A Day in the Life of a Priest in Kerala

text and photographs by Don Duncan

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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.

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