Not many of the thousands of young, and not-so-young men and women who attend the Holy Qurbana in fifty and more parishes of the Diocese of Delhi may be aware of the beginnings of the Orthodox Church in northern India, in our own times.
Ever since the Catholicate of the East was transferred to and established in India, in 1912, the Church felt all the more its absence in the national capital. The number of Orthodox Christians in Delhi however remained small-compared to Chennai, Kolkatta and Mumbai- though their strength was gradually growing. They occasionally attended the services in one of the other churches and met, together with other Malayalees, at the annual Onam festivities. Those were days when no one enquired about the religious denomination to which one belonged.
As it happened, the Second World War provided an opportunity in 1942 to start liturgical worship in Delhi. In the face of the Japanese onslaught in Southeast Asia, the British were forced to retreat. Kolkatta suffered sporadic bombing. Within another year, Imphal fell to the invaders. Many offices were moved out of the city and so was the Bishop’s College, which shifted to Kathauli in Uttar Pradesh, a few hours journey from Delhi.
Father Mathews, the former Catholicos, H.H. Moran Mar Baselios Mar Thoma Mathews II, was then a student at the Bishop’s College. He came over to Delhi twice a month to celebrate the Holy Qurbana; the remaining Sundays he celebrated the Eucharist at the college in Kathauli where the congregation consisted of students from Kerala belonging to various Christian denominations. Accommodating Fr. Mathews overnight at Delhi was easy as his habits were simple and his needs few.
Meanwhile, in 1938, the Churches outside Kerala had been grouped into a new Diocese. And, Alexios Mar Theodosios was consecrated the same year as the Bishop of Kollam and the “Diocese outside Kerala”. His Grace visited Delhi in 1944 to consider the means of establishing a church in Delhi. But building a church in Delhi was not easy as there were only about 15 families and some 150 persons living away from their families in Kerala, in the Orthodox community in the city at the time. All the same, hopes remained alive.
Liturgical worship continued more or less regularly. Also in 1944, Metropolitan H.G. Thomas Mar Dionysius halted in Delhi on his way back from Eastern war front and celebrated the Holy Qurbana at the Church of the Redemption. After the service, His Grace gave a graphic account of his impressions of the troops on the front line. He also recalled the interest taken by an earlier British Viceroy, Lord Irwin, in brining peace between the Church in India and the Patriarch of Antioch and also his attending the Holy Qurbana in the St. George’s Orthodox Church on a visit to Thiruvananthapuram.
The Diocesan Metropolitan H.G. Alexios Mar Theodosios revisited Delhi in 1952, celebrated the Holy Qurbana in the Chapel attached to the Lady Hardinge Hospital and baptized two infants. A group met with His Grace at the residence of Mr. M.M. Thomas (later, Adviser to the Union Public Service Commission) and discussed the support needed for a parish in Delhi. This meeting was a turning point in that it decided to go ahead and take steps to construct a church in the capital.
This important resolve was prompted by several influences. A visit by the Missionary Bishop, Pathros Mar Osthathios had prepared the mind of the congregation on the basic need of a church of their own in Delhi. The 19 th centenary of the arrival of St. Thomas in India provided the inspiration to formally launch the parish in Delhi in 1952 with the help of Fr. T.G. Koshy from Mumbai. Indeed, this rare celebration, jointly organized by all the Christians in the capital, was enriched by the participation of the President of India, Dr. Rajendra Prasad as well as the Prime Minister, Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru, both of whom spoke warmly of the St. Thomas tradition as a national legacy. In the words of the President at the St. Thomas Day Celebration on 18 December 1952 : “Those Indians who trace their Christianity to St. Thomas have a longer history and a higher ancestry than that of Christians of many of the European countries. And it is really a matter of pride to us that it so happened.” The spiritual and political encouragement was reinforced by the offer of Mr. C.P. Matthen, Member of Parliament, to meet any deficit in the funds required for constructing the church.
The next step was to choose a priest who would be satisfied with a modest living allowance. The Diocesan Metropolitan, Mar Theodosios selected Father K.C. Thomas (at present Metropolitan, H.G.Thomas Mar Makarios of the Diocese of Canada-UK-Europe). Fr. Thomas lived at the YMCA, sharing a room and cheerfully putting up with considerable inconveniences. He served the parish for about 11 years.
The Holy Qurbana was being regularly conducted, for a time in the St. Thomas Church on Reading Road (now Mandir Marg) and thereafter for many years in the St. James Church at Kashmere Gate by the courtesy of the Cambridge Mission Brotherhood.
