St. Geevarghese Mar Gregorios (1848 – 1902) whom we fondly call Parumala Thirumeni, is our Parish’s Patron Saint. It so happens that for so many Parishes in the USA, India and elsewhere, Parumala Thirumeni is their Patron Saint. It is not surprising because Parumala Thirumeni enriched the lives of so many and he happened to be the first one to be canonized and declared as a saint by our Malankara Church. His canonization took place in 1947, on the 45th anniversary of his departure from this earthly abode. His tomb, along with the adjoining Parumala Church, has become a center of pilgrimage for the faithful and even for people of other faiths including non-Christians. Many, many miracles including healings have been attributed to the intercession of this saint. There are stories of miraculous happenings even during his relatively short span of life.
This saint was born on June 15, 1848 as the youngest son of Kochu Mathai and Mariam in the renowned Chathuruthi family at Mulanthuruthy, Kerala, India. The baptismal name of this boy was Geevarghese; however, his family lovingly called him ‘Kochaipora.’ When he was only two years old, his mother passed. His eldest sister who was also known as Mariam and who had a son of the same age shifted her residence to take care of this young boy along with her own son.
Even as a child, Geevarghese distinguished himself from other children of his age. He had no craze for toys or costly clothes. He didn’t show much interest in games. Rather, he focused on prayer, Bible reading and listening about the lives of Saints. He strictly observed the canonical fasts even from a young age.
His earliest education started with learning at the feet of a local teacher who belonged to a low caste. He was considered a model student in that he was studious, hard-working, respectful and humble besides being intelligent. His respect for teachers was such that even after his becoming a bishop, whenever he visited his native village, he would have his ‘Guru’ (teacher) come in so that he could offer him gifts. He would not even sit in the presence of his Guru.
Recognizing the outstanding and divine qualities of Kochaipora, his uncle (father’s brother) Rev. Fr. Geevarghese Malpan who was an authority in Syriac language, started teaching him Syriac. Being the fast learner that he was, Kochaipora easily picked up the language and its music scheme. Seeing his interest in spiritual matters, Geevarghese Malpan wanted him to take up priestly ministry and as the first step, had the then Malankara Metropolitan Mathews Mar Athanasios of Palakunnathu ordain him as ‘Korooyo’ (Deacon) at the age of ten.
Since there was no organized theological education program like today, Deacon Geevarghese stayed with Geevarghese Malpan and continued his theological training, along with other students. He was able to complete his theological training but this exemplary teacher-disciple relationship was to be short-lived.
An epidemic, namely, small-pox was spreading in different parts of the country and Geevarghese Malpan also contracted the highly infectious disease. When the disease was confirmed, all his students were sent home, except Deacon Geevarghese who had decided to stay on and nurse him. Tragically, the Malpan soon breathed his last.
Within a few days, Deacon Geevarghese also contracted small-pox but he was always in prayer. One day, when he was very ill and extremely weak, he had a vision of St. Mary, standing near him and assuring him that he would soon be well. He was advised to dedicate his life for God. Just as St. Mary said in his vision, he got well soon.
Although his father wanted him to be a married priest and be in charge of the Mulanthuruthy Church, he decided against it. He wanted to remain celibate and serve God full time. Deacon Geevarghese soon became a student of the renowned scholar in Canon Law and Syriac language, Konaattu Malpan at Pampakuda.
Deacon Geevarghese got acquainted with His Grace Yuyakim Mar Coorilos who came as a delegate from Antioch. His Grace was impressed by his wisdom, devotion and scholarship in Syriac language. They travelled together, the Deacon serving as his guide and translator. In 1866, at the age of 18, Deacon Geevarghese was ordained by His Grace as a full deacon. A month later, he was ordained as a priest and also as Cor-Episcopos.
Much impressed by the monastic tradition of the Desert Fathers, Geevarghese Cor-Episcopos took to learning more about them. He was particularly impressed by St. Antony, the 3rd Century Egyptian Monk who distributed all his wealth among the poor, took to monasticism and died at the age of 105. He chose Vettikkal Chapel that had rarely been used before and which was five kilometers from Mulanthuruthy as his hermitage. People living in and around Vettikkal were attracted by the very strict ascetic discipline of the Cor-Episcops and came to him in large numbers seeking advice and guidance on various matters. Vettikkal Dayara thus became a place of pilgrimage and people brought produces like rice and coconut for the Dayara’s maintenance.
In 1872, His Grace Joseph Mar Dionysius of Pulikkottil ordained Geevarghese Cor-Episcopos as Ramban (Monk-Priest). Ramban Geevarghese continued his ascetic life at Vettikkal Dayara. It was well-known that he used to tie a broad cloth-band around his waist and abdomen so as to keep the capacity of his stomach in check. This was particularly so, during the canonical Fasts. He never failed to make the canonical hours of prayer at the right times.
Once there appeared a painful abscess on his back. Ayurvedic doctors considered it very serious and his disciples were worried. He refused treatment and said, “Is there anything that God does not know? The abscess that appeared on its own will disappear on its own.” His faith was such that, sure enough, the abscess did go away without any treatment.
