The colour is creamy with rich yellow centre. The flowers come in clusters on strong stems beautifully formed. They have sweet fragrance.
A pilgrim rose undoubtedly was planted in a pilgrim centre but unlike so many other pilgrim centres it is to be searched and found in an obscure village of Tuticorin district in Tamilnadu.
It is typical evidence to our beloved Saint Therese’s desire to reach out to the lost and the least. It is a sign of God’s shepherding care of those rejected and dejected.
Like the pilgrim rose plant that blooms in clusters with rich yellow centres and creamy petals that relegate the mire in which it anchors its roots, this community, a source of compassion and service sounds aloud the message, “where suffering and misery abound mercy and charity super abound”.
Puliyampatti is in Palayamkottai diocese that was erected in the last quarter of the twentieth century. Most of its earlier history is what is narrated under ‘THE BEGINNING OF FAITH IN THE SOUTHERN COASTS OF TAMILNADU’ -‘Blossoms of Missions’.
The episodes of the sweeping success of the Jesuit missionaries, Fr. Robert De Nobili, John de Britto and Fr. Joseph Beschi, who netted thousands and thousands of people as they journeyed along the coastal regions in the 17th century and the period of depression in the missionary activities caused by the expulsion of the Jesuits from Portugal and deportation of the Portuguese priests from their mission areas in the 18th century, are all very much the history of Palayamkkottai as much as it is of Madurai Jesuit Mission that was taking care of the Catholics of the southern Tamilnadu regions. The diocese of Madurai was raised into an Archdiocese in 1953 and Palayamkottai was one of the vicariates of Madurai till 1973.
The bull ‘Roman Pontifices” by Pope John Paul II, dated May 17, 1973, bore the news of the erection of Palayamkottai diocese which became one of the suffragans of Archdiocese of Madurai. His Grace Most Rev. P.Justin Diraviam, the then Archbishop of Madurai in virtue of powers delegated to him gave effect to the terms of the Bull on September 9, 1973. The first Bishop of Palayamkottai Rev. Msgr. S. Irudayaraj was consecrated on September 12, 1973 and took canonical possession of the diocese on the same day.
Entry of the Sisters of St. Charles Borromeo into the diocese
The year 1999 was auspicious to the diocese of Palayamkottai for two reasons, firstly it was, the year of completion of 25 years of its erection and secondly the peals of silver bells sounded aloud the 25th year of the Episcopal ordination of their Shepherd Rev. Msgr.S.Irudayaraj. The desire to make these events memorable brought forth the idea of establishing a Home for the Aged. The idea was the most welcome one as that year had been declared as the Year of the Aged by the UNO.
This Jubilee memorial, ‘A Home for the Aged’ proposed to be built in Puliyampatti needed a team of compassionate people to administer it. The Jubilarian Rt. Rev. S Irudayaraj, Bishop of Palayamkottai, extended an invitation to the Sisters of St. Charles Borromeo. Srs. Lilly Kuriakose, Annie Joseph, Josephine Nirmala Rani and Cynthia Robinson accompanied by Sr. Jaya, reached Puliyampatti on June 2, 1999. ‘Padua Home for the Aged’ was blessed by Rt. Rev. S Irudayaraj, Bishop of Palayamkottai, on June 13, 1999, the feast day of St. Antony of Padua, the venerated Patron of the Shrine and was inaugurated by Mr. Malik Feroz Khan, the Collector of Tuticorin. The lamp was lit by Sr. Ignatius, the then Provincial Superior of the Eastern Province. A contract was signed between the diocese and the Congregation.
To comprehend the kind of work the Sisters are involved in, in this remote village, one needs to know the particular history of “Puliyampatti Anthoniar” and the marvelous works wrought through his intercession.
The History of “Puliampatti Anthoniar”
Gloriously named as, ‘Padua of Southern Region’ is Puliampatti in Ottapidaram, taluk of Tuticorin district holds a pride of place in the list of pilgrim centres in India and adds popularity to the diocese of Palayamkottai. As Rev. Fr. M. Moessan, the author of ‘Puliampatti Thooya Anthoniyar Thirtuthalam’, (‘Varalarum Vazhvum’ 1st Edition June 13, 2010) describes it, Puliyampatti is no centre of tourism, there are no skyscrapers here, and it is not a commercial centre. There are no commercial banks, there are no recreational means, and why, there are no frequent transport means to reach this place even.
