By Chor-Episcopos Kuriakos Thottupuram. Ph.D., D.D.
As a high school student this writer wanted to do his higher studies at Oxford University, because he had read about the learned men who were educated at Oxford and became scholars. When he was an undergraduate student he realized that he needed more financial resources to realize this dream even if he became academically competitive unless there is a sponsor who was willing to finance such education, which was usually done by churches or other such agencies. He did not have such an advantage. It was during his collegiate and seminary studies that he was exposed to the opportunities available in American universities where financial assistance was available to students who were scholastically and academically challenging. This became a strong incentive for him to further his higher studies in the United States.
After becoming a subdeacon and the secretary to Metropolitan Mar Thoma Dionysius of Niranam in 1967 he brought his desire to study in the United States to the attention of the Metropolitan. As a conservative prelate his reaction was negative and discouraging. “I do not want you to become another priest like many of our priests who lost their Orthodox faith due to Protestant indoctrination after going to and studying in America. These priests do not celebrate Holy Qurbono; they attend Protestant services; in America they do not keep their Orthodox identity. No! You are not going to study in America…”, said Metropolitan Dionysius, who had several times recognized this writer’s strong stand in Orthodoxy. He was concerned about his secretary and never wanted him to become liberal in his Orthodox faith.
But this writer kept on praying that the Lord may change his Metropolitan’s mind in this matter and find the right path to the U.S. and study there without the displeasure of his hierarch. From time to time he reminded the metropolitan about his desire to do a doctorate program in a major university in America, especially at his dinner and supper table. Often the metropolitan listened without much emotion and occasionally became angry. However, one day he told him in soft voice: “I know your father and mother, your uncles and your parents’ families. After I am gone, the next bishop would not even know who you are, or your family. Go and study at a university of your choice in the U.S.; but on one condition that you will never study Protestantism and you will keep your Orthodox faith as you do now. One more condition, if you leave as a priest; never forget celebrating Holy Qurbono regularly, if possible every Sunday and conducting your regular prayers and other spiritual obligations”. His metropolitan supported his desire thereafter with his whole heart. He even took the expenses related to his TOEFL and other entrance exams which were conducted at the Department of Psychology of the University of Kerala, Trivandrum.
In the Beginning…
This writer was made a priest of the Orthodox Church Syrian Church of the East under the Catholicate of the East in May 1970. Within a few months after his priesthood he reached Chicago for his higher studies in the United States. Initially he had to complete a brief program in Christian Social Ministry (Drug Addiction and Alcohol Addiction Counseling) at Mid-Continent University (then Mid-Continent Baptist College) and at the J.U. Kevil Foundation in Kentucky for a few months, before he started his graduate studies (M.A. in Theology) at Mundelein College of Loyola University of Chicago.
As soon as he reached Chicago his main search was for a facility to celebrate Holy Liturgy on Sundays. Within a short time he found St. Mary of the Lake Roman Catholic Church at 4200 N. Sheridan Road, in the Uptown area of Chicago. He saw the associate pastor of the church, who led him to the pastor of the Church, Bishop Nevin Hayes, O. Carm.; the bishop had been a diocesan bishop in South America and returned to Chicago due to some health problem, and was serving his church as a regular priest.
The bishop was very happy to see an Orthodox priest from India; and this writer presented him his request for a humble facility to celebrate Holy Liturgy on Sundays. Bishop Hayes was very benevolent. He said: “Father Kurian (his civil name), we did not normally offer such facilities to a priest of another Church; but since Vatican II both of our churches have become closer in our relationship. On Sundays due to scarcity of priests we do not have Mass in our convent chapel of the Sisters of Mercy. So I give you permission to celebrate your Mass in that chapel which is not used on Sundays”. It was a pleasant surprise for this writer. He was so happy that he could be literally obedient to his metropolitan who had instructed him to regularly celebrate the Holy Qurbono.
The bishop further asked: “Father Kurian, can you do a favor for our sisters? The sisters are attending the parish church on Sundays as they do not have a priest to offer Mass in their chapel. Since you are planning to celebrate your Mass in their chapel, can the sisters attend your Mass and can you give them communion? It is acceptable for us.”
To this request this writer responded: “Your Lordship, they may attend my liturgy; but to the question about giving them communion from my liturgy, the answer should come from my bishop back in India; I have to get his permission”.
Bishop Hayes offered a compromise: “Well, you do not have to give communion from your liturgy until you get the permission of your bishop; however, you can do one thing. Can you distribute communion from our Mass which is reserved in the tabernacle on the altar after your Mass?”
