It was the first-ever Indian Catholic Heritage Day, a gala spiritual and cultural event for Philadelphia’s growing community of Catholics who have migrated from India.
Held at St. Thomas Syro-Malabar Catholic Church on Welsh Road in Northeast Philadelphia, it was doubly special.
This was the occasion for a first-ever visit as a cardinal by Cardinal George Alencherry, the Major Archbishop of the India-based Syro-Malabar Church, and also a visit from Philadelphia’s Archbishop Charles Chaput.
The visit also included their own bishop, Syro-Malabar Bishop Mar Jacob Angadiath, the Syro-Malabar Bishop of Chicago which is the only diocese of that branch of Catholicism in the United States.
As with most Indian celebrations, it was preceded by a huge procession with white-clad children, ladies in gorgeous saris, drummers, banners, flowers, ornamental umbrellas and most important, enthusiastic joy.
Also participating in the liturgy that followed were Indian Bishops Yoohannon Mar Chrysostom and Joseph Mar Thomas of the Syro-Malankara Catholic Church, which along with the Syro-Malabar Catholic Church traces its Christian heritage to evangelization in India during the first century by St. Thomas the Apostle.
“We as Christians and as Catholics participate in this common heritage,” Cardinal Alencherry said at the concelebrated Mass. “Our different traditions make a common tradition,” and “we are all children of God … We have one Lord, one faith and one Church, all for the glory of God and the kingdom of God.”
Catholics from India are relative newcomers to the Church in America.
As Archbishop Chaput noted in his remarks, “every generation of immigrants to this country are in a sense missionaries. Immigrants are like a blood transfusion to the Church in America.”
Indian Catholics first began to arrive in this area in the 1970s. Established as a congregation in 1983, for years the Syro-Malabar Catholics held worship services at various Catholic churches in Philadelphia, and seven years ago they established a church in what was a former synagogue on Welsh Road.
Beautifully redecorated in Indian liturgical style, its former use is perhaps hinted at by the placement of the tabernacle in what was the former alcove for the sacred torahs and also by the unusual but wonderfully comfortable theater-type seating for the congregation.
Sponsor for the Indian Catholic Heritage Day was the Indian American Catholic Association of Greater Philadelphia. Its chairman, Charly Chirayath, estimates there are 2,000-3,000 Indian Catholics in the region, whether Roman, Syro-Malabar or Syro-Malankara, and the number keeps growing.
“The faith is very strong and we want to pass it on to the next generation,” he said.
Also attending the Mass were other officers of the association including president Austin John, secretary Dr. James Kurichi, treasurer Sunny Padayattil and the spiritual director, Father Matthew Manakkatt.
After the Mass but before refreshments were served, plaques were given to all the founding families of the congregation.
“I live about 10 miles away, but my family comes for the traditions,” said George Thanakunnel. “We feel at home when we come together. We have Mass and then get together for a social. It’s two or three hours a week.”
Mariam Kakkantu has only been in this country 12 years, so she isn’t a founding member, but she received a plaque anyway. It was only right, since she is 103 and still coming to St. Thomas where the liturgies are in her native tongue.
“She comes to continue her traditions and to pray,” a companion explained. “She says at least three rosaries every day.”
“It’s really a flourishing community. They come from all over,” said St. Thomas’ pastor, Father John Melepuram. “Our church blends together two countries and honoring our pioneers this way was great.”
Lou Baldwin is a freelance writer and member of St. Leo Parish, Philadelphia.