A VISIONARY: ST KURIAKOSE ELIAS CHAVARA
Fr Varghese Paul, SJ
I heard about Fr Chavara Kuriakose Elias from my high school days. For, I studied in Infant Jesus High School, Vazhakulam, which was run by the Carmelites of Mary Immaculate (CMI), a Religious Congregation founded by Fr Chavara. My Principal was Fr Oswald, CMI and many candidates (aspirants of CMI) were my classmates. So I was able to know little about Fr Chavara and the CMI Congregation.
But only in 2013 I came to know about Blessed Fr Chavara as a visionary and an eminent reformer of the 19th century. For, I read a book about blessed Chavara Kuriakose Elias and translated it together with Daxaben Sanghvi. The biographical book was written by Anup Dev in Hindi. In the process of translating I read the book a number of times and I was surprised that I knew so little about this great visionary and reformer in spite of studying four years in a CMI school!
Of course, some years back as the editor of DOOT magazine I published a small booklet on Fr Chavara written by Mr K C Chacko in English and translated by my friend Mr Simon F Parmar. Today from the two books I have before me an outstanding personality in St Chavara. He is an eminent scholar, a literary writer, an able educationist and socio-religious reformer. And above all St Chavara is visionary and a torch-bearer of the nineteenth century.
Kuriakose was born in traditional Catholic family on 10 February 1805 in a village Kainakari in Kerala. His ancestors came from Palaiyur where an Apostle of Jesus, St Thomas put the foundation of Christianity. The Mother of Kuriakose was a very devout woman. He used to go to Church daily with his mother and participated in the religious ceremonies. In those days there were no schools as in on times.
Fr. Thomas Palakkal, who came into contact with Kuriakose and his family, saw that the boy Kuriakose was devout child. So he took him at the age of 10 to his rectory and started teaching him. At the age of 13 Kuriakose was selected as a candidate for priesthood. Kuriakose received priestly ordination at the age of 24 after long years of priestly training and formation.
During these years of priestly formation Kuriakose learnt Latin, Portuguese and Syrian besides his mother tongue Malayalam. He also studied Sanskrit and Tamil and other foreign Languages as the need arose. Kuriakose became expert not only in studying different languages and also in a number of fields like spirituality through his reading and studying. Kuriakose remained a student during his whole life by reading and studying different subjects and made a name for himself in various fields.
As a priest Kuriakose was known from the beginning for his devotion to Mother Mary and for his eloquent preaching. So his Superiors sent him often to preach and give spiritual directions in different Churches. People in large numbers gathered to listen to his preaching.
With his deep spirituality the young priest Kuriakose was attracted to religious life. Similarly Fr Kuriakose realized that his two close friends with whom he often discussed spiritual matters – Fr Thomas Palakkal, who guided him to priesthood and Fr Porukkara, an experienced priest in social service – were also thinking about leading religious life.
To cut a long story short, Kuriakose with his two friends put the foundation of the first indigenous religious congregation at Mannanam near Kottayam on May 11, 1831. Within three years of the event in 1833 the first theological seminar started near the Mannanam Ashram and established systematic study of theology for aspiring candidates of priesthood.
Fr Kuriakose and his companion priests started living religious community life at their ashram at Mannanam and were in the process of starting an indigenous Indian religious congregation. The Bishop of the time fully supported their venture. Bishop Bernadine gave Fr Kuriakose the rule book a Carmelite Congregation of Europe. Taking inspiration and guidance from the book Fr Kuriakose and his companions wrote the constitution entitled “The Servants of Many Immaculate.”
Bishop Bernadine of Varapuzha Diocese gave his official approval to their religious congregation on 8 December 1855 and appointed Fr Kuriakose Chavara as the first Superior of the congregation. The congregation today known as the Carmelites of Mary Immaculate (CMI) was approved by the Roman Pontiff in 1885. As the founder of the new congregation it was a unique achiever of Fr Kuriakose Chavara.
After a short while as religious and social reformer Fr Kuriakose founded a religious congregation for woman called the Congregation of the Mother Carmel (CMC) to work among the woman folk in the families and society.
The purpose of both the congregations of men and of women was very similar. As a reformer Fr Kuriakose wanted to bring about religious and social awakening of the people for their welfare and spiritual progress. In this venture Fr Kuriakose got full support of the Bishop and of the people.
In order to achieve this purpose Fr Kuriakose put emphasis on education and took concrete steps so that both boys and girls get educated. He started a Sanskrit school and appointed a Brahmin to teach Sanskrit to children. In the 19th century usually education was limited to the Brahmin and the so called upper class people.
Fr Kuriakose as an authorized representative of the Bishop sent out a circular letter to the priests of all the Churches.
In the circular Fr Kuriakose ordered all the Churches to start a school. In Malayalam the word for Church is ‘Palli’. The school is together with the Church. So the word for school in Malayalam is Pallikudam, meaning the ‘hut’ or ‘roof’ together with the Church. All children are to study in the school without any discriminations of caste and creed. Besides, there was an instruction to provide mid-day meals to poor children. In India, Kerala was the first state achieving 100% literacy and the foundation of massive literary drive was laid thus by Fr Kuriakose Chavara, a visionary reformer. The history of Kerala mentions the mid-day meals for the poor launched by Fr Kuriakose.
As in education Fr Kuriakose also made outstanding contributions in the fields of printing and literature. At that time there were only two printing presses in Kerala – one at Kottayam and the other at Thiruvananthapuram. Overcoming many problems and difficulties Fr Kuriakose started the third printing press in Kerala at Mannanam. And he undertook of printing books, leaflets and other forms of literature. Today a very popular daily newspaper is “Deepika” in Kerala. It was first published from the Mannanam printing press and it is still continue to be published.
Fr Kuriakose’ contributions in Malayalam writing and literature are also outstanding. So he is honoured as the Father of Malayalam journalism, the Creator of dramatic literature and the Originator of long poems in Malayalam. In the 1870s Fr Kuriakose wrote 10 religious plays. Earlier in 1892 he had composed a very long poem entitled “The Martyrdom of Anasthasia.” Another well-known long poem by him is called “Atmanutapam.” It is to his credit that his prose writings liberated Malayalam from its Sanskritised form.
Perhaps, the greatest achievement of Fr Kuriakose from Christian point of view is his achievement in maintaining the relationship with Rome in tact while maintaining the freedom, unity and the wholeness of the Catholic Church in Kerala. For, during the time of Fr. Kuriakose there were forces at work to divide the Kerala Church. But Fr. Kuriakose and his companions very efficiently managed to maintain the unity and avoided the threatened division.
While upholding the local Church’s relation with the Pope in Rome, Fr Kuriakose brought out reformation in the Kerala Church in keeping with the times. Fr Kuriakose was also successful in respecting and maintaining good relationship with the people of other faiths like the Hindus and the Muslims.
Finally, it is worth noting here that in appreciation of the outstanding contributions of Fr Kuriakose for the welfare and development of the people the Indian government issued a postal stamp in 1987 honouring him.
(The writer can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org & www.varghesepaul.org)