St. Gregorios Of Parumala
By Jossy Philip, Member, St. Gregorios Fishkill
My earliest memories associated with Parumala Thirumeni include the somber and haunting hallways of the old church that he had erected in the town of Parumala. I have memories of peering through the gate and seeing his tomb, his personal relics and my father explaining the significance of each item. I remember the numerous lighted candles that stood on the altar each representing a prayer, a hope, a request for intercession from some person whom I would never know or even meet. The only thing that all those numerous people had in common was their faith in the prayers of Parumala Thirumeni. I had never understood, what it was about this man, who lived and died a hundred years ago that inspired so many people to make the journey to this small town and seek his blessing. Hoping to better understand the phenomenal impact this man had on hundreds of thousands of lives, I decided to research the life of Parumula Thirumeni, walk along the paths he traveled and examine the challenges he faced in his life.
Gregorios Geevarghese, was born in the distinguished priestly family of ‘Pallithatta Thanagattu’ in the village of Mulunthuruthy near Cochin on 15th June 1848. He was baptized by name Geevarghese at the Mulanthuruthy MarThoman Church. His earliest teacher was his uncle Fr. Geevarghese Malpan, through whom he had gained a deep understanding of theology and even attained fluency in Syriac. Many noticed his keen mind at an early age and he was pre-selected by the patriarchs of his family for priesthood; which led to him being ordained a deacon when he was a mere ten-year-old boy. His true and divine calling did not come until later, when GeeVarghese Malpan lay on his death bed and sent everyone away except for his young protégé. The young deacon Gregorios stayed with his teacher until the very end to serve him in all matters, which resulted in the young deacon himself becoming seriously ill after Malpan passed. As the youth lay in bed worn out from the small pox that had ravaged his body, he had a vision of Saint Mary coming to him, comforting him most tenderly like only a mother could and reassuring him that he would recover. He pledged his life to the service of God on that day.
After his recovery, the young deacon continued his theological education under the syriac scholar, Konatt Malpan. Konatt Malpan’s library of theological literature helped him to acquire a deep understanding of Canonical laws and church history. It was at this point that he decided to live a monastic life despite the protest of his father and family members. The then Malankara Metropolitan Mor Kurillos Bava met Deacon Gregorios during his travels through northern Kerala, the Deacon impressed him with his sharp mind and subdued piety. He was thus ordained Corepiscopa In November of 1865 and attached himself to Mor Kurillos Bava’s delegate as his secretary. Later on the young Corepiscopa was assigned to the neglected and down trodden Vettical Kurishupalli, which he revived architecturally and spiritually. By taking on a monastic life of intense prayer and fasting, Geevarghese Corepiscopa made his chapel a hub of spirituality and healing in the Malankara Church. As his fame spread through the countryside, many people sought him out as a healer, to these people he stressed the importance and power of prayer over his own grace or spirituality. In 1877, at the suggestion of the Patriarch of Antioch Mor Ignatius Peter III and through the efforts of Geevarghese Corepiscopa (Parumala Thirumeni) the Vettickal Kurishupali was converted into Vettickal Dayro, the first monastery of the Malankara Church. It was during this period that Geevarghese Corepiscopa was serving as secretary to Patriarch of Antioch Mor Ignatius Peter III and he had to hand over the administration of the Dayro to Kochuparambil Rev. Fr. Paulose of Mulunthuruthy.
The Malankara Church was in dire straits at the time due to the turmoil caused by the power and influence of the reformist movement in Kerala. The Reformist Group (later MarThoma Syrian Church), were usurping many of the seminaries and churches of the Syrian Orthodox Church. Yuyakim Mor Kurillos as metropolitan of the Malankara Church, was determined to build new seminaries so the young deacons of the church could be trained and educated properly. As per this new initiative, Pulikottil Joseph Mor Dionysius ordained the young Geevarghese Corepiscopa, as ‘Ramban’ at the Mulunthuruthy MarThoman Church and appointed him as the Malpan of the new Seminary at Parumala. Meanwhile, the situation between the Malankara Orthodox Church and the protestant missionaries who had the support of the British government and the backing of the judiciary came to such a boiling point that the Patriarch Mor Ignatius Pathros was forced to travel to London to present his case before the Parliamentary authority which directed the British East India Company to cease all interference in the matters of the Malankara Orthodox Church. Upon his return to Kerala the patriarch decided to convene a synod to reorganize the administration of the church and to proclaim our affinity to the Syrian Orthodox Church. The synod was organized by Geevarghese Ramban (Parumala Thirumeni) who was secretary and confidant of the Patriarch Mor Ignatius Pathros. It was Geevarghese Ramaban who drafted the historic resolution signed by all the holy fathers who attended the Synod, which says that the Patriarch of Antioch is the supreme head of the Malankara Church, confirming the faith of the Universal Syrian Orthodox Church.
Finally when the Malankara Syrian Church decided to consecrate six new Metropolitans for the proposed dioceses, the Patriarch impressed by the simplicity, humility and spiritual fervor of Ramban Geevarghese, nominated him to the order of Metropolitan. In a remarkable gesture of humility that only a living practitioner of Christ’s teachings could make the young Ramban, requested the Patriarch to relieve him from being ordained as Metropolitan because he wished to retain the simple life of a monk, however he finally had to submit to the wishes of the Holy Father. Thus Geevarghese Ramban was ordained, Mor Gregorios at the age of 29 and was endearingly called “Kochu Thirumeni”. Coincidentally when he assumed charge of Niranam diocese, the seminary at Parumala happened to be diocesan headquarters, which is why he came to be widely known as ‘Parumala Thirumeni’. Besides managing the affairs of the diocese, Parumala Thirumeni found the time to teach Syriac and theology to the young deacons of the seminary. He was an example of faith and perseverance to his students because of the rigorous fasting and prayer he conducted despite having the responsibility of an entire diocese. His exhausting schedule meant that he demanded the very best effort from his students and accepted no excuses for failure. He imposed the highest standards on himself in all things and expected his students to do the same. Many of his students followed his examples and rose to prominence in the Malankara Church in their own time.
