|SEPTEMBER 2005||THOSE WHO LED US||
Mathews Mar Athanasius, Metropolitan,was an outstanding religious leader deserving a proud place among the great men of Kerala and beyond. He was compared to Marthanda Varma, the brave king who was the founder of the kingdom of Travancore, to Moses in the Old Testament in terms of his spiritual leadership, and to King David for the integrity of his faith.
This great hero of faith was born on 25th April 1818 in the Palakunnathu family in Maramon. It was not a wealthy family but it had the good fortune to have nurtured many religious leaders imbued with faith and endowed with innate leadership of the Malankara Syrian Church. He was named Mathen by his father Mathen Mappila who was the nephew of Thoma Malpan and elder brother of Abraham Malpan. Mathe's mother was Annamma, daughter of Oollasserimannil Geevarghese, whose family had clerical leaders in its ranks. Mathen had two brothers, Thomas and Joseph, two sisters Mariamma and Achieamma. Thomas became a popular Ayurveda physician and Joseph, a landowner. Third son of Joeph became Metropolitan Titus II. The present Suffragan Metropolitan Joseph Mar Irenaeus is the great grandson of Joseph. Mathen's cousins, i.e. Abraham Malpan's third son became a Metropolitan Thomas Mar Athanasios, and fourth son Titus became Metropolitan Titus I. So the Palakkunnathu family had a succession of eminent ecclesiastic leaders of the Marthoma Syrian Church. Mathen's sister Mariamma was married to Cherukara Philipose Malpan. The young Mathen was a bright and active and Abraham Malpan, his uncle, took special interest in his education. When he was seven, he was put under the care of a well-known teacher Cherukol Asan. Within three years he became the Malpan for Syriac in Old Seminary Kottayam, and Mathen was admitted to Seminary. The famous trio of CMS missionaries - Bailey, Fenn and Baker - was teachers at the Seminary for English, Greek and Hebrew. Abraham Malpan and Konatt Malpan taught Syriac and Pandit Kozhikod Kunjan Asan, Sanskrit. Mathen earned the affection of all the teachers and the close friendship of fellow-students, Puthenkavil George Mathen and Anjilimoottil Mathen, the nephew of Metropolitan.
The three bright Mathen's were ordained as Deacons by the Metropolitan when they were 13 and they continued thei studies at the seminary. Sadly Anjilimoottil Mathen Semmasen passed away at an early age. In 1835 Mathen and Abraham Malpan had to endure the sudden bereavement of Mathe's father, Mathen Mappila at a young age.
When both the Mathens completed their studies at the Old seminary they were encouraged by Abraham Malpan to go to Madras for further studies. Travel to Madras was a tortuous and dangerous one in those days. They had to use bullock carts where available and the rest by foot. The two young men were brave and resourceful and they reached Madras after a month and joined Anderson School, which later became Madras Christian College. They studied for four years and gained sound scholarship in various subjects. George Mathen subsequently joined the Aaglican Church and became well-known George Mathen Padre.
Mathen Semmasan decided to go to Mardin of southeastern Turkey under Ottuman Empire which was the seat of the Antiochian Patriarch. Travel to Mardin was very hazardous. Mathen Semmasan prepared himself to face the dangers of the travel and consoled a widowed mother and other nervous relatives and friends with assurance that God will protect in all difficulties. Mathen Semmasan started his journey in 1840 and in Cochin he met a member of the Royal family who was going to Madras to learn more about the Christian faith. Later His Highness received baptism and became Rev. Jacob Rama Varma, a leading cleric of the German Mission.
Mathen Semmasan went to his old School and met his tutors who raised financial support for his journey and gave him a letter of recommendation to the Anglican clergy in Bombay. They also arranged for Mathen Semmasan to join a British army cavalry corps going from Madras to Bombay. They provided Semmasan with a horse to ride with them as there was no other form of transport to Bombay. It was his first effort to ride a horse but he was intrepid enough to travel as an experienced traveler. When they reached Bombay, the Commander took him to the church in Central Bombay. It was a Saturday and Semmasan went inside the church and saw the verger making the preparation for the Sunday service. Semmasan met the chaplain and gave him the letter of introduction from Madras and found warm welcome and ready hospitality. The chaplain took him to the church on Sunday and in his Sermon he made a statement about Malankara Syrian Church along the lines that the Semmasan had briefed him. The Chaplain asked Semmasan to give the sermon for the evening service which he did well as he was fluent in English. The congregation was impressed by the young Deacon as they called him and provided all the help required for his journey to Basra and beyond to Mardin and organized his voyage on a sailing boat as steam boats were not in vogue in those days. The voyage of Mardin took 5 months; besides which there was a trickier voyage up a river. Semmasan did not know Arabic or Hindi, the languages that the crew and passengers spoke. Semmasan developed friendship with a young man called Ahmad, who was helpful to him on the voyage and even after arrival at the destination. The rest of the journey was on foot in knee deep sand and Ahmad took him to a travelerís hostel. Semmasan became ill with fever and he had no help. But he saw a European couple passing by and he shouted for help in English. The couple heard him, came to the hostel and understood his situation. They took him to their bungalow and nursed him to health. He said good-bye to them and proceeded on his travel.
