in the case of many priests, whose diaries were preserved and published posthumously with basic edits, there are no surviving first-hand accounts of the Lithuanian-Polish bishop and so we know little of Szostak’s life in 18th century Kerala.
He was called Father Florence by the people of Kerala and was believed to have been an adored figure among the faithful. In an academic paper published in 1984 titled Polish Orientalness, renowned Polish historian and retired diplomat Jan Kieniewicz made a brief mention of Szostak. According to Kieniewicz, Szostak “exercised supreme authority over the dioceses of Verapoly, Cochin and Kodungallur.” The areas in question were under the control of the Dutch and was 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 cited by Kieniewicz in his paper. “The Carmelite father Fra Florentinus, a Jesu, a Pole by birth was selected in Father I. B. Maria de St. Teresa’s stead in the year 1751 with the title of Bishop of Areopolis,” Moens wrote. “This bishop, after having valiantly struggled through in the face of very many difficulties, died in the month of July 1773 in Verapoly.” The Dutch governor seemed to have a particularly high opinion of Szostak. He added, “I had more than once talked with him and he appeared to me to be a pleasant, edifying and learned man.”
A post on the website of the Lithuanian Embassy in New Delhi says Szostak was approached by the ruler of Travancore to settle disputes within various Christian communities.
Legacy claimed by Lithuania
Lithuania, which declared independence from the Soviet Union in 1990, has been keen to build good diplomatic relations with India. Lithuanian diplomats and intellectuals always talk about the closeness between the Lithuanian language and Sanskrit. They, however, only have a few specific examples of cultural and people-to-people links between India and Lithuania. Szostak’s legacy has been happily claimed by Lithuania.
In 2016, the Lithuanian government arranged for a commemorative 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 book titled The First Lithuanians in India (Pirmieji lietuviai Indijoje). Along with Szostak, the comic book highlights the stories of five other Lithuanians, including Hermann Kallenbach, the architect who became a close friend of Mahatma Gandhi in South Africa. The book, which is the work of comics artist Miglė Anušauskaitė, was released by the National Library of Lithuania in 2021.
The story of the priest from Vilinius who lived in Kerala, has also found it to the audio-visual medium. Eminent Lithuanian documentarian and journalist Edita Mildažytė released a documentary in 2017 titled Lithuanian Columbuses (Lietuvos kolumbai), which mentions Szostak. A subtitled version of the film was screened for students of the Aluva Seminary in Ernakulam a year after its release.
It is really sad that we know so little about Szostak’s life in 18th century Kerala and his interactions with Malayalis. However, a fortunate researcher might just find an old and hitherto unknown Dutch account of the Lithuanian-Polish priest who spent the last two decades of his life in the far tropics, thousands of miles away 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’)