N Samuel Douminthang Baite
The sad news about the demise of Most Rev. Joseph Mittathany, DD, Archbishop Emeritus of the Archdiocese of Imphal, Manipur came on the fateful day of Monday, July 11, 2022, around 9.55 am. He breathed his last at Catholic Medical Centre (CMC), Koirengei, Imphal at the ripe age of 91. The sad and breaking news brings back memories of love, respect, and gratitude to him from different corners. Condolence messages poured in from Government and non-Governmental and religious bodies.
The Hon’ble Chief Minister of Manipur expressed his grief over his death, recalling the tremendous contributions his Grace had made to the betterment of the State. The Archbishop of Imphal, Most Rev. Dominic Lumon, DD in his official letter on 11th July 2022 expressed his sorrow over the demise of his respected predecessor, and as a mark of respect for all that he had done for the Church in Manipur and NE Region he declared four days of “DIOCESAN MOURNING” from 11th till his burial on 14th July. He also called for the offering of the Holy Eucharist for the departed soul, closure of all Catholic educational institutions, and suspension of celebratory events/activities (unless unavoidable) during the days of mourning. The mortal remains is to be kept in the Cathedral for people to pay homage to the dear departed.
Born on 12 July 1931 at Kuravilangad, Diocese of Palai, Kerala Joseph Mittathany was the second son of devout Catholic parents Mr. Matthew and Mrs. Elizabeth. He had six brothers and a sister. They were brought up in good Catholic faith, discipline, and moral character by their parents. He was lovingly called ‘Ouseppachan’ in the family. Tradition has it that the roots of the faith and family line of Mittathany’s family can be traced to the time of St. Thomas, the Apostle who came to India in 52 AD, as their ancestors belonged to one of the four Brahmin families baptized by the apostle at Cranganore, Kerala, India.
As his father died while he was in class IX at St. Mary’s High School, Kuravilangad, young Joseph was expected to be the breadwinner of the family after his matriculation. But to the dismay of the whole family, he decided to respond to the call of God to work in his vineyard as a Priest. His grandmother came to his rescue when she declared that young Joseph should become a Priest if that was what God willed for him and for the family.
In 1949 he joined the Sacred Heart Seminary, Poonamallee, Madras. His decision to join the Shillong diocese again broke the hearts of his family members, especially his widowed mother, as the North East in those days was an inaccessible part of the world for many. He was ordained a Priest for the diocese of Shillong on 23 April 1959.
His journey of thousand steps in the mission started with his first appointment as an Assistant Parish Priest of the Catholic Church, Borpukhri, Assam. In January 1966 he was made the Parish Priest of Tatenbari. On 26 June 1969, he was nominated as the second Bishop of the Tezpur diocese after Bishop Orestes Marengo. His Episcopal ordination took place on 27 September 1969 in Tezpur. His mother was filled with joy to witness her son’s Episcopal Ordination. He led the mission work in Tezpur as the head of the diocese and it grew in leaps and bounds.
While his mission was on in full swing in Tezpur the growth of the Catholic mission in the North East saw the creation of the new diocese of ‘Kohima-Imphal’ bifurcated from the then Dibrugarh diocese. The new diocese comprised the present two States of Nagaland and Manipur. The new diocese was further bifurcated into two separate ecclesiastical units and the new diocese of Imphal was erected by Pope John Paul II on 21 April 1980. Rt. Rev. Joseph Mittathany, the then Bishop of Tezpur was appointed as its first Bishop. Though feeling sorry to leave the diocese of Tezpur which he was nurturing very well, he took up the challenge to build the new diocese and left for Manipur on 27 June 1980. At that time there were 14 Parishes with 34,174 Catholics in the State.
Once he set foot on the mission-rich soil of Manipur he toiled and toured the length and breadth of the diocese. The first year of his mission in Manipur was a golden year of his earthly life as he celebrated his 50th Birthday on 11 July 1980. His plethora of experiences as the Bishop of Tezpur became handy in leading the mission in the new land which was filled with challenges both in social and religious fields.
Under his able leadership and through the blessings of the Almighty God the Church in Manipur was growing in faith, number, local vocations, and infrastructure. The diocese of Imphal was raised to the status of Archdiocese on 1 August 1995 and Bishop Joseph Mittathany became the first Archbishop and was installed on 8 September 1995. In October 2005 the diocese celebrated the Silver Jubilee (25years) of its erection. It was a very auspicious occasion and historical landmark in the history of the Catholic Church in Manipur. On 12 July 2006 he retired from being the Archbishop of the Archdiocese of Imphal and the responsibility to sail the ship (the Catholic Church of Manipur) was taken over by His Grace Most Rev. Dominic Lumon, DD. On his retirement, the faithfuls of the Archdiocese gave him a befitting thanksgiving program and thanked the Archbishop Emeritus for all that he was to the faithful and the people of Manipur.