When reached a village quite a distance away he sought lodgings with a Christian widowed lady. Her only son Kaduri was abducted by a Muslim group to a house nearby and was trying to convert him to Islamic faith. Semmasan promised to find Kaduri, but the lady warned Semmasan that the abductors would not hesitate to kill him. All the same, he went around and found a house where there was a young man alone. He thought it was Kaduri and he tried unsuccessfully to communicate with Kaduri by sign language. He returned to the house and prayed for Kaduri. That night there was a knock at the door, and the voice of someone calling 'mother'. When the lady was sure it was Kaduri she opened the door. Kaduri enquired of his mother about the black man who had come to see him and when he understood it was a Christian Deacon who could speak Syriac, Kaduri told him he would take him to the Patriarch. So together they set about for the Dayara. In the morning when they neared the Dayara they saw an old man in Episcopal robes on a donkey. Kaduri told him that it was the Patriarch. When they approached him the Patriarch was pleased to realize that Semmasan was an intelligent young man who could speak Syriac and could be communicated with. His Holiness took him to Dayara and ordered food for his young visitor and asked him to take rest. Thus, Mathen Semmasan reached his destination after facing the dangers of the sea, robbers on the way, dangers of the desert, exhausted by sleeplessness and ravages of climate and untold hurdles on the way. The Patriarch at Semmasan's request helped Kaduri by arranging for him to get the title 'Makudisa'. It was Turkish law that any Christian who had that title would not be subjected to any harassment.
On the same day of his arrival the Patriarch asked Mathews Semmasan to accompany him to Dayara Chapel for evening prayers and invited Semmasan to say the prayers in Syriac, which His Holiness listened to attentively and noted his melodious voice, good accent in Syriac, and correct rhyme in chanting which evoked the spirit of worship. The Bava formed an affectionately positive impression about Semmasan and invited him to stay in his quarters. The news of arrival of the Semmasan to the Dayara spread quickly and Christians all over West Asia came to see him. Anyone who talked to him and attended the Services he conducted was pleased and impressed. His deep knowledge of Syriac, the correct church procedure and his ability to give excellent sermons impressed the laity, clergy, the Metropolitans of the various Sees [Dioceses] and the inmates of the Dayara. Within a few months he became fluent in Arabaic. He reorganized the library at the Dayara, where some of the books were collecting dust and mildew, and he read most of them. He instructed the Dayara inmates about the way to handle and care for the ancient books and records.
The Bava was very fond of hymns in Syriac and Arabaic and he was equally interested to hear hymns in Malayalam and Tamil. His Holiness asked the Semmasan to accompany him in his evening walks and he had plenty of opportunity to hear from the Semmasan and to instruct him. When the Bava found that the Semmasan had fully met all the requirements for priesthood he ordained him as Mathews Kassisa (Rev. Mathews) and he was asked to celebrate the first Qurbana [Holy Communion]. He was asked to continue to stay with the Bava as he was of great assistance to him. The Bava also gave him all the facilities and instructions to qualify for consecration as a Bishop. On his travels the Bava took Mathews Kassisa with him and often asked the Kassisa to give sermons. Thus the Bava illustrated to the various congregations and dioceses that the service of the Word was important in Church traditions, which was often overlooked in the Antiochan Church. The sermons of Mathews Kassisa proved beneficial to all who heard him.
Bava elevated Rev. Mathews to the position of Ramban and after a few days His Holiness the Patriarch Moran Mar Elias assisted by a number of Bishops consecrated Mathews Ramban under the Episcopal name of Mathews Mar Athanasios as a Metropolitan. His Holiness gifted the Metropolitan Mathews with a Crook [Episcopal staff], the Mitre [Episcopal headdress], and a copy of the Holy Gospel according to St. Mathew.
Although His Holiness the Patriarch of Antioch had blessed Metropolitan for his retuen journey to Kerala, he asked for a delay on his return journey for few months as the See of Mosul was without a Bishop and the Patriarch appointed Mathews to be in charge of the See of Mosul. His administration of the See of Mosul and the spiritual awakening created there was pleasing to the clergy and laity of the See. He had his residence with a prosperous Semmasan name Abdul Kader. It may be recalled that he was by this time as fluent in Arabaic as he was in Syriac, which helped him to endear himself to the people of Mosul who wanted him to stay on with them. While returning to Bombay, Abdul Kader Semmasan presented him with an Episcopal cross in gold.
Metropolitan Mathews worked unceasingly for the upliftment of the Christian community in Kerala. He ordered the abolition of the practice of forced labour imposed by Hindu Temple authorities on Christian women of pounding and cleaning rice for temples, inflicting degrading punishment for non-compliance. The temples also demanded compulsory participation of Christians in their festivals. The Metropolitan abolished all such practices. Where government officers exceeded their authority and penalized Christians, he initiated action and secured the dismissal of such officers. He also used his influence with chief officers like the Dewan to secure important government jobs for duly qualified Christians. Thus he enhanced the prestige and status of the Christian community without fear and favour.
It was customary for the Malankara Church to run primary schools in every parish, but some parishes could not afford it financially. Metropolitan Mathews took steps to render help to the weak parishes and enable them also to have schools. Further, the Metropolitan approached the Dewan, Sir T. Madhav Rao, and persuaded him to give a grant-in-aid to church-run schools, taking advantage of Dewans's keenness to spread literacy. He called on the leaders of the Church like Ittoop writer and Kurien Writer to organize a fund-raising scheme to enhance the educational functions in the Seminary.
Metropolitan Mathews, while staying in a southern parish church, was bitten on his leg by a rat at night and it became septic. He was a diabetic and the septic condition aggravated and he returned to Maramon where he had his residence. The illness of the Metropolitan took a turn for the worse but he was conscious till the last moment. The founder of Marthoma Syrian Church and the first Marthoma Metropolitan Mathews Mar Athanasios passed away on 15th July 1877
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