A woman receives her father’s blessing before her profession as a sister. (photo: Rev. Dr. Anthony Vallavanthara, C.M.I.)
School children from the village of Pilankala, many of them supported through CNEWA’s Sponsorship Program, finish another day. (photo: Rev. Dr. Anthony Vallavanthara, C.M.I.)
Mar George Alancherry and concelebrants lead a processional. (photo: Rev. Dr. Anthony Vallavanthara, C.M.I.)
This shoe-making program is supported by KKSSS. (photo: Rev. Dr. Anthony Vallavanthara, C.M.I.)
Workers from the Kanyakumari Social Service Society weave coir, a fiber taken from coconut husks. (photo: Rev. Dr. Anthony Vallavanthara, C.M.I.)
At the southern-most tip of the Indian subcontinent at lands end lies Kanyakumari, or Cape Comorin in English. Here three great bodies of water meet: from the east, the Bay of Bengal, also called the Gulf of Mannar; from the south, the Indian Ocean; from the west, the Arabian Sea. Dawn and dusk are dramatic moments: thousands of tourists travel from all over the world to witness the rising and setting of the sun where the three seas meet.
Kanyakumari also draws great numbers of Hindu pilgrims who believe in the sacredness of the waters. One often sees the devout carrying urns filled with the ashes of their loved ones. These ashes are immersed in the waters near a memorial to the father of the Indian nation, Mahatma Gandhi, whose ashes were also brought to Kanyakumari and immersed in the waters.
On 2 February, thousands of people gathered in the small village of Padanthalumood, some 36 miles north of lands end, to celebrate the establishment of the first Syro-Malabar Catholic eparchy in the state of Tamil Nadu.
Bishops, clergy and religious from the Syro-Malabar, Syro-Malankara and Latin (Roman) Catholic churches as well as representatives of the Malankara Syrian Orthodox and Protestant churches joined Hindu and Muslim leaders and the heads of local political parties and social organizations in participating in the ordination and installation of Mar George Alancherry as the first bishop of the Syro-Malabar Catholic Eparchy of Thuckalay. The eparchy derives its name from a small township in Kanyakumari district, Thuckalay, once the southern frontier of the ancient Kingdom of Venad.
The demonstration of religious harmony provided by the ordination is very unique to southwestern India and, in particular, to Kerala and the Tamil district of Kanyakumari. For more than a millennium, Hindus, Christians and Muslims have lived together in harmony and trust, although in recent years radical fundamentalists have threatened this ancient way of life.
Interestingly, Kanyakumari has the highest population of Christians of all districts in India, numbering more than 835,000 people. Catholics of the Latin, Syro-Malabar and Syro-Malankara churches, totaling more than 500,000 believers, constitute the majority of the Christian population. Malankara Syrian Orthodox, Reformed and Evangelical Christians make up the balance.
The overall number of Syro-Malabar Catholics has increased dramatically, from 170,000 in the late 19th century to more than three million today. Dedicated missionaries played a major role in this growth and their work led to the establishment of the Eparchy of Thuckalay.
In 1953, Eugene Cardinal Tisserant, then Secretary of the Holy Sees Congregation for the Eastern Church, visited Kerala. On his return to Rome, Cardinal Tisserant submitted a report of his travels to Pope Pius XII. This report prompted the Pope in 1955 to enlarge the boundaries of the Syro-Malabar Catholic Church beyond the state of Kerala, extending the limits of the Eparchy of Changanacherry from the Pampa River in Kerala to Kanyakumari in Tamil Nadu.
Missions were established in the extended territory to provide pastoral care to emigrant Syro-Malabar Catholics there. Priests and religious from these missions soon began to work, however, among the Nadars, or low-caste Hindus.
The first mission in the Eparchy of Thuckalay was founded in the village of Arukani. The first liturgy was celebrated on Christmas Day, 1955, in a temporary shed. The celebrant was Father Joseph Maliparampil, a zealous missionary renowned for his work on behalf of children. Father Lucius, C.M.I., who in turn would be instrumental in working among the Nadar communities, would assist him.
I was engaged more in the work with the emigrant Syro-Malabar people, Father Maliparampil recalled recently. The pioneering work among the Nadar communities was done by Father Lucius. He used to go from one family to another. He liked to work with them.
The Carmelites of Mary Immaculate, of which Father Lucius was a member, were among the pioneers in the Kanyakumari district. As early as the 1930s, the C.M.I, fathers worked among the Nadars of the district. By the end of the 1950s, these priests were increasingly involved in the missionary work of the church.
Eventually, a second mission was established in the nearby village of Netta. In 1960, Father Thomas Nangachiveettil founded three missions among the Nadars. These were located in the villages of Nithiravilai, Kakkavilai and Panchivilai. Vilai in Tamil means a ripe field. Laborers and low-caste Hindus from these villages proved to be vilais, fields ripe for the Gospel message. In the first years of missionary endeavor, approximately 1,000 people were received into the church.
During the 1960s, 10 new missions were started and, in the following decades, 32 were added.
A period of educational and social involvement marked the 1970s. During that decade the Kanyakumari Social Service Society (KKSSS) was established. A jewel in the crown of the eparchy, KKSSS was started in 1972 to coordinate and direct the social service activities of the Kanyakumari mission. For 25 years, the society has provided outstanding service, regardless of caste or creed, to the people of Kanyakumari district, through such programs as mother-and-child health and health promotion and the empowerment of women. KKSSS also provides training in hygiene, childcare, nutrition and housekeeping.
A very important project was the introduction of village industries to promote self-employment. KKSSS also organized food-for-work programs, credit unions, housing facilities and tuberculosis prevention programs. When, in 1993, floods demolished thousands of houses in the district, the society funded the building of 400 houses for the poor, irrespective of caste or religion.
Today there are 44 parishes and missions in the Eparchy of Thuckalay. While the oldest missions, Arukani and Netta, serve Thomas Christians (Christians who trace their roots to the church founded by St. Thomas the Apostle in the first century) as well as recently baptized Nadars, most of the families served by these missions are from the Nadar communities.
In every parish, lay people are involved in organizations such as the St. Vincent De Paul Society, Mathru Jyothis (an association for mothers), Pithru Vedi (an association for fathers), Yuvadeepthi (a youth group), a students league and a league for the formation of children for mission.
In 44 centers throughout the eparchy, 350 teachers teach catechism to 3,520 students in Sunday schools ranging from the nursery level through the 12th grade. Children are educated at a higher secondary school, six high schools, 10 elementary schools, 40 nursery schools, two schools for the mentally handicapped and a school for the physically handicapped. The eparchy also maintains six vocational training centers and seven small-scale industrial training centers.
There are five homes for children, both boys and girls, and two homes for the aged. Four dispensaries and four tuberculosis control centers provide medical services.
In a country as diverse as India, interreligious dialogue is essential. To fill this need the eparchy supports the San Thome Interreligious Dialogue Center, which the C.M.I. fathers began in 1980.
At the threshold of the 21st century, the Eparchy of Thuckalay, although newly erected, already boasts a proud history. With Gods help, it will continue to bring his word to the people of Kanyakumari and to give them the social services they need, for it is only through humanization that we can kindle the message of the Gospel.
Father Antony Vallavanthara, C.M.I., is the Director of the Research Institute for Studies in History, Mannanam, Kerala.