2,000 Years and Counting

The spirit of St. Thomas endures in Southern India

by Jose Kavi with photographs by Jose Jacob

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Omana Pulikoottil is certain of one thing: No matter what, she will never leave Palayur, her sleepy village in the southwestern Indian state of Kerala. After all, Palayur is closely associated with a saint she believes has seen her through the trials and hardships of life. She credits St. Thomas the Apostle with helping her not only to rear her two sons, but also to look after her late husband’s ailing parents, especially in the 24 years since he died of kidney failure.

“All we have are a 10-cent plot, a small house and lots of blessings from Thoma Sleeha,” says the sari-clad woman in her late 40’s, using the apostle’s name in the local language, Malayalam.

“We love our punniyavalan [“saint”] and feel indebted to him,” Mrs. Pulikoottil says as she waits for a priest from her parish dedicated to the doubting apostle. It is a Tuesday morning and the parish will be conducting special devotions to its patron saint.

She grows excited as she narrates blessings to have come to her family through St. Thomas, the man who introduced Christianity to India in the first century. Among other things, Mrs. Pulikoottil’s son was cured of allergies after bathing in a pond where the apostle is believed to have baptized the first converts in India. The Rev. Jackson Koonamplackal says he has heard many such stories after he came to the parish this March, just three months after ordination.

“Those stories have deepened my faith since I arrived here with lots of questions and doubts,” says the 26-year-old priest.

He had studied for a time in Rome, where some scoffed at the idea that St. Thomas had visited India. In time, Father Koonamplackal says, even he began to grow skeptical.

“Doubt is the devil,” he says now. “What I have heard and seen have convinced me of St. Thomas’s presence here.

“I now realize why God had sent me here,” he adds. “This is an opportunity to grow in my faith.” It has grown with surprises that come almost daily.

“Once,” he says, “an old woman asked me to pray for her son who had no child, even after five years of marriage. I prayed for them during Mass. A week later, she told me her daughter-in-law was pregnant.”

But such remarkable events, he says, pale beside the enduring faith of the people he serves. Every day, some 100 people come to the church to recite the rosary and celebrate the Divine Liturgy, beginning at 5:45 a.m. “Many come walking more than a mile. I used to wonder how they could reach the church even in heavy rain and wind,” he says.

His pastor, the Rev. John Ayyankanayil, says parishioners believe it is their duty to preserve the rich legacy of the faith they have inherited. As he explains: “They feel so privileged to be residents of this place where St. Thomas made his first Christian community in India.”

The Christians of Palayur should be proud of their legacy, says George Menachery, an Indologist who edits the St. Thomas Christian Encyclopedia of India and the Indian Church History Classics.

“Palayur is one of the oldest Christian centers in India. It can claim to have had a continuous Christian presence for 2,000 years,” says the 75-year-old professor emeritus.

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