This was agreed by this writer.
This writer began celebrating his Holy Liturgy at the chapel of the Sisters of Mercy attached to St. Mary of the Lake Church. He started his ministry in Chicago at this chapel of Sisters of Mercy attached to St. Mary of the Church and his priestly presence commenced in Chicago from January 1971; however it was not strictly regular as he had to leave for Kentucky to fulfill his academic and practical obligations at the J. U. Kevil Foundation and Mid-Continent University to complete his studies in Christian Social Ministry (Alcoholism & Drug Addiction Counseling). He did not know of any Malankara Orthodox Christians living in Chicago area at that time other than the immediate relatives of his wife. His brother-in-law, a student at Roosevelt University in Chicago, who had been deeply involved in the youth activities of Suvisheshalayam at Mavelikara, Kerala and who had experience in assisting priests at liturgies was the acolyte, and his sisters became the congregation. And some of the Mercy sisters also occasionally attended the Malankara Orthodox Syrian Liturgy offered by this writer. This was the beginning of the Malankara Church in Chicago
One day one of the assistant priests at St. Mary of the Lake Church, Fr. Edwin Conway (later Bishop Conway), who was also the Director of Catholic Charities of the Archdiocese of Chicago, told this writer that there were some Middle-Eastern Syrian Orthodox Christians in Chicago area and for more information he gave me the telephone number of a Chaldean Uniate Roman Catholic priest, Fr. Edward Bykoma, who was the pastor of St. Ephraim Chaldean Catholic Church on Bryn Mawr Avenue near California Avenue in Chicago. Upon contacting Fr. Bykoma this writer was given the number of a Syrian Orthodox community leader, Deacon Gabriel Gulo.
Parenthetically, Metropolitan Dionysius had given this writer a letter to take to Archbishop Athanasios Yeshue Samuel of the Syrian Orthodox Church in New Jersey. This letter was an introduction of this writer, and a suggestion for the archbishop to use him within his jurisdiction. His metropolitan highlighted his skills in officiating Holy Qurbono and other sacraments in the Syriac language. This letter was already forwarded to the archbishop as soon as this writer came to America. The archbishop had directed this writer to offer spiritual assistance to the Syrian Orthodox whenever opportunities arose. This writer wants his readers to know that the Church of Malankara and the Church of Middle were united as one Church during this period.
And now an opportunity to serve God’s people became available.
Deacon Gulo was immediately contacted. He expressed indescribable joy that this writer was a Syrian priest from India and that he was a resident in Chicago.
Deacon Gulo explained the situation of the Syrian community in Chicago. They had already thought about a Syrian Orthodox congregation with the name St. John’s Syrian Orthodox Church. However, they did not have a place of worship or a priest to lead them in worship, because no Syrian priests were available for them in America. They did not have the financial advantage to sponsor a priest from overseas either. They had only less than 25 families and out of them only some 15 families were enthusiastic in running an active congregation.
Deacon Gulo invited this writer to his home for dinner at which many of his Syrian friends were present. Those Christians welcomed this writer with their whole heart and great enthusiasm. He still cherishes the love and kindness they showed towards him. The zealous among them began to attend the Holy Liturgy at the convent chapel every Sunday; eventually some of their deacons became the acolytes and Syriac became the language of worship. The most memorable social event this writer can remember is the feast of Thanksgiving he participated in at the residence of Deacon Gulo. Syrians from the Middle East has tremendous devotion to their priests, and this writer experienced it from the dealings of these Christians.
At the convent chapel our group of worshippers was not free to have any other activities, such as holding a meeting to plan its future. Hence under the leadership of Deacon Gulo they decided to celebrate Christmas in the lower level of the Gulo residence and plan for the future of the group, which was not yet a congregation because it did not have an organizational structure with a priest as their head.
We planned to have the 1971 Christmas at the residence of Deacon Gulo. On Christmas night, December 24, 1971, the lower level of the Gulo residence was packed with all the Syrian Orthodox that were in Chicago. There was a pleasant surprise; a Malankara Orthodox couple was also in that group. They were Dr. Joseph Thomas and his wife Dr. Chinnamma Thomas. Dr. Chinnamma Thomas was a resident doctor in the Pathology Department at Grant Hospital in Chicago. One of the Syrian Orthodox deacons, George Shaheen, was working as a Medical Technologist at that Hospital and it was he who told them about the Christmas liturgy at Gulo’s residence. They were very happy to see one of their own priests celebrating the Christmas liturgy.