On the 10th of September, 2019 (Tuesday) the Catholic faithfuls from the Hills and Valley of Manipur once again rejoiced over the twin jubilee celebrations –Sacerdotal Diamond Jubilee and Episcopal Golden Jubilee of Most Rev. Joseph Mittathany DD, Archbishop Emeritus of Archdiocese of Imphal, Manipur. Such twin celebrations are a rare occasion.
The day was marked with a solemn Eucharistic Celebration at St. Joseph’s Cathedral and the grand jubilee fest at the Jubilee Hall at St. Paul’s Retreat House, Mantripukhri in the presence of Bishops of the North East, priests, religious and faithfuls from all over Manipur. On the occasion, the 88 years old Archbishop Emeritus, Most Rev. Joseph Mittathany was felicitated and words of love and gratitude poured in from different corners. It was a celebration of the archbishop’s faithfulness to God’s Call and God’s wonderful work in his life because if the Catholic Church in Manipur is in its present grandeur and beauty, it is God’s miraculous work through the instrumentality of Archbishop Emeritus. The day also was a historical landmark in the history of the Catholic Church in Manipur as the first Catholic Edition of the Thadou-Kuki Bible ‘BIBLE THENG’ was released by the Archbishop Emeritus on the occasion.
During his priestly and episcopal ministries, he has contributed so much in both the religious and social fields in the North East, particularly in Manipur. An information message sent out and forwarded in some WhatsApp and Facebook groups summed up his entire ministerial life as “Priest for 63 years, Bishop for 53 Years, and Archbishop for 27 years.”
Except for the first 11 years he spent most of the rest of his Episcopal life in Manipur. When he first came as the Bishop of Imphal in 1980 there were only 14 parishes with merely a 34,174 Catholic population. During his Episcopal ministry, he established 27 more Parishes and mission centres and the Catholic population grew in numbers. He had ordained many deacons to priesthoods and blessed many novices for religious lives. He worked tirelessly for the growth of the mission in the State of Manipur. On the day of his death i.e., 11th July, as given in https://www. dioceseimphal.org/en/archdiocese-directory, there are 45 Parishes, 8 mission centres, and 10,1283 (approx.) Catholic Populations. There are 117 diocesan Priests, 59 Religious Priests, and 356 Religious Sisters working in the Archdiocese of Imphal.
Archbishop Joseph Mittathany was not only keen on spreading the Catholic Faith but also cared for the overall development and growth of the people of Manipur. The Hon’ble Chief Miniter of Manipur, in his condolence message dated 11th July worthily recognized the crucial role played by the late Archbishop Emeritus in the field of education, healthcare, and social services. Apart from the ecclesiastical parishes, he had established many educational institutions, social service centres (DSSS), a hospital (CMC), dispensaries, and other service-oriented institutions/organizations in various parts of the State. His love for peace was seen in his constant appeal and prayer for peace and the timely initiatives and responses in various instances. Mention may be made of his response and intervention during the Kuki-Naga ethnic clash in the 1990s. He identified himself with the people of the State and the joy of the people was his joy and the suffering of the people was his suffering.
His love for the people of Manipur was clearly expressed by him on his retirement on Thanksgiving Day in 2006 when he said, “I am not leaving Manipur. I am staying with you till I die.” True to what he said he chose to be with the people in Manipur and prayed for its people till his last breath. His mortal remains will be put to rest on 14th July at the Cathedral, the principal Church of the Archdiocese, built by him during his time as an Archbishop. In life and in death he is for the people of Manipur.
In his death, as His Grace Most Rev. Dominic Lumon put it in his letter, ‘the archdiocese of Imphal has lost a Shepherd, a Mentor, and a Father.’ Manipur lost a great soul who had contributed much to the development of the State. The yeoman service he rendered as the chief Shepherd of the Catholic Church in Manipur, a missionary in the North East region, and a visionary leader in various capacities, an ardent worker for a better Manipur will be remembered in the years to come.
# Many vital pieces of information for this article are drawn from ‘The History of the Catholic Church in Manipur’ by Lazar Jeyaseelan. The writer owes much to the writer and publisher of the book.
*The writer hails from New Keiphom Village, under Sugnu Parish, Chandel District, Manipur. He is currently pursuing his doctoral studies at Mizoram University. He can be reached at [email protected]