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Catholic Heroes… St. Kuriakose Elias Chavara

February 14, 2019 saints No Comments


India has almost as many people (1.37 billion) as China (1.42 billion), which has three times the land area. Of the population of India, under three percent are Christian. In Kerala, a state on the southwest coast of India, nearly 20 percent are Christian. Perhaps the greater proportion is a result of St. Kuriakose Elias Chavara, who came from Kerala and was the first male Indian to be canonized.
The Catholic community in Kerala dates back to the time of St. Thomas the Apostle. Kuriakose’s parents, Iko Chavara and Mariam Thoppil, came from an ancient Nasrani Christian family. Kuriakose was born in Kainakary on February 10, 1805 and was baptized at St. Joseph’s Syro-Malabar Catholic Church on February 17, when his parents dedicated him to Mary.
As a young boy, Kuriakose attended the village school, studying languages — the different Indian dialects — and sciences. Around the age of ten he considered the priesthood and began studying under the parish priest of St. Joseph Parish.
In 1818 he entered the seminary in Pallippuram, where he studied with Fr. Thomas Palackal who hoped to establish the Carmelites of Mary Immaculate, which would be the first religious institute in India founded by the Indians.
Before he was ordained, Kuriakose lost both his parents and his only brother to an epidemic that spread through Kerala. He then dedicated himself wholeheartedly to serving his Father in Heaven. On November 29, 1829, he was ordained by Bishop Maurelius Stabilini at St. Andrew’s Church in Arthunkal about 20 miles north of Kainakary, his hometown.
He then celebrated his first Mass at St. Andrew Church, offering it for the intention of the foundation of the Carmelites in India as Fr. Palackal envisioned.
Fr. Kuriakose returned to the seminary to teach after a brief period of pastoral ministry. He also acted as the administrator when Fr. Palackal was away. While at the seminary he met regularly with Fr. Palackal and Fr. Thomas Porukara to plan the new congregation of Carmelites.
On November 1, 1829, Bishop Stabilini approved the establishment of the Carmelites. In less than a year, in 1830, Fr. Kuriakose went to Mannanam, nearly 20 miles inland from Kainakary, to oversee the construction of the first house of the congregation for men. The first cornerstone was placed on May 11, 1831.
When Fr. Palackal died in 1841 and Fr. Porukara died in 1846, Fr. Kuriakose assumed the leadership of the Carmelites of Mary Immaculate. After much preparation and diocesan approval, he professed his vows with ten companions on December 8, 1855 with the name Kuriakose Elias of the Holy Family.
In the meantime, Fr. Kuriakose established the first school to teach Sanskrit and began St. Joseph’s Press at Mannanam, the first printing press owned by Indians and only the third one in all of India.
As a social reformer, Fr. Kuriakose, who came from an upper caste, bravely founded schools for the Pulaya caste, the lowest caste, commonly referred to as the untouchables. This action was affirmed by Bishop Bernadine Baccinelly, who then issued a circular in 1864 instructing every parish to establish schools for the Pulaya.
Furthermore, Kuriakose began providing meals for the students which greatly improved attendance. The meal program was so successful that the King implemented the practice and it is still used today.
Fr. Kuriakose acted as prior general of the Carmelites of Mary Immaculate from 1856 until his death. During the sixteen years of his tenure, he accomplished much. Seven new Carmelite houses were in established in Kerala.
He became the catalyst for rejuvenating the Catholic Church in Kerala, participating in numerous ventures. For the clergy he helped set up seminaries for education and formation, and he also began religious retreats. He was the first priest in India to preach retreats to the laity and he opened houses for the destitute and dying. In addition, he spent extra time in preparing catechumens and building schools for general education.
Fr. Kuriakose also mediated when the Church was near schism in 1861. Mar Thomas Rokos arrived in Kerala as if sent by the Pope, but he could produce none of the customary credentials verifying that he had received any such authorization. Since Fr. Kuriakose had been appointed vicar-general of the Syro-Malabar Church by the archbishop of Verapolly, he resisted the encroachment. Later leaders of the Church praised him for his faithful and strong stand to protect the Church.
Fr. Kuriakose also worked diligently to promote the education and empowerment of women both civilly and spiritually. In 1857 he tried to establish a house for women in Alangad, but it never flourished. Again in 1859 at Puthanpally, 200 miles north of Kainakary, he endeavored to found another group for women and this failed as well.
Finally, on February 13, 1866 a foundation was officially approved with the help of Fr. Leopold Beccaro, a Carmelite Missionary. This Third Order of the Carmelites Discalced was the first monastery in India for women.
In 1870 Fr. Kuriakose fell victim to a painful illness and died a holy death at the Koonammavu monastery in Kochi, 90 miles south of Puthanpalli. His body was interred at Koonammavu and later moved to St. Joseph’s Monastery Church in Mannanam in 1889. There his remains are kept available for the many pilgrims who come to venerate him for the many favors received.
Thousands attend the Saturday evening Mass and participate in the recitation of a novena in his honor. Fr. Kuriakose is also remembered as a prolific writer. He penned spiritual works such as The Lamentations of a Repentant Soul, Testament of a Loving Father, Colloquies in Meditation, and some shepherd plays. He also composed songs for funerals, wrote poems such as the Martyrdom of Anastasia, prayers, letters, and commentaries on the liturgy. As a superior, he even prepared documents addressing the administrative matters for those in such positions at the Carmelite houses.
The cure of Joseph Matthew Pennaparambil in April 1960 led to Fr. Kuriakose’s beatification. Joseph was born with two club feet, but through the intercession of Fr. Kuriakose, both legs were cured. He now walks firmly on both of them.
Kuriakose was beatified by Pope St. John Paul II in Kottayam, Kerala, on February 8, 1986.
For his canonization the miraculous cure of Maria Jose Kottarathil, a nine-year-old girl with alternating esotropia in both eyes, was approved. Fr. Kuriakose was canonized by Pope Francis in Rome on November 23, 2014.
His feast day is celebrated on January 3 in the Syro-Malabar liturgical calendar and on February 18 in the Roman Liturgy of the Latin Rite.
Dear Fr. Kuriakose, what a great love you had for God and man. Your efforts to save souls and to raise both clergy and laity to greater heights in the spiritual life are a comfort to all your countrymen and to Catholics around the world. Intercede for us, we beg of you, to obtain for us a greater love of both God and man. Amen.

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(Carole Breslin home-schooled her four daughters and served as treasurer of the Michigan Catholic Home Educators for eight years. For over ten years, she was national coordinator for the Marian Catechists, founded by Fr. John A. Hardon, SJ.)

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