This writer, Fr. Kurian Thottupuram, celebrated the Christmas liturgy; Dr. Joseph Thomas stood by him in case help may be needed. The Deacons among the Syrians had already provided the bread (Hamiro) and wine. Deacons Abdu Shamonki and Gabriel Gulo assisted at the liturgy. This writer felt that he was in the midst of a large congregation although the Liturgy was held in the lower level of a house. After the Liturgy every participant came to this writer for his blessing (Kaimuth) and each of them greeted him with a Christmas gift. This writer has never experienced in his life the warmth and generosity elicited by these Syrian Christians; and even now those Syrian friends have a large heart for him.
In that event we decided to find another facility with more convenience for socialization after the liturgy. The convent chapel had been given only for private liturgy and for accommodating a very small group; it was not meant for a congregation. This writer decided to explore such a facility under the Episcopal Church, which is traditionally cordial to Orthodox churches. Using the Yellow Pages he found the telephone number and address of the Diocesan Headquarters of the Episcopal Church in Chicago. He contacted Episcopal Bishop Montgomery and received an appointment with him within a week after Christmas. Upon seeing him in the Bishop’s House, the bishop led him to a Canon in charge of parallel ministries, who had been originally from England and had more knowledge about the Syrian churches in the Middle East and India.
The Canon sent this writer to St. Peter’s Episcopal Church on 621 West Belmont in Chicago. There Rev. James Dunkerley, Rector of St. Peter’s, was eagerly waiting to see him and the Syrians the next day. After looking at the facility and the chapel given to them for worship everyone was impressed, although the chapel was not large; but it was simple and elegant with a traditional altar. Rev. Dunkerley did not quote a rent for using his facility, but a modest rent was given later. By this time the Syrians had already registered their congregation with the name St. John’s Syrian Orthodox Church. On January 2, 1972 this writer (then Father Kurian Thottupuram) relocated his small religious group as a congregation to the St. Peter’s Episcopal Church and started his Holy Qurbono there. Everyone was happy for this development.
The Syrians from the Middle East that resided in Chicago were not too many, just under 15-25 families. Almost all of them attended liturgy regularly; one of them gave this writer car ride to the church every Sunday; and they also made breads for the liturgy from which this writer selected one for the Holy Qurbono. They also provided occasionally grocery items for him. The relationship was ideal as it can normally be. Now, after 45 years the Syrian community is still very cordial to this writer; and he is invited to their important functions. To his surprise, after every Qurbono they provided a liturgy stipend which was not negligible according to the standard of living at that time.
Malankara Presence in the Congregation
On February 27, 1972 during the Holy Liturgy while this writer was giving the second blessing, he saw a very familiar face in the back of the congregation; it was the face of George Varghese Poovathur, whom he knew as Kunjumon when the former was Secretary to His Grace Mor Dionysius of Niranam. There was also a subdeacon named Gavi (A. Givargis) of the Church of Malankara with him. It was indeed a joyful meeting of old friends.
Next Sunday George Poovathur came to the altar and assisted this writer with the rest of the Syrian deacons. Slowly the Malayali presence became stronger although few in numbers, and this writer began to use Malayalam for some prayers. But the Syrians were not happy that I began to use more Malayalam prayers in the Liturgy. After a couple of weeks the Syrians suggested: “Abouna Kuriakos, we know that you have to use the Indian language for your people. If you like you may stay with us, or we will find a priest from the Middle East as our priest “.
It is to be understood that by this time the Orthodox Church in India was divided on issues related to the 1970 bull of Patriarch Yakoub III stripping St. Thomas the Apostle off his priesthood. On that rift Metropolitans Philexinos Paulos and Clemis Abraham were disciplined by the Holy Synod of Malankara and subsequently they submitted to the authority of the Patriarch of Antioch, and eventually Metropolitan Philexinos was raised a Mafriano for Malankara under the Antiochian Patriarchate for the people who accepted the Patriarch as their supreme head.
To the suggestion made by the Syrians from the Middle East this writer said: “I was ordained a priest for the Catholicate of the East, and it may not be proper that I ignore the presence of those from Malankara and serve you alone. Without permission from India I cannot morally accept your suggestion. If you are bringing a priest from the old country, you may stay with me until he comes. Or we can have one liturgy for the Syrians from Middle East and India as we do now. In response they said: “We know that; the Indian Syrians also need a priest. We will try to bring another priest from the Middle East soon for our spiritual needs.”
Some of them were ambivalent and some of them did want a priest from the Middle East.
Some Syrians attended the liturgy for one more week. But none of them attended since Palm Sunday.