Ramban Geevarghese came into close contact with the Syrian Patriarch His Holiness Pathrose (Peter III) who was visiting Kerala. His Holiness accepted him as his Secretary and translator. Impressed by the Ramban’s life of devotion and scholarship, the Patriarch consecrated him in 1876 as a Metropolitan with the name of ‘Gregorios’ which is the title of the Metropolitans of Jerusalem. Of the five Metropolitans consecrated by His Holiness that year, the 29 year old Mar Gregorios was the youngest and therefore was lovingly called by everyone, “Kochu Thirumeni.” He became the Bishop of Niranam Diocese.
Parumala was a small island, in River Pampa, that was in those days accessible only by boat. Besides, it was considered haunted and an abode of evil spirits. The Malankara Metropolitan of that time, Pulikkottil Joseph Mar Dionysius received part of the land as a gift, where he built a small house to lodge and train the deacons. This place, that became like a Seminary was handed over to “Kochu Thirumeni”. From there, His Grace ran the affairs of Niranam Diocese, taught the inmates and led a strict monastic life with regular prayers and fasting.
The only source of income for the Seminary was donations of rice, coconut and other produces from nearby parishes. There have been days when nothing was left for the next day. There is story of a miraculous happening. Once Thirumeni was informed of nothing available for the next day. But he remained calm and said that the Word of God says that we shouldn’t worry about tomorrow. It so happened that the next morning, before the prayers were over, a good supply of rice, fruits and the like was sent over by a family that had more than they really needed for a feast that they were having in their house. This was a powerful lesson for the inmates in depending on God with full trust and faith.
At Parumala, His Grace was able to construct a beautiful Church and a Seminary with money he collected and the consecration took place in 1895. The Church was dedicated in the names of St. Peter and St. Paul. Soon, Parumala Thirumeni was appointed as the Bishop of two more Dioceses, namey, Thumpamon and Quilon.
In those times, much attention was not being given to Missionary activities. However, Parumala Thirumeni was an exception. He fought against casteism and untouchability that were very prevalent in those days. Disregarding much opposition, Thirumeni baptized many low-caste people, educated them and brought them into the Church. In 1890, the deadly small pox was again spreading in various parts of the country. Thumpamon was particularly affected. Knowing this, he went to Thumpamon, visited the patients and ministered to them. Many people plagued by diseases, insanity and evil spirits got cured by the prayer of this man of God. People thronged to him to attend his services and receive his blessings. Through his missionary activities, many Roman Catholics including one Father Alvarez joined the Malankara Church. Father Alvarez later became Metropolitan Alvarez Mar Julius. A sizable group of people of the USA also joined the Church. Fr. Reny Vilathy was consecrated by the name of Thimotheos in Colombo, Ceylon (Currently, Sri Lanka) by three Metropolitans including Parumala Thirumeni and was sent to the USA to cater to the converts there. A renowned Society in the USA awarded Parumala Thirumeni and the other Metropolitans the title of “Commander of the Crown of Thorns.”
Parumala Thirumeni was the first Metropolitan from Malankara to visit the Holy Land. Accompanied by seven other people including some priests, he made the pilgrimage in 1895. A detailed description of the difficult but blessed pilgrimage that His Grace undertook is found in his own travelogue titled “Oorslem Yathra Vivaranam” (A Journey to Jerusalem) first published in 1895 and later edited by Paul Manalil and translated into English by Metropolitan Dr. Yakoob Mar Irenius. The accounts of his pilgrimage has become a classic in travel literature in Malayalam language.
He was a great educator who foresaw the possibilities of English education for the upliftment of the society and for evangelism. He started a few English-medium schools.
By 1901, Thirumeni’s physical health was deteriorating. In spite of the pain he suffered apparently from an ulcer, he kept on with his routine of fasting and prayer. Finally, on November 2, 1902 the spirit of this holy man was committed into the hands of the Heavenly Father. Thirumni had foreknowledge of his passing because two days before his passing, he was heard uttering, “O My Lord, I must suffer this pain for two more days.” He was surrounded at his death bed by so many including two of his trusted disciples. One of the two was Father Vattasseril Geevarghese who later was elevated as a Bishop and then as the Malankara Metropolitan. He was also canonized as a saint of the Church, several years after the canonization of Parumala Thirumeni. The second trusted disciple was Punnoose Ramban who later was elevated as the Catholicose-cum-Malankara Metropolitan of the Church, Baselios Geevarghese II.
The passing of Parumala Thirumeni was an event of immense magnitude as shown by the condolence message received from the Metropolitan of Jerusalem, which said, “…Yes, this great saintly person was the lighthouse and Morning Star of the Church!...”
As mentioned in the beginning, Mar Gregorios of Parumala was officially canonized as a saint by the Holy Episcopal Synod of the Malankara Church on November 2, 1947. The canonization ceremony was headed by His Holiness Baselios Geevarghese II, the Catholicos of the East.