In every sense a backward place and yet lakhs and lakhs of people of different denominations and different faiths from all parts of India and even countries afar, have visited this place and the stream of pilgrims eternally pours into this village which is the miracle of miracles that St. Antony of Padua is attributed to, among thousands of them the people bear witness to’.
The statue of St. Antony of Padua in the shrine has an interesting episode, which is mostly the story of a family that lived in this place in the middle of the 17th century. (This episode below is adapted from ‘Varalarum Vazhvum’ -1st edition by Rev. Fr. Moessan)
Maria Antony Thommai, overwhelmed by feelings, his helplessness at the villainous behaviour of his brothers moved from Pothakalanvilai (Tuticorin district) to Puliampatti, a hamlet then. There he related himself with the families of Raman and Laxmanan who had themselves come and settled to sever all troubles caused by the headmen of their village- Kovilpatti near Sivakasi. Maria Antony Thommai’s marriage with one of their girls who willingly received baptism enabled him to be faithful to the practice of his religion. He frequently visited the church at Sandaipettai near Sevalaperi to pray and participate in the Eucharist. Here in Sandaipettai amidst the vast spread of nature’s greenery a fort stood telling the story of the past centuries, the story of St. Francis Xavier’s journey to Punnaikayal who crossed past this land. St. Francis Xavier’s chapel in this fort like monument is renewed and is visited today even by devout souls who go on pilgrimage. At the time when it was in a dilapidated condition, the statue of St. Antony in Puliampatti was apparently taken from the chapel to Puliampatti by Thommai Antony.
The story that justifies this shifting of the statue from Sandaipettai to Puliampatti bewilders the human understanding and bares human ability of reasoning.
The narration runs like this. The life of Thommai Antony prospered through his hard work. The blessing of a partner in life bestowed him with a progeny of 13 children. But the first eleven boys passed away one after another. The twelfth one, the girl was given in marriage and in 15 days returned as widow. The 13th boy was the solace of the family but that was not for long. When he was 15 he contracted a virulent chickenpox and was in the verge of death. Thommai Antony’s faith was put to test. The man spent many a moment in pensive brooding. It was at one such moment St. Antony of Padua appeared to Thommai Antony in a vision and commanded him to raise a church to worship the Almighty.
Similar vision seemed to have been granted to his widowed daughter. St. Antony of Padua like a chevalier on a white horse promised the girl, life of her brother in return for a church. Moved with emotion the girl described what she saw and heard to her father. St. Antony appeared a second time to Thommai who was perplexed and confused, directing him to consult the Zamindar of Maniachi in whose palm grove he had served and earned both money and high regard.
It was not difficult for Zamindar to accept the news and give consent to his prayer for he had already been directed by St. Antony of Padua in an apparition to donate the land for the church. Thommai Antony could choose any part of his land. All thoughts and worries of the son in death bed were of no matter to Thommai Antony as he was overwhelmed by the happenings beyond his grasp.
His only concern was to raise a church and on his return to the village while he was trying to locate a place to build a church he sighted a plant which bore a leaf with the symbol of a cross. That was enough a sign for him to start his work and while clearing the site he found a gold cross. There the first chapel with thatched roof was founded. The statue of St. Antony of Padua from Sandaipettai was installed. The dying son revived. The miracles multiplied. The news of the manifestation of God’s mighty work spread all over. People whose only refuge is God their creator flocked in hordes. Their prayers intermediated by their sought after saint, were answered in incredible ways. The prayers continued and God’s blessings were multiplied.
Popularity of the shrine spread far and wide and its growth had led to the erection of a church as big as a Cathedral. Besides St. Antony’s Church, here stand a magnificent meditation hall; an adoration chapel ‘Tabor’; the well of miracles, the flag post, the votive offerings in exhibition in a hall and the relic of St. Antony of Padua used for blessing the sick placed on a separate pedestal.