1972 March 26 Palm Sunday & the Holy Week:
The congregation started by this writer (Fr. Kurian Thottupuram) thus became totally a Malankara Orthodox congregation on Palm Sunday March 1972. One could say that a totally Malayali Malankara Church (congregation) starts at this point as the Syrians had left a week earlier. However the Malankara Church had existed in Chicago with the priestly presence of Fr. Kurian who started our worship for some of our own people a year earlier.
We had a traditional Holy Week as we follow in India. During Holy Week we conducted evening prayers everyday; Subdeacon A. Givargis and Mr. George Poovathur were prompt and punctual to come to St. Peter’s Episcopal Church every evening. After evening prayers we gathered at a restaurant for a light meal. None of us had much money; all of us were students with little or no income. Those days seem to be happier than the days we have now. On Thursday early morning at 1.00 AM we conducted the Maundy Thursday (Pesaha) Liturgy. In the evening on Good Friday we conducted the Good Friday Services and on Holy Saturday around noon we had liturgy for the souls; and on Easter Sunday we conducted the Resurrection Service starting at 1.00AM.
By this time number of participants improved; and on a good Sunday we had about 12- 15 participants at the Holy Qurbono.
We did not miss one Sunday. With the readiness of Mr. George Poovathur this writer had tremendous enthusiasm not to miss even one Sunday. Our number began to increase slowly but steadily.
We also celebrated the feasts of the Church as usual, but modestly.
1973 February 18: The Most Memorable Event
On Sunday February 18, 1973 after the Liturgy we came together in the basement of St. Peter’s Episcopal Church for a meeting under the Presidentship of Fr. Kurian Thottupuram and decided to form a parish within the Diocese outside Kerala of the Orthodox Syrian Church of the East, although we did not have any resources but roughly three dozens of people who were living scattered in and around Chicago, some even farther.
As the spiritual children of St. Thomas the Apostle, we decided that our parish be named “St. Thomas Orthodox Church of India”.
We claimed to the Metropolitan that we had about 40 members including children (very few) and sent a petition with the signatures of 34 of them. In fact, 34 signatories did not attend the meeting, and we had to get the petition signed by all of them as they attended the church in the following weeks. However there were about 40 members of the Church of Malankara in the Chicago area. Fr. Kurian sent two letters, one on March 5, 1973, and another on March 27, 1973 to Mar Athanasios of the Diocese outside Kerala requesting approval for the decisions of this meeting and for the Managing Committee elected by the members and to expedite the canonical approbation of the congregation as a parish.
The following were the members of the first Managing Committee of St. Thomas Orthodox Church, Chicago:
Rev. Fr. Kurian Thottupuram, appointed by Metropolitan Vicar
Rev. Deacon Givargis Aroopala- elected Secretary
Dr. Joseph Thomas, elected Treasurer
Mr. K.M. Joseph, elected Member
Mr. Joseph Daniel, elected “
Mr. T.M. Rajan, elected “
Mr. Philip Kurian, elected “
Mr. Kurian Thomas, elected “
Miss Mariamma Mathews, elected “
The mandate canonically erecting St. Thomas as a legal parish under the Orthodox Syrian Church of the East by Metropolitan Mar Athanasios Matthews was produced on May 11, 1973.
It is reported that St. Thomas Orthodox Church of Chicago is the first canonical parish in America under the Church of Malankara although there had been congregations that were started in New York area under the leadership of Chor-Episcopos Dr. Simon, who had been in the U.S.A. since early 1950’s. These small congregations were attached to seminaries where our priests had their theological higher education. Later in 1971 Chorepiscopi Cherian Neelankal and Yohannan Shankarathil also took initiatives to begin another congregation. According to the information received by this writer they were brought under a diocese of the Church as a canonical entity much later.
The first five years after the canonical erection of St. Thomas Church were very smooth, and the parish grew well with influx of our people as nurses and other medically- related professionals.
During this period Deacon Givargis Aroopala went to India and became a priest and returned to Chicago. Subsequently this parish secured his permanent resident visa as its minister of Christian education. Later he left for Iowa to complete his practicum related to his chaplaincy program. Father Givargis Aroopala returned to Chicago in Fall 1977 and began to attend the Church regularly, and in the Annual General Body meeting in December 1977 proposed that he should be made a “Co-Vicar” at Thomas. The General Body did not entertain the idea.
