“I wish I could live here permanently”. These were the words of Moran Mor Ignatius Elias III, Patriarch of the Universal Syrian Orthodox Church, when he reached St. Stephen’s church Manjanikkara at the last leg of his sojourn in Malankara. Here is a first hand account of the last days of the Patriarch, Moran Mor Elias III. The writer of this article had the privilege of being an eye witness to the grand reception accorded to the Bava Thirumeni and the subsequent happenings at Manjanikkara. I had also the rare privilege of getting blessings directly from him. I remember I knelt before the saint and he prayed for more than half an hour with his hand placed on my head.
It was Lord Irvin, the British Viceroy in India who invited the Patriarch of Antioch and all the East, H.H. Elias III to India. The viceroy was wonderstruck when he heard that there was an ancient Christian Church in the southern most part of India which was as old as Christianity itself. St. Thomas, one of the disciples of Jesus Christ reached India in AD 52. He preached the Holy Gospel in Kerala and converted some Brahmin families to Christianity. He constructed seven and a half Churches in Kerala and ordained priests. Thus a Christian Church came into existence in Kerala from the time of St. Thomas. The Jacobite Syrian Church which was a part of this ancient Church was facing disharmony and disunity from the beginning of the twentieth century, caused by group rivalries and infighting. The viceroy felt pain at this. He wanted this Church to prevail and prosper. So he invited the Head of the Church, the Patriarch of Antioch and all the East, H.H. Elias III to come to India to bring peace among the warring groups. Though H.H. was not healthy enough to take a tedious journey and though the doctors advised him not to travel, the Patriarch decided to go to India, because for him peace in the Church was more important. He reached Kerala, visited many churches, had discussions with the Metropolitans of the opposite faction. He had prolonged talks with Vattasseril Mar Dionysius. Though the Patriarch made many concessions, Mar Dionysius was stubborn in his demands and peace efforts failed. The Patriarch was very much disappointed. He was so sad that he decided to return without achieving his goal.
It was about this time that Fr. Kuriakose Elavimamannil, Vicar, St. Stephen’s Church Manjanikkara invited the Patriarch to his Church. The immediate response of the Patriarch was a question. “Do you want my skeleton in your church?” This was really a prophesy which came true after he reached the church. Now some thing about this church. This church at Manjanikkara, named after St. Stephen, was founded by Elavainamannil Skaria Malpan, the father of Fr. Kuriakose. He was a Malpan or teacher at the ‘Pazhya’ (Old) Seminary teaching deacons, Syriac and the rites and conduct of Holy Qurbono. Vattsseril Mae Dionysius was his colleague at the Pazhaya Seminary. When Mar Dionysius questioned the authority of the Patriarch and established his own faction, Fr. Skaraia Malpan who was a staunch supporter of the Patriarch left Pazhya Seminary and returned to Omallur. But the condition in churches south of Kottayam was not at all favourable to the Patriarch side. Most of the churches here were with Mar Dionysius. Entry of new priests in the existing churches was not allowed. So Skaria Malpan wanted to have a church of his own for his son Fr. Kuriakose and the believers. He constructed a small church in his own land in Manjanikkara. It was on a lonely hill, no road to reach there, no availability of water. He hoped all facilities would be there soon. There were only 28 poor peasant families as members of the church. It was in the midst of Church’s enemies. Fr. Kuriakose hoped a visit of the Patriarch will be a boost to the Church and be helpful for its continued existence here.
H.H. The Patriarch agreed to visit the Church. The Vicar now began to face challenges; no road to the Church, no rooms for the Patriarch, Metropolitans, priest and other invitees to live in. Water was not available on the hill. It was a steep hill, no place for the devotees to stand. He could not collect funds for these from the poor parishioners. Fr. Kuriakose took the challenges boldly. First a new road, 4 km. in length was constructed. People of the locality gave land for the road and church members volunteered the construction work. Hill top around the church was leveled so that thousands of people could stand there, temporary sheds were constructed, many wells were dug and water was made available; everything was ready within a short time.
