Apostle St. Thomas in Chennai (Madras)
Many letters were written by a subordinate priest, now, Rev. Father P.J. Lawrence Raj to Catholic bishops in anticipation of a response. Upon witnessing failure, he instead wrote to offices publishing religious periodicals on Christianity.
Historically speaking, Saint Thomas was the first person who introduced the Indians to the faith of Christianity. He was one of the twelve disciples of Lord Jesus Christ. On reaching India in 52 AD, he first stepped on the Indian soil of Malabar Coast. In the present day Chennai, St. Thomas is almost forgotten. The letters written by Fr. Raj serve as an attempt in solving this problem.
In Chennai, on a small hill known as St. Thomas Mount that looks down at the Chennai airport, Fr. Raj wrote the letters. It is believed that St. Thomas was murdered at the same site by a group of Hindus. They killed him as he attempted Indians consider Lord Jesus Christ as their saviour.
Fr. Raj remarks that in India St. Thomas stands as a great example of a true Christian. That is why he feels so connected to him. Nonetheless, Indians still doubt the saint’s close connection with their country.
During his thirty six years of service, Fr. Raj served at some of the finest churches of Chennai. The series includes Santhome Basilica, where St. Thomas is buried; Velankanni Church of Mother Mary; and Little Mount Church, wherein he is currently serving. Little Mount Church is believed to be the site where St. Thomas hid from his murderers in a cave.
In Chennai, the apostle is believed to have stayed and preached the gospel for more than thirteen years. In fact, many constructions in the city, including roads, churches and hospitals are named after him. However, the festivals dedicated to him no longer draw thousands of people. Instead, they are overshadowed by other festivals such as the popular Velankanni festival.
Fr. Raj thoughtfully says that the Indians do not know what happened in the period between the events when St. Thomas was put to death and the first arrival of the Portuguese, who were primarily devotees of Our Lady, in India. However, after this period, the Tamils’ devotion to Our Lady became strong. Then, in the 1970s when the Velankanni Church came into existence at Besant Nagar in Chennai, this devoutness became stronger. Also, number of people from Tamil Nadu shares a similar attachment with either St. Francis Xavier or other saints of the recent times such as Mother Teresa. It is the common man from Tamil Nadu who largely neglected the apostle instead of the regional priests. Nevertheless, the natives of Kerala have continued, since more than two thousand years, to remain attached to St. Thomas. In fact, the Malayalis like to be called as St. Thomas Christians.
Efforts made by Fr. Raj to bring back the almost lost glory of the apostle to the Roman Catholic community of Chennai have been aggressive in nature. Similar efforts carried over by him, but at a high level, are manifested in the tasks of renovation. For instance, Santhome Basilica was renovated by him during the early 2000s. St. Thomas is buried in a room under the floor of this church. According to Fr. Raj, the tomb is symbolic of the first preaching of the gospel in India. The renovation work was carried out for Rupees 67 lakh in order to make the privileged church more visitors friendly. Likewise, he is trying to renovate Little Mount Church where he is presently serving. He also renovated St. Teresa’s Church located in Nungambakkam. In fact, a large number of various tasks relevant to the work of renovation were carried over ceaselessly by him even when he faced allegations of dishonestly using the provided funds for the purpose.
At Little Mount Church, an elderly little man known as D’Cruz is in the pursuit of the same cause. He claims to be connected with St. Thomas in an unparalleled way. Then, he is proficient in four languages.
D’Cruz serves as the local guide of Little Mount Church. We know that the church is believed to be the site linked to the cave wherein the apostle hid from his murderers. The guide remarks that the existing narrow opening in the cave was originally not open. However, it did open after the apostle offered a prayer to Lord Jesus Christ. Then, at the site, while guiding someone to the cave, D’Cruz takes occasional stops to point the spots where St. Thomas placed his hand, foot and knee.
The grace of Lord Jesus Christ in the guide’s life is expressed by him in his dialogue of the miracles happened in his lifetime and his arrival at Little Mount Church. He also expresses his gratitude for Mother Mary. The faith of D’Cruz is portrayed in his mention of the Holy Cross and the holy water of the fountain that satisfied the St. Thomas’ thirst during his last hours on the earth.
D’Cruz remains always mindful of his duties at Little Mount Church. He not only prioritises various tasks well, but also deals with them appropriately.
Fr. Raj’s efforts are being carried over well at the fundamental level by D’Cruz. Another Anglo Indian, Aubrey Laulman also works almost as a guide at St. Thomas Mount Church with the same objective. After getting his daughters married, he started with the work in 2010. He recollects the unforgettable moment when upon trembling on the steps that led to St. Thomas Mount, he felt a gentle and irresistible push to go ahead and start the work associated with the revival of the almost forgotten apostle in the region. He also showcases to the visitors a miracle in the form of a cross cut by the apostle using his hands alone at the site of St. Thomas Mount.
Laulman states that during the period when St. Thomas was in India, he carried out the noble work of spreading the gospel and performing miracles in the public with the grace of the Lord.
Unlike the present times of satellite dishes, people then prayed a lot. His words, spoken with delight, echoed in the church.
While D’Cruz and Laulman are trying to make St. Thomas relevant among the visitors in their respective churches, Fr. Raj is focusing, in other ways, on the purpose of making everyone on the planet aware of the significant contribution made by the apostle to India. The parish priest remarks that after taking over Little Mount Church two years ago, besides starting the renovation work at the site he made The Feast of St. Thomas an eleven days long festival instead of the then prevalent three-day event. He is also trying to make the celebration as popular as the festival of The Feast of Our Lady, celebrated after Easter.
In order to witness this relation of the apostle with the Indian sub continent region, one should visit, in addition to the Indian state of Kerala, the three important churches located in the capital of Tamil Nadu, Chennai. Truly, Little Mount Church, St. Thomas Mount Church and Santhome Basilica stand as unique testimonies of this relationship.