Growth of the Church in Chicago, the Birth of St. Gregorios Orthodox
In January 1978 six families from St. Thomas Church gathered their resources to start another congregation under the leadership of Fr. Givargis Aroopala in the northern suburb of Evanston in a facility provided by a Methodist Church. On February 26, 1978 Metropolitan Makarios of America personally came over to St. Thomas Church at Chicago and after the Holy Liturgy held a congregational meeting to get the consent and cooperation of the mother church before announcing the formation of another new congregation. The members of St. Thomas Church welcomed the new development and in the presence of Fr. Kurian and Fr. Givargis declared the institution of St. Gregorios Orthodox Church, Evanston and appointed Fr. Givargis Aroopala as its vicar. As instructed by Metropolitan Makarios, it was this writer who had prepared the mandate (Kalpana) of the metropolitan establishing the new parish.
Parenthetically, although St. Thomas felt the pain of seeing some of its members leaving for Evanston to form another congregation, February 26, 1978 was a memorable day in the annals of St. Thomas; a young man in clothes was born for this parish. Mr. George Poovathur, a loyal and dedicated acolyte at the altar was raised to the lectorate (Koruyo), one of the minor orders of clerical ranks of the Holy Church by His Holiness Catholicos Mar Thoma Basilios Matthews I. Deacon George eventually climbed the upper rungs of the minor orders and now serves the Holy Church not only with the fullness of his diaconate but also with his position as a parliamentarian in the Central Managing Committee of the Church at large. St. Thomas is praying that more young men will come forward for the service of God so that this church may attain its perfection in spiritual motherhood, by giving birth to many deacons and priests to replenish the pastoral needs of the Holy Church.
Although few in number, the members of St. Gregorios Church were very keen to bring in more members to their new church, and, it is said, they were collecting new Orthodox immigrants right from the airport and took care of their immediate needs in their new host country. The number steadily increased as a result of the enthusiasm and steadfastness of its members. In 1983 they bought their new church-building from the Antiochian Greek Orthodox church in Oak Park; and with a permanent Church building the congregation began to add more from the new arrivals in Chicago, and the name of St. Gregorios of Parumala, who is the native saint and intercessor of all the devotees from Malankara, also gave momentum for their growth.
In 1985 Fr. Givargis left for Texas and consequently Fr. K. G. Daniel, formerly a deacon at the Parumala Seminary Church, where St. Gregorios of Parumala was entombed, became the next vicar.
1979 Historic Visit of His Holiness Catholicos Matthews I
In July 1979 Catholicos Mar Thoma Basilios Matthews I made an apostolic visit to Chicago. Although the reception was the responsibility of St. Thomas and St. Gregorios churches, St. Thomas ran the entire show. It was the first time that a Catholicos ever visited Chicago. His Holiness came to America for the enthronement of Metropolitan Makarios as the first hierarch of the newly erected Metropolitanate of America. The children of Malankara were extremely elated and excited to receive their chief shepherd into their midst.
Because of the influence at the Chicago City Hall and with Alderman Hagopian (an Armenian Orthodox), this writer (who was an educational administrator attached to a City agency) made the event a significant occasion to boost the pride of the children of Malankara and enhance the image of the Church of Malankara. His friend Police Superintendent Sam Nolan provided police escort to the Holy Father from the airport to the venue of reception and round the clock police protection until His Holiness left Chicago. Through the instrumentality of Alderman Hagopian the City Legislature passed a Resolution recognizing the presence of His Holiness in the city, and the Governor declared Catholicate Days in Illinois during his stay in Illinois. It was the proudest occasion for the members of St. Thomas. The entire event was hosted at St. Gregory the Illuminator Armenian Orthodox Church in Chicago. The programs associated with the reception and the Archpastoral Holy Liturgy officiated by the Catholicos were attended by Russian Orthodox Archbishop John, Deputy Mayor Mel, Alderman Hagopian and dignitaries from the Armenian Church, Roman Catholic Church and from agencies of Indian and local governments.
By this time the membership of the Church reached 80 families. It became difficult for this writer to take care of a mid-size parish with a fulltime job as an assistant administrator of schools, and pursue a fulltime research- oriented doctoral program for a Ph.D. He had planned to complete his doctoral program in 1980 or 1981. The load of his responsibilities was so heavy that, when the Catholicos came to Chicago, this writer requested the Holy Father to release him from the duties of a vicar by the end of December 1979 so that he could commence his one-year doctoral residency in Fall 1979 which involved teaching of his doctoral areas and intense research and studies. He had also decided to take a leave of absence from his work as an educator for at least two semesters.
