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Celebrating 50 years | God • World • Human Family • Church

Remembering India’s “Father of the Poor”

Twenty-six years ago, Mary Pallipadan walked from her home to collect firewood. As she worked, a limb fell from a tree and struck her head, severely injuring her spinal cord. Her family could not afford to provide her with the extensive medical care she needed — the blow had crippled the young woman permanently — so they turned to a nearby facility in a quiet village, Peringandoor, not far from the bustling southwestern Indian city of Trichur.

Ms. Pallipadan recalls how difficult it had been to accept that she would have to depend on others for everything. But “I have no complaints, now,” she says.

The 46-year-old woman lives with some 150 women, men and children with major physical disabilities at the John Paul Peace Home. Named to commemorate the sainted pope’s visit to India in 1986, Peace Home is only one part of the legacy of the late Syro-Malabar Catholic archbishop of Trichur, Mar Joseph Kundukulam, who spent his life bringing hope to thousands in Kerala, including Mary Pallipadan. Mar Joseph, she recalls, used to visit the Peace Home to encourage her and others to understand their situation as a special grace from God.

Clutching her rosary, Ms. Pallipadan explains she spends much of her time now in devout contemplation, praying for the intentions of a long list of people. “I have lots of time to pray,” she adds.

One of these intentions is the recognition of the sanctity of the former archbishop, known here as the “father of the poor.”

Mar Joseph died in Kenya in 1998 visiting a newly established house of Nirmala Dasi Sisters, a community he helped found in 1971. Translated from the Malayalam, the local vernacular, as the “Servants of God,” the Nirmala Dasi Sisters often serve as the primary agents of Mar Joseph’s works to serve the poor, the marginalized or those too feeble to care for themselves.

The community felt orphaned after his death, Nirmala Dasi Superior General Rosily Pidiyath recalls from the community’s tiny parlor in their motherhouse in Mulayam, near Trichur. The sisters are not alone. People cared for by the archbishop echo these sentiments, and hundreds will tell you they are alive today because he came forward to help when others had abandoned them.

“Before going to Africa, pithavu [or “father,” a term for a bishop] had come to ask for our prayers for the success of the trip,” Ms. Pallipadan remembers clearly.

Sixteen years after he died, Mar Joseph Kundukulam has left behind a remarkable legacy — a testament to a man who, even in death, continues to touch hearts and change lives.

As a young priest, Joseph Kundukulam was no stranger to charitable work. But his outreach to the poorest of the poor began in earnest when he was appointed pastor of St. Anne’s Church in Padinjarekotta, a suburb of Trichur. One day, a young woman carrying an infant asked the young priest for a place to stay. She was single, abandoned after the father of her child learned she had become pregnant. Her family had disowned her for her indiscretion. Father Joseph had to break the news that he had no shelter to offer.

Hours later, he found the young woman and her child still waiting for him. When he asked her what else she needed, she requested a small sum of money — little more than pocket change — to buy poison so she could kill herself and her child. Her request shocked the priest, who immediately worked with the parish to find some way to accommodate her.

He began to search for a more permanent way to help the young mother and others in her situation. Before long, he found a priest in Germany who offered him funds to start a new facility, on the condition the center be named after the patron saint of his parish in the heart of Europe. Since its founding in 1967, St. Christina’s Home has sheltered some 4,000 single mothers and their children, says the vice superior of the Nirmala Dasi Sisters, Chinnamma Kunnakatt, who has been working in the center for more than a decade.

And because St. Christina’s Home focused on the care of mothers and their toddlers only, the young pastor founded Savio Home, which cares for children 5 years of age and older.

These were only the beginning.

Time spent visiting with poor families and learning of their hardships led to the foundation of Mercy Home, dedicated to caring for developmentally delayed persons; St. Joseph’s Home and Home of Life, which provide care for the elderly; Peace Home for the physically disabled; Snehashram, which works to rehabilitate and reintegrate prisoners; and Divine Mercy Ashram (or “monastery”), which cares for street children.

Notably, Mar Joseph planned a home for people infected with H.I.V., the virus that causes AIDS, soon after the disease emerged in India in 1986. The Rev. Varghese Palathingal, who directed the archeparchy’s social service department for more than 25 years, says the archbishop knew little about the disease. “People told him it was highly contagious and spread through air. But such rumors did not deter him from reaching out to patients,” says the 58-year-old priest.

The home, however, was not completed until after his death. The Mar Kundukulam Memorial Research and Rehabilitation Center is better known as Grace Home. Its director, the Rev. Johnson Anthikad, works with the Nirmala Dasi Sisters to fulfill Mar Joseph’s dream: “He wanted to assure these people that they are needed and wanted.”

The home has provided treatment to some 2,000 people and has served as a hospice to around 450 in the past 15 years, according to Sisters Roselyn Kaduthedathuparambil and Mary Manjaly, who care for the patients. They say many patients have returned to their homes following an improvement in health.

Initially, Father Anthikad reports that neighbors had opposed the center. But after the home admitted a local patient, the attitude changed. “They now come to help us and attend our functions,” he adds.

“Archbishop Kundukulam was a very unique church leader. His thinking and action varied very much from other bishops of his time,” says Father Varghese Palathingal. This, he adds, is what prompted him to write the first biography of the archbishop, documenting his decades of work among India’s marginalized populations.

