The Bengal Missions

The Congregation of the Holy Cross first arrived in East Bengal, India in 1853 at the invitation of Pope Pius IX. Through much sacrifice by members of the congregation, determination by the local people, annual contributions from the Notre Dame Bengal Bouts, and generous support from many others, the work in the Holy Cross Missions has succeeded.

Since 1853, the province of East Bengal has undergone major changes in government (from India to East Pakistan to Bangladesh) and has experienced a tremendous population growth. Bangladesh was born in December 1971. Unfortunately the world seems to know little about this Wisconsin-sized country except for reports about its frequent catastrophic disasters such as famines and floods.

In the same period of political changes, the local church has taken shape and now flourishes. The Holy Cross Missions have been an integral part of the region for over 100 years. The general chapters of the Congregation of Holy Cross made calls for more support to the mission in Bengal from 1900 on, but the community did not find an effective and consistent response until after the First World War. The catalyst for this response in the United States was Fr. Michael Mathis. Assisted by Fr. James French of the Holy Cross Mission Band, Mathis began in 1917 to preach throughout the country for financial help. He established the Bengal Foreign Mission Society to collect funds and to promote interests among the laity in the Bengal Mission.

In 1931, among the many answers to their call they received a resounding one from the University of Notre Dame. In that year a group of students gathered together to begin the Bengal Bouts tournament. Admission would be charged, and the annual proceeds would be sent to the Holy Cross (or Bengal) Missions. An association was started which has continued to this day. The Director and Coach of the Bengal Bouts from the 1930’s to the 1980’s Dominic J. “Nappy” Napolitano ’32, ’33. For over 50 years Nappy set the highest standards for amateur competition and sportsmanship in intra-collegiate boxing. And under his moral guidance, he led thousands to support the Holy Cross Missions in Bengal, an area now known as Bangladesh.

Through the years the Missions have established and supported medical dispensaries, and elementary and secondary schools. In addition, the priests administer Notre Dame College, recognized throughout Bangladesh as an educational leader. While these schools provide opportunities for many Christians to acquire some education, the vast majority of the students – like the population at large – are Muslim. Each year, several thousand students are able to attain intermediate and B.A. degrees at these institutions, and prepare for professional roles in their society.

Another characteristic of the Holy Cross institutions – parishes and schools alike – are the extensive outreach programs, which go on day and night, in every spare corner of the facilities. These outreach programs are especially effective because of the Holy Cross students aid the staff in the call to service for the local poor. These programs provide basic literacy training, technical and occupational instruction, medical care, nutritional guidance and a variety of other services that have far-reaching impact. The work of the Notre Dame Boxers and annual funds they have raised continue to help the Holy Cross Missions in Bangladesh achieve such remarkable accomplishments. From a contribution of $500 in 1931 to $77,000 in 2001, the annual contribution of the Bengal Bouts has grown substantially. The impact of this contribution is tremendous. Consider that one American dollar in Bangladesh can feed, shelter and clothe a family of five for a day. Educating a seminarian for a month only costs $40. The five-story college in Dacca could be complete with a library and classrooms for about $200,000.

As the Bengal Bouts continue into a new century, Notre Dame boxers will strive to work hard and live out their motto originated by Nappy in 1931, “Strong bodies fight, that weak bodies may be nourished.”