A replacement for this writer was not immediately available due to many reasons, and he had to wait a little longer for his release. In the meantime the year-end General Body elected a new committee for 1980. With the election of a new committee there arose some misunderstanding between the committee and some members, and the vicar was caught up in the middle. When this writer looks at it now, there were no real issues but ego clashes based on misunderstandings. He tried to fix the issues in the presence of the metropolitan and get relieved from his responsibilities of the vicarate. Honestly, the metropolitan did not want to come to Chicago to settle those issues. He himself told: “Wait, by summer St. Thomas will be divided”. Actually that was what he wanted. He really wanted to split the Church so that he could have one more parish in Chicago. This writer begged him: “Please do not split this church; the parish will lose its strength and will disintegrate”. This writer repeatedly tried to persuade him to come to Chicago and settle the issues, but there was no proactive response from his part. (A few years later the metropolitan personally regretted about his negative attitude toward this situation).
As things were not moving as this writer had expected he decided to give his letter of resignation in May/ June 1980 so that he could get ahead with his doctoral residency. Metropolitan Makarios accepted resignation and relieved him from the vicarate of St. Thomas Orthodox Church in July 1980.
This writer had already started his doctoral residency by January of the same year in the midst of uncertainty of his release, and having been relieved he went into deep researches toward the completion of his dissertation and finally earned his Ph.D. degree in May 1981. He had always wanted to go back to India after his doctorate and work as an educator-priest. Hence his preoccupation was to find a position in India. Emotionally he was intensely attached to India and his deep desire was to serve his native country and the Church in India. However, he was not happy with the results he was getting about his relocation as an educator in India. However, he did not lose hope and continued his efforts until he was 40 years old.
St. Mary’s Orthodox Church of Chicago Comes into Existence
In the meantime, while waiting for a transfer flight at the O’Hare Airport in Chicago Metropolitan Makarios gave this writer a call and said: “Father, there are quite a number of our faithful who do not wish to attend any of our churches in Chicago; I would like you to bring these people together and form a congregation, I want you to be active in your ministry and I need your skills and expertise in many areas of this developing diocese. If opportunities are open in India, you may leave for India at any time. I need you here when you are here.” This writer did not give a positive response at that time. Later in July 1982 when his nephew Fr. Cherian Kunnel arrived in Chicago, he responded to the metropolitan and together discussed the plans for formation of another Church in Chicago by gathering Orthodox Christians who were not members of any churches. As a result, this writer had been blessed to found one more Church in Chicago for the Orthodox Syrian Church of Malankara in August 1982, and it was named St. Mary’s Orthodox Church of Chicago and this writer became its first vicar. This Church also was started at St. Peter’s Episcopal Church on 621 Belmont Street in Chicago. Its membership steadily increased and the location of worship was later shifted to St. Mary’s Episcopal Church in Park Ridge in 1985.
The congregation grew, but was still too small to have the financial stability to acquire a church building. The desire to have his own church was so intense that this writer with the help of Greek Orthodox Church activist Katherine Valone, a blessed soul, found a church and school building with a rectory at a magnificent location in Oak Lawn, Illinois, and it was purchased in December 2000. On the day of Theophany 2001 the late Metropolitan Ivanios Givargis of Kottayam temporarily blessed the sanctuary and its building and opened for worship. This writer was so proud that he was instrumental in acquiring a church and school building with its property for the Holy See of the Catholicate of the East.
In 2010 due to reasons of health this writer retired from the pastorate of St. Mary’s Orthodox Church, and is currently attached to St. Thomas Church, the first church he founded. The current vicar of St. Mary’s is Fr. Abraham Chacko, a young priest from our new generation in America, who was born and educated in this country.
The Fourth Malankara Church in Chicago- St. Gregorios of Bellwood
In 1994 the church at Oak Park went through further expansion giving way for another congregation under the banner of St. Gregorios Orthodox Church (Bellwood, IL.), and Fr. Daniel became its first vicar. This congregation was organized at an Episcopal Church on Belmont Avenue near Narragansett. Within a few years this congregation acquired a Church in Bellwood, Illinois, which was consecrated by Senior Metropolitan Makarios and a few years later he named it a cathedral honoris causa.
When Fr. Daniel left for becoming the vicar of the Bellwood church, Rev. Dr. M.K. Thomas took charge of the vicarate of the Oak Park Church, and thereafter Fr. Ninan George followed him as vicar. During the tenure of Fr. Ninan George St. Gregorios of Oak Park acquired another church-building with added facilities and spaces at Elmhurst, Illinois and became much stronger with the resources and support from its congregants and is taking care of the spiritual and catechetical needs of our Orthodox faithful, and is part of a strong presence of the Church of Malankara in the Chicago area.