In 1961, the Delhi Orthodox Syrian Church Society was set up as a registered body with the three-fold aim of establishing a place of worship for the parish and an educational institution and a health care facility for the public. The effort to mobilize resources started in earnest and intensified during 1964-68. By the end of this period the St. Mary’s Orthodox Church (now a Cathedral) was completed, thereby laying the foundation for the new Diocese of Delhi which came into being in less than another decade.
How could a small congregation of a few faithfuls achieve this ambition? The contributing factors were many. With the coming of Independence, the Orthodox Church felt the urge, even more strongly than before, to express the national identity of its ancient faith through an active socio-cultural presence in the capital of India. His Holiness the Catholicos, H.H. Moran Mar Baselios Geevarghese II who guided the Church for 35 years until 1964, ardently wished and prayed for this to happen. His successor His Holiness Baselios Augen I strongly supported the initiative of the Delhi parish. Also, there was peace within the Church following the 1958 accord between the Catholicos and the Patriarch of Antioch. This explains the happy event in May 1964 when the Patriarch Moran Mar Ignatius Yakkoub III laid the foundation stone of the St. Mary’s Church, with the participation of the Diocesan Bishop Mathews Mar Athanasios (who later became Catholicos as H.H. Moran Mar Baselios Mar Thoma Mathews I). Further, the public support of the President and the Prime Minister of India, from the very beginning, for the role of the Orthodox Christian community in the renewed socio-religious life of India was invaluable and continued through the powerful goodwill expressed by their successors, Presidents Dr. S Radhakrishnan and Dr. Zakir Hussain and Prime Ministers Shri Lal Bahadur Shastri and Shrimati Indira Gandhi.
There was international solidarity as well. In its formative years the Delhi parish had the good fortune of welcoming spiritual leaders like the Catholicos of Armenia, His Holiness Vuzgen I and the Head of the Ethiopian Church, His Holiness Abba Theophilus. His Imperial Majesty Haile Sellassie, Emperor of Ethiopia, who had visited India and the church in 1956 –(incidentally, Mr. Paul Varghese, the former Diocesan Metropolitan H.G. Dr. Paulos Mar Gregorios, soon after became his Personal Aide and Advisor)- gifted a sum of Rs. 50,000 to the church building fund at a critical stage in 1966. The emperor also paid a memorable visit to the St. Mary’s Church in April 1968, within a few days of its consecration by the Diocesan Metropolitan Mathews Mar Athanasios. The parish hall of the cathedral is named after the Emperor.
Financial support for constructing the future St. Mary’s Cathedral came from varied, sometimes unexpected sources. The citizens of Delhi, prominently including members of the sister churches, and several business houses contributed willingly through participation in fund-raising fetes and buying advertisement space in publications, which became a regular feature. A major part of the building fund came from voluntary contribution of a month’s salary by the members of the parish. There were contributions also from Kerala, such as from the Kottayam Cheria Palli.
The resources generated were managed with efficient care, on financial matters by Mr. A.V. Poulose (who subsequently became Secretary to the Government of India in the Ministry of Railways) and on the engineering aspects by Mr. P.K. Thomas (later, Chief Engineer, Roads, Ministry of Transport). Besides them, the Church society had the benefit of the mature leadership of the presiding vicars, Father C.V. Samuel who succeeded Father K.C. Thomas and from 1965, Father K.A. George. Mr. A.M. Thomas, Minister of State for Defense Production was an unfailing source of support. Mrs. Achamma John Matthai, (wife of India’s first Minister for Railways and thereafter Finance Minister) was another staunch supporter of the church building project. Senior members of the parish like Mr. P.C. Mathew, Secretary, Ministry of Labour and Dr. K.C. Thomas, Secretary in the Ministry of Irrigation and Power and many others in and outside the government were consistently helpful in realizing the collective vision.
Even as progress was maintained in the construction of the Church at the headquarter of the future diocese, care was taken by the vicar and the parishioners to ensure the regularity of the Holy Qurbana as well as allied activities for spiritual growth through Prayer Meetings, Martha Mariam Samajam, Youth League and Bible Class. Though limited in resources, the Delhi parish extended spiritual and moral support, one way or another, to congregations such as of Ambala, striving to come into their own, emulating the Delhi example.
Indeed, nothing would come in the way of congregations organizing themselves, parishes being established and churches being built by relatively small groups of Orthodox Christians in other cities and towns in north India.