A grand reception was accorded to the Patriarch befitting his dignity and majesty. The journey was tedious, but once he reached the church the cool breeze that blew incessantly on the hill top, the beautiful scenery around, the green valleys and fields, the serene atmosphere, tranquility – all attracted him very much. He was very happy and pleased. He told the Metropolitans who were near him that he liked the place very much and that he wanted to stay here permanently. Hearing this, Fr. Kuriakose, the vicar told him that he and his parishioners were very happy to have him here permanently. But he was sad that the Church was very small and facilities very meager. To this St. Elias replied “This small church will become famous all over Malankara and abroad. You will see it”. His prophesy has come true. The church became famous. The Holy sepulcher, Mar Ignatius Dayro and church, all attract people from all over India. It has become a great pilgrim centre. There were many other occasions when he prophesied that the end of his journey was here in Manjanikkara and that his body will be buried here. Ordinarily when the Patriarch visits a church he will give a piece of the holy relics of saints or holy people to the church to keep it there or ordain the Vicar, a Corepiscopo. At Manjanikkara a Metropolitan who came along with him asked him what present should be given to Fr. Kuriakose, the Vicar. To this St. Elias replied “Next Sunday, ie Feb 13 after the Holy Qurbono relics of a Church father will be buried in this church and the vicar will be ordained Corepiscopo ? To the surprise of all who heard this, the dead body of the saint who prophesied this, was buried in the church at the exact time on the exact date – Feb 13.
It was a usual practice for Bava Thirumeni to walk around the church after dinner for some time. The Metropolitans and priests will follow him then. On 12th Friday, after dinner, he walked around the Church as usual. He sang a hymn in Syriac and asked those who followed him to repeat it. This was a song to be sung at the time of burial of the heads of the Church. He also taught them the rites to be followed then. Thus he taught them how to conduct the solemn burial of a Patriarch – the last journey of the head of the Church rehearsed the night before his death. It was a prophesy!
To turn the prophesy true the holy body of Moran Mor Elias III, the Patriarch of Antioch and all the East was buried near St. Stephen’s church Manjanikkara on Sunday Feb 13 after the Holy Qurbono. This place was the private property of Fr. Kuriakose Elavinamannil and his brothers. Fr. Kuriakose thus had the unique privilege of burying the holy body of a Patriarch, the head of the Universal Syrian Orthodox Church in his own land. I believe nobody else in the world had such a blessing. Later Fr. Kuriakose gave 30 cents of land, on which the holy sepulcher stood, to the Holy Patriarchate as a gift. The St. Ignatius church, the Dayro are all here, in this land given free by him.
H.H. Moran Mor Elias III was a holy man, a saint in every sense. From the very beginning miracles happen at this sepulcher. It continues. Pilgrims come here from the different parts of Manjanikkara and get blessings. To attend the perunnal on Feb 13, thousands of pilgrims go to the Holy Qabar, walking a great distance. I think Manjanikkara is the only pilgrim centre in the whole world where pilgrims walk some 200 to 300 km to reach the church.
The 30th day of demise of Bava Thirumeni (adiyanthiram) was observed on a very grand scale. On that auspicious day there happened a miracle. As thousands of pilgrims were expected to attend the function, a very big feast was being prepared. In the early hours of the day the cooks complained to Fr. Kuriakose that there was shortage of coconut oil to make ‘pappadams’. It was not possible to have afresh supply of oil at that hour. To this the Vicar said, “Don’t worry; this is Bava Thirumeni’s adiyanthiram. He will provide you with necessary things, please carry on the work”. The cooks started the work. To the surprise of all, oil began to boil in the vessel and overflow. The overflowing oil was collected in a vessel. This phenomenon continued for some time and oil was collected in many vessels. The devotees thronged around the vessels and took this wonderful oil home in bottles. The miracles at the sepulcher continue…
* from the Silver Jubilee Souvenir (2002) of Dubai,
Mar Ignatius Jacobite Syrian Orthodox Church