Although division in congregations may be painful, it should be seen as growth and expansion and it is how a community reacts to social and environmental demands and necessities. This is how this writer looks at the phenomena that occur in the life of the Church of Malankara anywhere. It is this way multiple congregations are formed, and they eventually shape the ecclesial realities as dioceses and even regional or national churches. The divisions in the church of Chicago thus have been proven healthy, and what we really need is more cooperation and oneness in faith and uniformity in practices.
Further Growth and Expansion of St. Thomas Orthodox Church
As soon as this writer left the vicarate of St. Thomas Church the venue of worship was moved to a Presbyterian Church in Rogers Park at 7059 N. Greenview Avenue in Chicago. An itinerant priest Dr. M.E. Idiculla served the church as a week-end vicar. But the spiritual atmosphere changed with the arrival of Rev. Fr. Koshy Poovathur (who became a chorepiscopus after a few years) in 1981. Fr. Poovathur brought his enormous strength as a spiritual leader having served the Church for over two decades in India. A priest who handled tense situations with tranquility of mind Fr. Koshy would seldom respond without thoughtfulness. His humility also gave the congregants confidence in their spiritual journey. His unquestionable spiritual life style conquered the hearts and minds of the faithful of St. Thomas. The members of St. Thomas remember him with deep veneration; so does this writer who has a special predilection to him as his spiritual father and mentor. May his memory be eternal!
During the tenure of Chor-Episcopos Koshy this church acquired its own center for worship on Narragansett Avenue near Irving Park Road in Chicago, and it was blessed by Metropolitan Makarios for regular worship in 1990. It was a very modest place which accommodated only a limited number of congregants. However the people regarded it as a great blessing under the circumstances of the time. This parish was blessed with the presence of Catholicos Matthews II in 1993.
In 1994 Chor-Episcopos Koshy Poovathur retired and moved to Texas, and in his vacancy Rev. Fr. Slomo Isaac George was appointed vicar. It was during his time as vicar Catholicos Didymos I made his apostolic visit to Chicago and blessed the parishioners of St. Thomas. In 1998 Fr. Slomo left for Phoenix, Arizona to pastor a new congregation which had been organized by the few members of the Orthodox Church residing in Phoenix and its vicinities. Thereafter Rev. Fr. Ham Joseph who had been in Chicago as a recent immigrant was appointed to assume the responsibilities of the pastor of St. Thomas.
The parish showed tremendous growth in membership due to larger families and new immigrants from abroad and it became inadequate to accommodate all of them on Sundays, particularly on special days and seasons. The members also developed their aspirations in accordance with their past church life in the old country. They had seen their parish church in India surrounded by cemeteries, where they could visit the gravesites of their beloved ancestors or parents. In American city churches they did not have this advantage. Hence the General Body moved to the direction of acquiring a property by a cemetery and custom-build a church-building in their traditional style of architecture and to own a portion of the attached cemetery, so that they could bury their departed and conduct their requiem services as it is done in the old country. The Church bought such a property with the guarantees promised by the local authorities, and the parish waited to begin construction of a church building. Legal red tapes prolonged the waiting period, and it was a testing period for our people; a lot of them were frustrated, and it was even difficult for the leaders to convince the congregants why the delay was occurring. The priest and people were relentlessly praying. It was a struggle; and in this struggle one person took sacrificial efforts to solve the riddle; it was Deacon George Poovathur. The mental strain he and his team under the Church Committee went through is enormous. The parish is thankful to them.
Finally the prayers were answered. In December God showed a cathedral-like building to the members of this parish. This church-building owned by the Lutheran Church has everything we look for in a church; it has a large spacious sanctuary and a pew area which could seat more than 450 people and a spacious balcony. The Church has enough parking spaces and a large lot which is open for further development in future. This church is a mile east of the O’Hare International Airport in Chicago, and is located in one of the choicest neighborhoods in Chicago, and is accessible to three major Interstate highways. This church-building and its property was purchased in January 2016. Since then a large team of professionals with their skilled men have been working inside the building day and night to renovate the building to be an Orthodox Church under the supervision of Deacon Poovathur. The inside of the church was totally decorated with original holy icons of our Lord and God Jesus Christ, our Lady the Mother of God, the holy apostles, early martyrs of the Church and the modern saints of Malankara. Once the renovation is completed the inside beauty of this church would surpass the imagination of its members. The members do believe that it is God’s special gift for their long wait for a house of worship in accordance with the majesty of God and their human ability. After the consecration the price tag of this beautiful church and its surrounding property would hit $1.5 million. Yes, it is a great gift from God to the Church of Malankara!