Parumala Thirumeni did not let all the responsibilities of teaching, administration and scholarly pursuits detract him from his true calling, to serve fellow human beings. When a small pox epidemic (a near fatal disease at the time) struck Thumpamon and surrounding areas, Thirumeni personally visited every home that had been affected, over protests from many loved ones, to pray for and comfort the sick regardless of their caste or creed. His faith and his actions garnered him a lot of support not only from within the Malankara Church but the entire Indian community. He used this support and influence to settle long-standing and newly occurring disputes within the church. Often times with a simple and straightforward word from this saint would be enough settle tumultuous feuds within churches and families. To spread his message of compassion for all human beings and love and humility amongst Christians Thirumeni founded the ‘Malankara Syrian Clerical System’. This was an example of Thirumeni’s foresight and pragmatic approach to all things, over the years this organization would organize prayer meetings and start Sunday Schools in all Parishes; encourage Gospel expositions by the Priests in between every Holy Qurbana; start Seminaries and similar institutions for proper training of priests; and baptize the untouchables who prefer to be a part of the Holy Church and also to construct new churches for them.
During these times, when protestant and catholic priests celebrated the Holy Eucharist in magnificent stone cathedrals, this saint of our church performed this holy sacrament in a humble thatched shed. Due to the lack of necessary utilities in the current compound Thirumeni wished to construct a two-storied structure that would include a chapel and a new seminary. In pursuing this new project Thirumeni managed to solicit Rs. 15,000 as well as a plot of land from the Arikupuram Family. After the completion of its initial portions, Thirumeni waited for his mentor, the Patriarch of Antioch to consecrate the newly built Church but that was not to be Patriarch Mor Peter III died on 21st April, 1894. Ultimately it was Parumala Thirumeni himself who in the presence of Malankara Metropolitan Mor Dionysius V, consecrated the new church at Parumala on 15th August 1895 and His Grace celebrated the first Holy Qurbana.
It was on the very next day after the consecration ceremony that Thirumeni set out on his long desired journey to the holy city of Jerusalem. He arrived in Cochin on February 19th, 1895 and from there he set out to Bombay by train. An entourage of priests including many future patriarchs of the Malankara Church accompanied him. Kochuparambil Ramban Paulose (later Paulose Mor Kurillos, the Malankara Metropolitan from 1911-’17); Wattasseril Fr. Geevarghese Malpan (later Malankara Metropolitan, Mor Dionysius VI – 1909); and Deacon Sleebo (later Metropolitan St. Sleeba Mor Osthatheos) are a few of the pre-eminent pilgrims to ship out with Parumala Thirumeni from Bombay. A long and arduous journey found him at the port city of Saidi where he celebrated the Holy Qurbana at the Coptic Church situated there before sailing to Jerusalem. Parumala Thirumeni and his delegation were welcomed in Jerusalem on the 7th of April by an esteemed gathering of bishops and monks, including Syrian Orthodox Metropolitan, Mor Gregorios Geevarghese of Jerusalem diocese. During their sojourn in Jerusalem Thirumeni and his fellow pilgrims stayed at the renowned St. Marks monastery, the site of the last supper and the seat of the Archbishop of Jerusalem. After a brief 16-day stay during which he visited many holy sites in Jerusalem, celebrated Holy Qurbana in St Mark’s monastery and led Passion Week prayers at various Syrian Orthodox locations; Thirumeni turned back to India. One of the many fruitful results of his now famous visit to Jerusalem was the favorable relationship between the Malankara Orthodox Church and our mother church in Jerusalem. Parumala Thirumeni later wrote and published a travelogue that detailed the hardships and the rewards of his journey to Jerusalem.
With his long desired and delayed pilgrimage completed Parumala Thirumeni desired to stay in the seminary at Parumala and live a sparse, monastic life of prayer and meditation. However, Metropolitan Mor Dionysius entrusted to Thirumeni the task of building schools throughout the Malankara church; his visit to Jerusalem had convinced him of the need for English schools in Kerala. His health however deteriorated severely in August of 1902 and he was sadly bed-ridden at the seminary, during which time many devotees and well-wishers flocked to his side, the generosity and kindness in his spirit was displayed by the fact that he enquired of the health and well-being of each person that visited him no matter how rich or poor. The Metropolitian Mor Dionysius looked upon his “Kochu Thirumeni” as the beacon of hope and the light that would lead the Malankara church into the next century and he was shattered on learning the seriousness of Thirumeni’s condition, after all he had considered him a son and successor. As the year of 1902 waned Parumala Thirumeni seemed to know the exact moment of his death in advance, he entrusted his disciple Wattasseril Fr.Geevarghese with the keys and documents of Parumala seminary before falling into a stupor that lasted three days. It was three days later on October 31st 1902 that Thirumeni spoke again, he lamented that he would have to endure this pain for two more days and it was exactly two days later on November 2nd that he passed.
My father had always stressed to me the importance of this saint in our church, I took his word but I never understood why he had so much respect and love from my father and from countless others, until now. What truly struck me about Parumala Thirumeni was how brief his life was and how much he managed to do with it. Even before I started to learn about the life of Parumala Thirumeni I had known that he was a holy man what I had not expected was for him to be a pragmatic educator, a compassionate man and a keen mind.