Remembering India’s “Father of the Poor”

Honoring the legacy of Archbishop Joseph Kundukulam

by Jose Kavi

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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.

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