Syro-Malabar Catholics at Saint Joseph’s

The holy Apostle Saint Thomas, one of the Twelve, and the Apostle of South India

The Syro-Malabar Major Archiepiscopal Catholic Church is a Syrian Catholic Church, based in south India (including but not exclusively the state of Kerala), which trace her origins to the mission and preaching of the Apostle Saint Thomas there. The Latin Catholic Church at Saint Joseph’s is privileged to have, as a part of her parish life, the local Syro-Malabar community.

The Syro-Malabar Community in Derby

The Syro-Malabar Catholic community is one of the vibrant migrant communities in Derbyshire. It began gradually in the later half of the year 2002, but has experienced a steady growth during the last ten years. Today, there are approximately one hundred and twenty Syro-Malabar Catholic families living in Derbyshire. Most members of this community are professionals working in healthcare and social care, in information technology, in social work and similar fields. Currently, Father Mathew Neriattil Biju in Nottingham says Holy Mass in the Syro-Malabar rite (in Malayalam) on every fourth Sunday of the month at Saint Joseph’s.

A short history of the Syro-Malabar Church

Saint Thomas, one of the Apostles of Christ, after receiving the Holy Spirit at Pentecost, set about the mission of spreading the gospel of Jesus Christ to the whole world. A review of the life of Saint Thomas illustrates how he fulfilled this great mission in India. According to the tradition, Saint Thomas came by sea and landed at Kodungalloor, the capital of the Chera Empire in Kerala in AD 52. Tradition says that Saint Thomas founded churches in seven locations, namely at Cranganore, Quilon, Chayal, Kokkamangalam, Niranam, Paravur, and Palayur. From there he went to Coromandel, and suffered martyrdom near the Little Mount in Tamil Nadu. His body was brought to the town of Mylapore and was buried in a holy shrine.
According to the Ramban song, Saint Thomas converted seventeen thousand five hundred and fifty people. He ordained priests and consecrated bishops. The Apostle consecrated a native man called Kepa as bishop of Kodungalloor and head of the Saint-Thomas Christians and another man called Paul as the bishop of Mylapore. It is worth mentioning that the Apostle gave his followers a way of worship suited to their clime, culture and customs.

From the fourth Century, the Church in India began to  communicate with the East Syrian Church and soon began to introduce Syrian liturgical books and share Syrian rites. Thus the Indian Church became a member of the Syro-Chaldean Patriarchate for practical purposes, although not for doctrinal reasons. On the 20th of May, 1887, the Holy Father Pope Leo XIII of illustrious memory, with the bull Quod Iampridem, reorganized the Saint-Thomas Christians under two vicariates, those of Trichur and Kottayam. On the 28th of July, 1896, with the bull Quae rei sacrae, the same pope reconstituted the two vicariates into three vicariates of Trichur, Ernakulam and Changanachery, and appointed natives as bishops. These Catholic Saint-Thomas Christians were henceforth called ‘the Syro-Malabar Church’.

The Syro-Malabar community today

The growth of the Syro-Malabar Church in the twentieth century has amazed observers. This energetic Church took up new challenges in the mission fields and, from 1962, Syro-Malabar exarchates were elevated to the status of eparchies. Taking into consideration the age old traditions and the enormous growth of this Apostolic and Indian Church, and in order to address the new structures erected, the Holy Father Pope John Paul II, with the constitution Quae Maiori, dated the 16th of December, 1992, raised the Syro-Malabar Church to the status of Major Archiepiscopal Sui iuris Church with the title of Ernakulam – Angamaly.

At present, the Syro-Malabar Major Achiepiscopal Church has fifteen eparchies inside its proper territory, under four metropolitan sees, and eleven eparchies outside the proper territory. An eparchy was recently erected in Chicago for Syro-Malabar migrants to that city, in February 2001. It was considered to be a remarkable event and a milestone in the history of the Syro-Malabar Church. The Syro-Malabar Church now includes approximately four million members world-wide.

Syro-Malabar Community in the UK

In the beginning of 1990, people from India started to arrive in United Kingdom, following their professions and acquiring jobs here. English society has welcomed and appreciates the exemplary family and religious life of Indian Catholics. However, even in 1990, the Indian community wanted to have priests of their own Church and Rite, to satisfy their religious needs. The Bishops of England and Wales understood this need and gave permission for a priest from India to come to the United Kingdom, to provide pastoral care. At present, most of the Syro-Malabar congregations in the United Kingdom celebrate Holy Mass once a month in their own language. Today seventy-five priests from India provide pastoral care in the dioceses of England and Wales.

This report was prepared by Mr. Sabu Mathew with the help and advice of Fr. Varghese Konthuruth.

Saint Alphonsa Muttathupadathu (1910-46), first canonised Saint of the Syro-Malabar Church