This momentous trend signified the return to the north of the faith of St. Thomas the Apostle who, according to historical tradition, had spread the Gospel in places such as Takshashila (Taxila near Islamabad in Pakistan), the ancient Buddhist university centre. Clearly, this good fortune came as a divine gift, expressed as unprecedented goodwill of men and women within and well beyond the Orthodox community.
Teaching Mission: As soon as the St.Mary's Church Building was completed, St.Paul's School was started in the parish hall in July 1968. This has now grown into a prestigious full-fledged Senior Secondary School.. There are well-established Senior Secondary Schools at Hauz Khas, Udaipur, Faridabad, Janakpuri and Ghaziabad, and other schools offering education upto varying levels at Kanpur, Gwalior, Chandigarh, Indirapuram (Ghaziabad), Singrauli, Lucknow and Banswara, with ambitious plans to upgrade them gradually. The latest addition to this family of educational institutions, is the Shantigram Vidya Niketan forming part of the Shantigram Project, for which a building has been constructed. 250 wards from the neighbourhood villages are taught in this school now.
Healing Mission: A clinic has been set up in the Shantigram Project, and it is functioning well. The latest addition in this field is St.Mary's Medical Centre at Aya Nagar, in fulfilment of the third objective of The Delhi Orthodox Syrian Church Society to establish health care units. The vision of the Society is to upgrade this into a full-fledged hospital in due course.
Shantigram Project: A notable activity in the Diocese related to the setting up of the Shantigram project, jointly owned by The Delhi Orthodox Diocesan Council and The Delhi Orthodox Syrian Church Society and managed by The Sophia Society. This is a people-centred, multi-sectoral and holistic Social Support System for community renewal, situated in the village of Mandavar in Sohna tehsil of Haryana State. Around 10000 villagers in around ten villages are currently covered, but the coverage is to be gradually expanded. Basic education, better community health. and greater economic security are expected to be enabled by the project.
The Diocese Today
Once the nucleus of the Orthodox Church in north India was formed in the capital of the country, the growth of parishes in adjacent centres was rapid and the establishment of the Diocese of Delhi followed in a few short years. Outside Delhi, there are several parishes spread across the various States at Alwar, Gurgaon, Kherti Nagar, Bharatpur, Gwalior, Jhansi, Dholpur, Agra, Dehradun, Ambala, Hardwar, Bhatinda, Hanumangarh, Chandigarh, Ludhiana, Jallandhar, Jaipur, Kanpur, Udaipur, Bhilwara, Banswara, Chittorgarh, Dungarpur, Pratapgarh, Singrauli, Obra., Renukoot, Varanasi, Ajmer, Kota, Rawat Bhatta, Lucknow, Rae Bareli, Allahabad, Jodhpur, Bikaner, and Jaisalmer. New congregations have also been started at BITS Pilani, and Pali. Allahabad has also witnessed an amicable settlement with the CNI Church, and a vicar has been nominated for the church there.
Today, there are thirteen parishes in and around Delhi alone – Hauz Khas, Janakpuri, Tughlaqabad, Sarita Vihar, Mayur Vihar-I, Mayur Vihar-III, Rohini, Dwaraka, Dilshad Garden, Ghaziabad, Noida, Gurgaon and Faridabad. Overall, there are sixty one parishes including some congregations looked after by one Ramban and thirty six priests, spread over Uttar Pradesh, Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh, Haryana, Delhi and United Arab Emirates.
In 1975, the Delhi Diocese was constituted by the Holy Synod, along with the four other new dioceses of Madras, Bombay, Calcutta and America. The next year, His Grace Dr. Paulose Mar Gregorios took charge as the Metropolitan of Delhi. By 1985, the Diocesan headquarters moved to its own building, the Delhi Orthodox Centre in Tughlaqabad in South Delhi. An architecturally distinctive three-storey building, the centre was dedicated by His Holiness Catholicos Baselios Mar Thoma Mathews I and inaugurated by the Vice-President of India, Sri R Venkataraman, in November 1984. With the St. Thomas Chapel in the middle, the centre is the residence of the Metropolitan and houses, besides the secretariat of the Diocesan Council, a library, a publication unit, the People’s Education Society, Sophia Society, Sarva Dharma Nilaya, Dhyan Mandir and Niti Santi Kendra, engaged in a variety of complementary activities. In 1991, the Diocese was strengthened by the arrival of His Grace Job Mar Philoxenos as the Assistant Metropolitan.