The ‘anawim of Yaweh’ manifesting their unadulterated faith, ceaselessly stream to this place of all their hopes.
There are those who having sought all means for a solution to their problem or cure of their illnesses, given up by physicians come as their last resort to St. Antony of Padua. Pilgrims come to present their petitions and express their gratitude. There are those who have no inkling about other ways in which they could find relief from the problems than making their way to Puliampatti. One needs time and patience to listen to the unimaginable and unheard of miracles that have taken place at this shrine.
The people vow to make their pilgrimage for 13 Tuesdays. People who are audacious challenge St. Antony of Padua and camp at the centre practicing the rituals of taking bath in 13 buckets of water from the well of miracles, going round 13 times around the grotto of Calvary, eating the food distributed by those who make the vows such as ‘Pattai choru” and ‘Asanam’ and leave the shrine only after their prayers are answered, their loved ones are healed, their problems are resolved and their wishes are fulfilled..
The one thing that needs special mention is the numerous psychopaths and demoniacs who present a heart rending site as they remain bound by chains to the trees within the church campus and outside, exposed to sun, wind and rain, day and night for days, months and years recover wholeness in an inexplicable manner. One has to bow and say it is the ‘holy ground’ on which one is standing. Psychologists and theologians are stupefied. Scholars have attempted to make a study of the happening at Puliampatti shrine.
The miracles of the kind specified and other kinds of healing from long borne physical illnesses, obtaining material gains, successes in what one endeavours after so many vain attempts, reunion of families, finding partners and blessings of progeny.
There is one big cycle of people coming in and going out everyday but Tuesdays are special days dedicated to St. Antony of Padua when large groups arrive. A mammoth crowd is seen on the last Tuesday of the Tamil month ‘Thai’.
The hands that join in prayer normally are also hands that extend in service to the needy. This is borne witness to by the faithful, the priests and the religious of Puliyampatti. The donations and offerings received are generously shared with the poor through developmental works.
In 1963, a Mercy Home for the boys was founded by Rev. Fr. Arulanandam. This home sheltered about 50 boys at its beginning. This is now under the care of the priests of the diocese. The extension of ‘Mercy Home’ for girls was realized by Rev. Fr. Lourdu Raj in June 2000 which is managed by our sisters. There are now about 20 girls who are sheltered in the building attached to the convent.
To incarnate the compassionate love of God to the old in the Padua Home was the primary call to the sisters. The challenge before them in fulfilling this mission is to face the rebellion and aggression of these abandoned old who vent their feelings of rejection and insecurity. There are 21 women and 4 men presently occupying the home. That they should be 13 in each was the foreseen plan because, January 13, is the feast of St. Antony of Padua. The sustenance of this home and that of the boarding home (Mercy Home) for the girls is entirely financed by Puliyampatti church.
The diocesan middle school is the centre for education for all the children in the ‘Mercy Home’. One of our sisters teaching in the school has the advantage to give special care to these children. The zeal to give wholesome education is not hampered by many things that are needed to make this a model school. Children who studied in this school have grown into excellent men and women over the years. The essence of education is not ‘modernizing’ but ‘foundation of character’ and that is the pre-occupation of our sisters.
In a church constantly filled with pilgrims one cannot calculate and schedule the pastoral work. The sisters give a big hand to join links of the chain of people in service to the numerous who seek assistance to register the intention for mass, to pray the rosary, to organize the adoration hours, to keep clean the church and its premises, to visit the pilgrims lodging in the campus, to head the BCC meetings, to prepare the people in the substations for the weekly Eucharistic celebrations and above all to listen to the hundreds who need and plead a hearing of their woes and miseries. The sisters’ source of joy is the echoing voice of our Lord, “whenever you did this to the least of my brethren you did to me”. (Mt. 25: 40)
This house makes us sometime wonder if it is the replica of the Psychiatric Institute in Wez that God has deviced through His plan to keep us bound, to the Charism, that was the reason for the home for, the mentally depressed widows and children of Belgium, the war torn land in 18th century.
One thing that keeps us all close to this mission is the sweet name of one of our principal patrons, St. Antony of Padua who we call up on every day to intercede for us.