The Rev. Joshy Puthenpurayil stops to chat with students waiting for the school bus. (photo: Don Duncan)
Parishioners receive the Eucharist at St. Thomas Church in the Kerala district of Palakkad. (photo: Don Duncan)
St. Thomas Church serves some 150 families spread across the hilly, rural landscape of Palakkad. (photo: Don Duncan)
The Rev. Joshy Puthenpurayil recounts an early inspiration: When he was 10 years old, his Hindi teacher, Ms. Annama, would bring his entire class on a weekly visit to Our Lady of Lourdes Cathedral in Kerala’s city of Trichur, where they would all pray together. There, he says, he began to hear the call to follow Christ.
“What struck me was the depth of her faith,” says the priest, ordained in 2007.
“She would ask us about our aims, our dreams. Some would answer: ‘I want to become a doctor’ or ‘I want to be an engineer.’ Ms. Annama would reply: ‘Whatever you wish to become, you must pray for that.’ So, from the age of 10, I started to pray to become a priest.”
Father Puthenpurayil, now 37, was born to a poor family in Kadhuruthy, a small town near the coast in southern Kerala. Because there was no post-primary school in his town and because of his family’s poverty, his parents and their parish priest agreed to send him to Trichur, some 100 miles away. There, at the age of 9, he was enrolled at St. Mary’s, one of Kerala’s many church-run homes for children, where he pursued his education.
“It was initially very painful for me because I was very attached to my mother, so to leave her was difficult,” says the priest. “But it was there that I found my calling. I wanted to preach the word of Jesus.
“I was born poor and I wanted to become a priest so I could help poor people like me. I began to pray every day: ‘Jesus, I want to become a priest. Bless me. Call me.’ ”
Today, Father Puthenpurayil is the parish priest of two adjoining parishes in the remote, hilly areas of Kerala’s Palakkad district, an inland eastern region near the border with the state of Tamil Nadu. The parishes of St. Thomas and St. Bernadette are made up of Syro-Malabar Catholic families who migrated just after the tumult of World War II — a period that, for India, included the Bengal famine and, soon after, the British partition of India and Pakistan, one of the largest population movements ever seen.
“Catholics sold their lands and moved here, to the remote hill areas, where the land was cheaper,” says Father Puthenpurayil. Decades of struggle followed, as the resettled farmers battled to tame the wild vegetation of the forest to eke out arable land and establish a comfortable quality of life.
Such past struggles are not immediately apparent as the priest begins his daily routine on a recent sunny morning. After celebrating an early morning liturgy, he leaves his small, simple house by St. Thomas Church and makes his way down the incline to the main thoroughfare through the hilly parish, comprised of some 150 families.
In his ministry to these families, and through his unflagging presence and support, Father Puthenpurayil lives out his vocation — the very calling for which he had so fervently prayed nearly three decades ago.
On his way through the sprawling settlement, Father Puthenpurayil passes Emmanuel, a sprightly 90-year-old on his daily walk to the church to pick up the Syro-Malabar community newspaper. One of the community’s original settlers, Emmanuel credits his longevity and good health to three things: hard work, a sensible diet and a deep faith in Jesus.
As Father Puthenpurayil continues on his way, the village seems to be kicking into its morning rhythms.
A group of about 20 students await the bus to their primary school in the nearest town, Palakkayam. Mothers standing with them say their goodbyes as the bus bumps down the road and around a corner.
The parish’s main thoroughfare measures about four yards wide. Branching off from the roughly paved road, a whole network of narrow dirt paths crisscross the hilly, jungle landscape. A closer look reveals small, charming houses scattered throughout the bush, with workers dotting the vegetation — planting crops, cutting wood and breaking stones.
Some 30 percent of the local population earns a living by tapping rubber trees. Another 20 percent, such as 23-year-old Tinto Phillip, harvest coconuts. Mr. Phillip, a keen athlete, can climb and harvest up to 90 coconut trees a day during coconut picking season. He is known as a good runner and, with his 12-yard throw, the shot put champion of the community.
Jose Kollamparabil’s rubber mats glisten in the sun as he hangs them along the rope extending from his work shack deep in the forest. Mr. Kollamparabil has spent the entire early morning treating with acid latex tapped from the rubber trees on his land. This makes it possible to press the latex through a wringer, transforming it into rough, flat rectangles of rubber that he can sell on the market in Palakkayam, he says, for about a dollar a pound.
Through the trees beyond, the figure of Nijo Jose, 14, rushes with the mix of trepidation and exasperation universal to children running late for class. Walking to his school in Palakkayam can take an hour; today he must cover that distance in a mere 35 minutes.
The scene is bucolic, romantic and almost lyrical at times, but it belies a community struggling with addiction, poverty and migration, says Father Puthenpurayil.
Kerala struggles with high rates of alcoholism. As of the 2011 census, Kerala held less than 3 percent of India’s total population, yet it accounted for 16 percent of the country’s alcohol sales, according to a 2011 report by the Associated Chambers of Commerce & Industry of India.
Consumption rates are often higher in rural areas, such as that of Father Puthenpurayil’s parishes. This affliction has wrought destruction at various levels of community life, with repercussions at once familial, societal and economic.
“In my Sunday homilies, I started to speak about the need for education, the need to avoid alcohol and the challenges we face because of alcohol — the broken families, the depression, the suicide attempts,” says Father Puthenpurayil. “I asked my parishioners to start the change at home, with prayer.”
In line with his sermons, the parish priest has initiated proactive programs to address some of his parishioners’ problems with alcohol. He conducts retreats for those seeking treatment and support, inviting both recovering addicts and experts on addiction to speak.
