The Sisters of St. Charles Borromeo – Eastern province

The Sisters of St. Charles Borromeo – Eastern province

Adrien Villa, # 28 Surappatu Main Road, Vinayagapuram,
Kolathur P.O Chennai 600 099
St. Charles Borromeo

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Muttom

Romans and Greeks traded in India its true but could it be in ‘Muttam’ a coastal village at the tip of Kanyakumari district in Tamilnadu. Yes, that also is true. Muttom a petty village is situated on the banks of river Noyyal a perennial water source that irrigated the land to make it rich in spices and condiments and was laden with precious stones that allowed people from across the globe. The prosperity of the village was also due to river Kanchi Maanadhi- another river that joined Noyyal before merging with river Cauvery, the cause of Chola Empire’s glory.

One becomes very inquisitive to know how ever did Muttom which Cheras, Cholas and Pandyas vied to make as their possession lose its popularity? Well, it’s the people’s indifference and neglect, local riots and conflicts destruction of natural forces, that have over the years led to the dilapidation of its fort and destruction of all its monuments. Archaelogical findings have however helped discovering its great heritage lost over time.

The Christian missionaries made many an impression in the historical records of South Indian coastal regions are an all known fact in that Kannyakumari district has a unique position. Kottar, Turicorin and Thiruvananthapuram of the Latin rite, Thuckalay of Syro Malabar and Marthandam of Syro Malabar rite have their jurisdictions, in the district.

The area under the present diocese of Kottar had known the Christian faith several centuries before the arrival of the Portuguese on the West Coast. Monuments recently discovered in Chinna Muttom near Kanyakumari support it. The presence of St. Thomas Christians in Thiruvithancode, Kottar and other places in the district had also been attested by several missionaries under the Portuguese Padroado.

However with the arrival of the Portuguese missionaries, a small section of the local people known as Paravas became Christians in 1536-1537. Seven years after their conversion more than ten thousand fishermen known as ‘Mukkuvas” in the coastal villages from Poovar( now in the archdiocese of Thiruvananthapuram) to Pallam were baptized in 1544 by the greatest post-apostolic missionary of the Church, St. Francis Xavier. He was one among the first seven to take vows in the Society of Jesus founded by St. Ignatius of Loyola in 1534.

The present Cathedral of St. Francis Xavier encompasses the church of St. Mary built by Francis Xavier.
With renewed efforts of the Sacred Congregation for the Propagation of the Faith (founded in 1622) Christian missionaries began to concentrate on and evangelize the interior parts of the area. Initially, attention was given to the conversion of the people of Vellala and Nair communities. Many from these communities embraced the Christian faith and prominent among them was the martyr of the diocese, Devasahayam Pillai (Lazar) aka Nilakanda Pillai.

He was born in the village of Nattalam in 1712 and was an official in the palace of King Marthanda Varma of Thiruvithancore. He was converted to Christian faith by the gentle efforts of a captured captain of the Dutch Navy, Eustachius De Lannoy who later became the Chief Admiral of the King’s army (In Malayalam he was known as Valia Capitatan). Nilakanda Pillai was baptized as Lazar (Devasahayam) at the hands of Rev. Fr. John Baptist Buttari, S.J., Parish priest of Vadakkankulam in 1745. The king tried in vain to entice him back to Hinduism. Then, the enraged king ordered him to be arrested and shot to death. After enduring torture for three years, Devasahayam Pillai was taken to Kattadimalai, Alravaimozhi, and shot to death on January 14, 1752. His mortal remains were interred in the church of St. Francis Xavier, which in turn became the Cathedral of the Diocese of Kottar in 1930.

The 18th century witnessed the rapid growth of Christianity in the interior parts of the area, following large scale conversion of the people of Nadar community. Vencode and Karenkadu were the centres of evangelization and conversion. With the creation of Verapoly- Varapuzha- Vicariate, the Portuguese Padroado system came to an end in this area except in the then seven parishes from Eraymanthura to Neerodi. In 1853, Kollam Vicariate was established and was placed under the care of the Belgian Carmelite missionaries. With the establishment of the hierarchy in India in 1886, Kollam became a diocese that extended from Mavelikara in the north to Kottar (Nagercoil) in the south, and Kottar became the centre of the southern part of Kollam diocese.