The Catholicos-Patriarch of the East Mar Thoma Basilios Paulos II assisted by the bishops, chor-bishops and priests of the Holy Church will consecrate and dedicate this building to be the new holy temple of worship for the members of the Orthodox Church, particularly for the members of St. Thomas Church on July 1 and 2, 2016.
More Dreams To Be Realized
It is historically true that St. Thomas Church is the mother-Church of all Malankara Orthodox churches in the Chicago area. It considers all our churches in Chicago with equal importance. However its role as the first church and mother-church of Chicago is a unique privilege its members cherish and are proud of.
What is the future for St. Thomas? Its members are ambitious. They do not want to passively sit there with this gift of God. They have more to achieve. They have plans to acquire the surrounding properties whenever they are available. Their primary intention is to put up larger buildings to accommodate their dreams, such as a rectory for their priest, and other dwelling units for a bishop’s house and his staff, conference halls, retreat house, library, office spaces and the like. What are those dreams? They believe that Chicago will soon become a hub of the Church of Malankara in the Mid-West. This is the only church within the city limits of the great City of Chicago. They want a Metropolitanate attached to this Church and their temple to be the Metropolitan See. This church-building has the physical appearance and convenience of a large church in order to be called a Metropolitan Cathedral, a cathedral in the strict sense of canon law. In other words, the people of this parish want a Diocese or Metropolis attached to this Church; maybe the Center of the American Church, almost in the middle of the United States. Will it be realized? They believe it will happen if they can raise enough resources and convince the mother church for positive and proactive response.
Before it happens the Church has to revamp its spiritual infrastructure. It has to develop a strong and steady catechetical system to educate its youth and children so that they understand that the Orthodox Church is the true Church and is the true heir to and continuation of the Church established by Christ and entrusted to the Holy Apostles. It is not one of the sects that claim to be churches, it is the Church. There is only one Church faithful to Christ, and it is the Orthodox Church; and the Church of Malankara is an integral part of this Holy Church. If St. Thomas Church does not have a generation loyal and faithful to Holy Orthodoxy, the energy and resources that the people have spent to realize this beautiful Church will be a futile enterprise; the church will die within a few decades.
The members value the hard work of their current pastor and thank him for his availability for everything the church needs; his earnestness and prayers for the realization of this magnificent House of God are greatly appreciated by this community.
Every church should revamp itself and its activities in order to keep our new generation loyal to the Orthodox Church and its faith. As a standard Diocesan policy larger parishes that are financially sound do have pastors who are available twenty-four hours a day for the various needs of the parish to conduct not only the liturgical services but also other multifarious activities for enhancing the faith life of every member particularly the growing generation. It is reported that in all denominations, except the Roman Catholic Church, only 40 percent of churches employ full-time ministers; this statistics cover almost all Orthodox jurisdictions. In the past the Malankara Orthodox priest was one of the immigrants and could not be supported by the new-comers who were not financially strong either to support him; and the work of the priest was basically to found the church and spiritually nourish it while struggling for his own bread on the table. It is the hard and sacrificial work of such priests that kept our Church alive and strong in this country. This writer bows his head before them with gratitude and veneration; he was also one among them. Now the Church of Malankara is already established and she passed her infancy and adolescence. Now we have a new generation that has no idea of what the Orthodox faith is, and what Orthodox life is; the new generation had no occasion to fully observe the real life of the Church as practiced in the old country. Most of our churches do not conduct vespers on Saturday evenings or on the eve of feasts, which is obligatory for Sundays and festal days. An established parish church does conduct evening and morning prayers on weekdays in order to offer prayers with incense for its members. Our new generation has not observed those valuable practices in their churches. These practices are to be restored at St. Thomas Church. With various activities for children and youth, men and women, our new generation has to be educated properly about church life and such practices in order for them to be attached to the Church. Thus Church would become inevitable in their life; and such a church-inspired life would keep them away from possible dangers and snares.
Home visits will become a necessity as the current elders are getting older with debilitating infirmities; they need the prayers and comforting of their priests at their bedside. St. Thomas parish should expand its endeavors for the spiritual advancement of its members, particularly of its growing generation and of its aging population. The parish also has to train enough catechists to give religious education to the new generation, guided by their pastoral leadership. Otherwise this church will be empty after thirty or fifty years. The beautiful church they consecrate should never become a wasteland after fifty years!
This writer joins all the members of St. Thomas, most of whom were with him when he founded this parish forty-five years ago, in this joyous event of the consecration of their Church and congratulates them for this great accomplishment for the glory of God.
Brethren, be fired up always for Christ and His Church!