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13 June 2018

Benziger, Bishop of Quilon (1901-1931) and the titular Archbishop of Antinoe

Adelrich Benziger was born on 31 January 1864 as the fourth child of Mr. Johannes Adelrich Benziger and Anna Maria Koch Von Boswayl at Einsiedeln in Switzerland. As a young boy, he received primary education in Einsiedeln abbey of the Benedictine fathers. At the age of 14 Adelrich was sent to the most outstanding business school in Frankfurt, Germany, the Kaufmanishe Meistershule in 1878 to have a technical training in the business field to take up the family business. He also studied various languages and music etc. in the Institute Saint Louis at Brussels, Belgium and also in St. Gregory’s College, London, England. Then he studied philosophy and theology in the University of Eichstat in Germany.

When Adelrich was studying in Belgium he had the opportunity to come into close contact with the Discalced Carmelites and after his studies in Eichstat on 18 May 1884, he joined the Carmelite Order of Flanders Province. He was admitted to the novitiate on 26 May, 1884, made his simple profession on 28 May, 1885, solemn profession on May 22, 1888, and ordained priest on 22 December, 1888 in the Cathedral of Ghent. Due to his ardent desire to become a missionary he left Carmelite Monastery of Ghent on 28 August 1890, reached India on 9 October 1890. In India, he was sent to teach in the seminary of Puthenpally in Malabar and also as its spiritual director.

When the Apostolic Delegate of East Indies, Msgr. Ladislaus Zaleski, visited the seminary of Puthenpally in the year 1892, he took Benziger as his secretary on 16 July 1892. He continued in that office until his nomination in 1900 as the Coadjutor bishop of Quilon. As a bishop, he took the motto “per crucem” to show his love for the Cross, like St. John of the Cross, the great reformer of the Carmelite Order and a great saint. When Msgr. Ferdinand Ossi died in 1905, Msgr. Benziger took charge of the diocese on 14 September 1905, on the feast day of the exaltation of the Cross. He governed Quilon diocese 31 years, five years as the auxiliary bishop and 26 years as the bishop. When he celebrated the silver jubilee of his episcopal consecration in 1925, the Holy See conferred on him the titles Assistant to the Pontifical Throne, Domestic Prelate and Roman Count for his meritorious service as the bishop of Quilon. He retired from his office on 10 August 1931 and in the same year he was made the Titular Archbishop of Antinoe for his various contributions.  He then retired to the Carmel Hill Monastery of Trivandrum where the Flanders province had started its novitiate. Benziger died on 17 August 1942 at 5 a.m.

Benziger was instrumental in taking the local vocations to the Carmelite First Order in India which he began to request to the Superiors of Carmelite Order in different times from 1892, even though the first concrete step started only in 1900. He condemned the negative attitude of many Carmelites towards Indians while other Orders and Congregations had numerous priests and brothers. To give a great credibility to it, he visited very often the monastery; he himself retired to the Carmel Hill Monastery and lived an exemplary life as any other religious, not accepting any exemption offered by the Superior of the house.

As a bishop, he brought in rapid progress to the Diocese of Quilon in all aspects so that the people called him as the “Architect of modern diocese of Quilon”. The statistics speaks for itself. In 1900, the number of Catholics in Quilon diocese were 87,000, but in 1930 it became 226,665; in some years in fact more than 10,000 conversions took place. In many years, Quilon stood as the first diocese of India in the largest number of conversion. In 1900, there were 167 Churches while in 1930, there were 283 Churches and 52 Chapels. He gave importance to the indigenous clergy and he founded the minor seminary in 1904 at Quilon and rebuilt the existing major seminary with more facilities. As a result in 1900, there were only 32 indigenous diocesan priest but in 1930, their number increased to 86 with 78 Seminarians in formation. Number of Schools increased from 93 to 227 with two training colleges for the teachers. He brought different Congregations of sisters to work in the schools, hospitals, orphanages and other institutions of the diocese and therefore their number increased from 23 in 1900 to 264 in 1930. He made frequent pastoral visits to animate the parishes, established Secular Order of the Carmelites, published various pastoral letters for the devotion to Sacred Heart, Blessed Virgin Mary and various saints. He also worked for reuniting Jacobite people and priests from the year 1914. He also collaborated with Mar Ivanios for the reunion movement and its culmination took place when a faction of Jacobite Church reunited to Catholic Church under Mar Ivanios and Mar Theofilos in 1930 forming the Syro-Malankara Oriental Church.

Benziger was considered as a saint even when he was alive by many, due to his simple life style, hard work, life of prayer and penance, which made even the king of Travancore to call him a “Saint of my Kingdom”. Though he was offered money to buy a Car, he spent that money for the construction of the Churches. He always travelled in public transport such as train, bus, boat and bullockart. He worked for hours continuously, ate little and slept on the floor. During his lifetime, some miracles, such as calming the sea, stopping the fire, healing the sick etc. were attributed to him. At present, the province of Malabar and the archdiocese of Trivandrum are waiting for the “nulla osta” from Vatican to constitute the diocesan tribunal to go ahead with his cause.