The Swiss-born, Carmelite Bishop Aloysius Maria Benziger was the architect of present diocese of Kottar. His saintly life, missionary zeal and great pastoral leadership helped the formation of many Catholic communities especially in the southern part of Kollam diocese. Realising that education was important for the development of the people, Archbishop Benziger established schools in many of the coastal villages and founded St. Francis Teacher Institute at Assisi, Nagercoil, to train teachers for the schools. In all, he founded 112 schools in a short span of 25 years. Carmel High School and St. Joseph’s School, Nagercoil, remain living monuments to the foresight of this great visionary and missionary.

Archbishop Benziger was among the first to request the Vatican to beatify the Carmelite nun, St. Theresa of the Child Jesus. Following her beatification he constructed the first church in the world at Kandanvilai (now in Kottar diocese) and blessed it on April 7, 1924, and the second church was blessed on May 12, 1924 at Thoonkampara now in Neyyatinkara diocese. Accepting Pope Pius XI’s invitation, Archbishop Benziger assisted at her canonization ceremony on May 17, 1925.

Thanks to his recommendation the southern part of Kollam diocese was formed as a new diocese on May 26, 1930, with Fr. Lawrence Pereira as its first bishop, the third Indian to become a bishop in the Latin rite. Bishop Lawrence Pereira was no stranger to the new diocese since he had ministered in Vencode and Enayam areas. He had to toil hard to build the infrastructure of the new diocese from scratch. He was called to the eternal reward on January 5, 1938.

Though Tamil was the predominant language of the new diocese, it was part of Thiruvithancore and Cochin State with Malayalam as the state language. Keeping in mind the linguistic aspirations of the people of the diocese, the Vatican appointed the Tiruchirapalli native and Superior of Palayamkottai Jesuit Mission, Rev. Thomas Roch Agniswamy as successor to Bishop Lawrence Pereira in 1939. In the reorganization of States in 1956, Kanyakumari district became part of Madras state now known as Tamil Nadu. In 1963, the diocese of Kottar was detached from the Metropolitan See of Verapoly and attached to the archdiocese of Madurai.

Evangelization activites received much impetus during the tenure of Bishop Agniswamy. A great number of parishes, mission stations and schools were established. His special interest in the promotion of local vocation resulted in the founding of St.Aloysius Minor Seminary for the diocese and Tamil Nadu Xavier Mission Home for the missions. Bishop Marianus Arockiasamy from Kumbakonam, who succeeded Bishop Agniswamy in 1971, was committed to the implementation of the reforms of the Second Vatican Council, especially in the field of Bible, Liturgy, Catechetics and other pastoral activities. The setting up of sixteen diocesan commissions, Animation Centre, Pastoral and Youth Centers and formation of parish councils in more than fifty per cent of the parishes bear witness to his interests.

The communal riots that rocked Kanyakumari district in 1982, posed a great challenge to the diocese and to Bishop Arockiasamy. Premeditated and organized attacks on Christians and church properties shattered the calm of the otherwise peaceful district. In all, ten Catholics lost their lives to police and communal firings. Churches, convents and other religious places were vandalized and desecrated. People of Pallam parish had to flee for their lives. Coastal parishes were cut off from the main land and essential food supplies had to be carried by sea. Bishop Arockiasamy and the Head of the Kundrakudi Hindu Mutt (Hermitage) and other religious leaders toured the affected areas to instill confidence in the people and peace returned to the riot-torn district. They founded” Thiruvarul Peravai”(Graceful Assembly) to foster communal and religious harmony. The Catholic Church in India and other parts of the world came to the help of the affected people. Bishop Arockiasamy continued to serve the diocese until his promotion as Archbishop of Madurai in 1987.