He also recognized that a potent way to reach and change the minds of adults was through their children. Sports clubs for the youth of the community, organized through the parish, have become vehicles for raising awareness through discussion.
“Many of the children are aware of the negative effects of alcohol,” the priest says. But simply having a forum for frank discussion has already had impressive effects, he adds.
“I have noticed a lot of changes. Some children are now saying to their parents: ‘If you continue to drink, then we will drink also.’ This has shocked parents into action.”
To reach his parish of St. Bernadette, Father Puthenpurayil must take a winding road through the jungle and around steep hills. From St. Thomas Church, near his home, it can take more than an hour to travel by foot to St. Bernadette Church, a newly renovated sanctuary for the 22 families of this sister parish.
St. Bernadette encompasses a region even more remote and less developed than that of St. Thomas. At a certain point, the paved road put in place just two years ago gives way to a mere dirt track. Many of the homes do not have running water or electricity. However, the community’s church stands in a clearing in the thick vegetation, a stirring testament to faith and dedication.
“Everyone here is very active,” says Father Puthenpurayil. “Ninety percent of them are out working every day, assuring their livelihood and making the community a better place. The parish is very poor, but rich in spirit.”
That hard work is evident in the renovation the community gave its church for its recent silver jubilee. The warm pastel shades of St. Bernadette Church contrast with the darker glades of the jungle that surround it. Behind the building, a handsome bell hangs from a beam suspended between two parallel tree trucks. Before the Divine Liturgy, it peals, reverberating through the vegetation to each of the parish’s homesteads.
St. Bernadette parish struggles with the same alcohol problems as its sister parish, but it also faces another scourge less prevalent in St. Thomas — migration. Its children have reached a level of education surpassing that of their parents. Kerala is in the midst of a transition from an agriculture-based economic model to one driven by industry and the knowledge economy — with an attendant shift from rural to urban lifestyle throughout the population. St Bernadette parish has seen many of its families up and leave, seeking a better income and quality of life in the state’s towns or cities.
“Now the youngsters have mobile phones and have access to TV. They are not ready to work as their parents did,” says Father Puthenpurayil, driving down a bumpy dirt track leading into the parish. “They want to go abroad. They want less physical work, and to earn better wages.”
Michael Muthanattu, 26, stands as a quintessential example of the larger societal shift in Kerala impacting parishes such as St. Bernadette. A graduate in mechanical engineering, Mr. Muthanattu is planning to immigrate to Canada.
“There are no job vacancies in my field here,” he says, standing in front of the church.
“I plan to leave and earn good money so that I can come back and settle here properly. I want to develop this place fully,” he explains. “If I can come back with good money, then I could get the road paving finished and set up a good, modern farm here.”
Despite the gap in generation, education and approach, Mr. Muthanattu expresses goals not unlike those of his parents. “Although I am an engineer, my dream is to eventually farm my land here because it brings me such happiness. The natural beauty and the climate here is very precious.”
Indeed, the two parishes Father Puthenpurayil serves are couched in a natural landscape so sublime it is easy to forget the hardship and challenges confronted within.
“If we want people to stay here, and if we want those who stay to have an easier life, then we have to give them better facilities,” says Father Puthenpurayil. “The main problem here is that there is no good hospital nearby and it is difficult for families to access education for their children after primary school. These are concerns that were less present when these people first settled here.”
However, in a relatively impoverished eparchy, the power to bring such change is limited. While the residents of St. Thomas and St. Bernadette parishes await further infrastructure developments in their state and region, Father Puthenpurayil does all he can to initiate efforts that can improve both the local infrastructure and their economic situations.
Back in St. Thomas parish, a line of women pass through the brush carrying large rocks balanced on small clumps of fabric on their heads. Echoes of metal impacting stone ring through the air and mix with the chatter and laughter of the workers.
Numbering some 20 people, this group of locals participates in a state public infrastructure program called Kuddumbasree, which is geared toward empowering women and relieving poverty. The current project is to build a terrace wall that will protect the back of one of the parish’s houses from landslides during the rainy season. Father Puthenpurayil had played a key role in drawing the program’s resources to this area.
Deeper in the forest, a man splits rocks; women form a relay to haul them to the house, where a mixed group lays them carefully, slowly giving form to the retaining wall. The workmanship is impeccable. As the sun begins to fade, their laughter and conversation rings through the greenery.
Since their settlement some 60 years ago, these two parishes have told a story of struggle, but also of continual, unabated improvement.
For the people of Sts. Thomas and Bernadette, an ethos of hard work and self-improvement is deeply ingrained, says Father Puthenpurayil. He merely offers guidance to that admirable character on its spiritual path.
“My priority is to give Jesus to these people,” he says. “Jesus Christ, who came to the world to redeem the human race.”
Another day has nearly ended for Father Puthenpurayil’s two parishes. As usual, Joy Mundanatt, 55, can be found up on the plateau, in the yard of St. Thomas Church, slowly and rhythmically raking up nuts that have fallen from the surrounding trees.
As twilight gives way to night, figures of workers can still be seen throughout the bush planting, cutting, tying, breaking — toiling right up to the last, until their eyes can see no more.
Father Puthenpurayil likewise returns home to rest.
Night has fallen and the awesome darkness of the jungle becomes apparent. Yet pinpoints of light gleam here and there; scattered throughout the brush, the parish homes glow like fireflies.
With an early start ahead — well before sunrise — the lights soon go out, one by one. The light in Father Puthenpurayil’s house follows suit. For another day, his work is done.
A regular contributor to ONE, Don Duncan has covered the Middle East and Africa for The Wall Street Journal, The Guardian, The New York Times and Agence France Presse.