Mar Joseph had a lot in common with the current bishop of Rome, Francis, says the priest. “Pope Francis is demystifying the papacy by reaching out to the poor and marginalized. Archbishop Joseph was also a shepherd who smelled like his sheep.”

The similarities do not end there.

Auxiliary Bishop Raphael Thattil of Trichur, another close associate and confidante of Mar Joseph, compares Pope Francis’ election to the episcopal appointment of Joseph Kundukulam, describing both as the work of the Holy Spirit.

“All his predecessors were great scholars who came from aristocratic families. It was unthinkable that a person from an ordinary farmer’s family who had just a basic education had become the bishop of Trichur, the cradle of the Syriac Christian faith,” he says.

As a student, Joseph Kundukulam had failed the examination required for admission into St. Joseph’s Pontifical Seminary. Though he succeeded on his second try, his uncle, a priest, still had to pressure the seminary to admit him.

After his ordination in 1942, he quickly became immersed in pastoral ministry, proving to be “an extraordinarily successful parish priest,” Bishop Raphael says. “When we were young, Father Joseph was the most popular priest in our eparchy.” His wild popularity and skilled leadership prompted Rome to appoint him bishop in 1970.

Soon, he set about rewriting all traditional notions in Kerala about bishops and their work.

Before he took over the eparchy, people had little access to the bishop’s residence, a century-old two-story building in the heart of Trichur, the cultural capital of the state of Kerala. Guards stopped people at the main gate some 100 yards away from the building. Then Bishop Joseph stunned the eparchial curia when he asked them not to stop anyone coming to see him. He took his table and chair to the veranda outside his room on the second floor and met people there.

All that mattered to the new bishop were problems and their solutions, and he let nothing else come in the way. People flocked to this informal hierarch, knowing he would not only listen to them, but try to help.

“And they came in large numbers at all times,” Bishop Raphael recalls. He never missed a chance to be with the people. He would attend all public functions to which he was invited — another break from the tradition. The act of building the church, he adds, did not consist of lighting candles at an altar, but dressing those wounded in life’s battles.

The fountain for such profound thoughts and actions was his deep spiritual life, says Mar Andrews Thazhath, the current archbishop of Trichur, who had observed the late prelate closely during his 12-year tenure as an official of the archeparchy.

The 62-year-old prelate says Mar Joseph “prayed long hours in morning and evening and never missed celebrating the Divine Liturgy. He always prayed the breviary before retiring, however tired he was or however late the hour.”

Mar Joseph, the archbishop adds, knew his limitations — such as the lack of academic qualifications — and was convinced he needed God’s help to carry out his mission. He developed a spiritual life based on his pastoral activities.

On the topic of the hopes some have expressed that the late archbishop be considered for sainthood in the Catholic Church, Mar Andrews says the archeparchy does not want to apply undue pressure to the cause. “If it is God’s plan, it will happen,” he says.

Bishop Raphael and Father Palathingal report worshipers now flock to the archbishop’s tomb in the crypt of Our Lady of Lourdes Metropolitan Cathedral, and several miracles have been reported. The devout also travel to the room in St. Christina’s Home where he lived in his retirement, which has been converted into a museum.

Sister Rosily Pidiyath remembers that the archbishop used to ask her sisters, “Will you go to heaven if you die now?” He had asked the same questions of the sisters in Kenya mere minutes before he died following a massive heart attack at the age of 81.

“We are sure he is in heaven,” she affirms.

Mar Joseph Kundukulam had great influence on people throughout Kerala.

“He pulled crowds,” Bishop Raphael says, and stoked their generosity. People opened their hearts to him because they found solace in his words; they opened their purses to him because they found trustworthiness in his actions.

P. M. Thomas, a Trichur businessman who had collaborated with the archbishop in launching several projects, says people never hesitated when he asked for funds.

“Other church leaders just tell us to give money. But in Archbishop Joseph’s case we could see what he did with the money.”

Therambil Ramakrishnan, another associate of the late archbishop, has been representing Trichur in Kerala’s legislative assembly for the past 25 years. “He had a great capacity to organize and excellent oratory skills that thrilled people.” Mr. Ramakrishnan adds that Mar Joseph never judged people on the basis of their religion or caste. “While serving the interest of his community, he paid equal attention to encourage people of other religions,” says the Hindu politician.

“All of Kerala used to wait for his responses to various issues the state faced.”

Perhaps the late prelate’s most striking trait was his ability to lift the spirits of those around him. People felt happy and contented in his presence, his old associates recall. That contentment is still evident among those his institutions serve — and those who serve them.

Nirmala Dasi Sisters Elsy Maliekal and Vimla Kokkandathil live in a slum near Trichur’s railway station. The stench of raw sewage permeates the area, and their one-room home lacks basic amenities, such as running water. Nevertheless, they are happy to live there.

Their day begins at 4 a.m. After celebrating the Divine Liturgy in a nearby church, they go to a medical school where they care for poor and destitute patients. They return to convent in the evening and attend to the various needs of locals. Sister Elsy says their community’s founder had taught them to find happiness even in such dreary conditions.

As Albert Einstein wrote on Mahatma Gandhi’s 70th birthday, people in Trichur might say: “Generations to come will scarce believe that such a man as this one ever in flesh and blood walked upon this Earth.”

And some, such as Mary Pallipadan, will put it all the more simply: “We miss his visits.”

Jose Kavi writes about social and religious issues in India from New Delhi.

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