Fr. Leon A. Tharmaraj, who became the fourth bishop in 1989, was the first” son of the soil” to shepherd the diocese of Kottar. Bishop Leon faithfully carried forward the policies of his predecessor and went on further in making the diocese, truly the Church of the laity concentrating on the formation of Basic Christian (Ecclesial) Communities, pastoral and parish councils and encouraging lay leadership in the mission of the diocese.

The killer tsunami waves that swept the coastal villages the day after Christmas in 2004 brought humongous miseries to the lives and properties of thousands of Christians. More than 800 people lost their lives and thousands of houses, fishing boats and many churches were damaged. Bishop Leon together with the entire diocese faced the challenge posed by the unprecedented loss and undertook to rebuild the lives and properties of the people. People from all walks of life irrespective of caste and creed joined in the valiant efforts of the diocese in rehabilitating the victims of the killer tsunami. It is true the tragedies often bring the best in the human person and the Tsunami devastation witnessed the unprecedented outpouring of love and support from people of all walks of life in India and other parts of the world.” One touch of nature makes the whole world kin”.

The little story that has led the sisters of St.Charles Borromeo to this distinctly glittering bluish green jewel of India should not go covered under sands of time; therefore this detailed narration here in the book.
It was in 2009 sometime, to be more specific, in the month of May, Rev.Fr.Arockiaraj SJ. (St.Mary’s – Madurai) who is the confessor for Madurai Community handed over a letter given by Rev.Fr.Amalanathan of Kottar diocese to Sr.Amali, the then superior of the community. The letter enclosed an invitation to work and administer a hospital at Muttom. The proposal had pleasant facts to make it appealing for the sisters of St.Charles Borromeo.

This was a call to enter a region which is a nursery of religious vocations, with abounding catholic population. It is a call again to the diocese where a refusal was given years before. It is to run a hospital that is already built and assurance of financial aid was given to equip and administer it. With the directions given by Fr.Amalan sent the invitation to Sr.Jaya, Provincial Superior of the Eastern Province. Discussions were held a few times by the Provincial Superior and her council with the bishop of Kottar, Rt.Rev.Peter Remigius DD and the pastoral commission members.

Muttom was visited a number of times by Sr.Jaya and her council members and some chosen sisters, to gather the first hand information and to study this project. The study report and the conditions attached to this mission project were submitted by the group. The opportunity that lay at a hand’s stretch to grasp was the bright side of the project but want of a sister doctor posed a threat. With confidence infused by all the responsible office bearers of the diocese viz. Fr. L.Tharsius Raj, Fr.Francis Borgia and others the ‘fiat’ was pronounced. A contract that stipulated the conditions laid for an experimental period of one year was signed on 28th September 2010.

Even before the contract was signed, ‘The Vianney Hospital’, was inaugurated on May 10, 2010. Bishop Rt.Rev.Peter Remigius blessed the building and he wished the pioneers Sr.Navamani, Sr.Jerlin and Sr.Sheela John, God’s blessings and celebrated a solemn Holy Eucharist in the new building with the gathering that comprised good many representatives from the village, priests, religious, and the Sisters of St. Charles Borromeo about 75 in all.

‘The Indian Pearl’ is proving its worth unfolding its fragrance through service rendered to the sick and the ailing both in the hospital and those confined to their homes.

The immersion of the sisters into the life of the local community has evinced great regard and respect from the people. The sisters on the other hand are endeavoring to rise up to the expectations of the needy. A doctor comes everyday to the hospital for a few hours. The sister nurses take total responsibility for the inpatients during the rest of the day. About 25 patients are attended to everyday.

The sisters visit the homes in the villages and the record of visits maintained is an evidence for their faithful and meticulous survey of the village to learn the need of the villagers. These visits have helped to build a good rapport with the people and to make themselves approachable to them.The vision the sisters have for a busy hospital is praiseworthy. God bless us with good doctors to serve our patients is their everyday prayer.

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