Saint Kurakose Elias Chavara (1805-1871)

Saint Kuriakose Chavara was born in 1805, of pious and devout Catholic parents, at Kainakary, Kerala, India. After his early schooling in the native village and priestly studies, he was ordained priest in 1829. In 1831, collaborating with Fr. Thomas Palackal and Fr. Thomas Porukara, he founded the first indigenous religious congregation for men, now known as the Carmelites of Mary Immaculate (CMI). As a religious priest on his religious profession in 1855, he took the name Kuriakose Elias of the Holy Family.
He bid adieu to his illustrious earthly life in Jan 3, 1871 at Koonammavu (Ernakulam, Kerala), his mortal remains where later entombed at Mannanam.

On 7 April 1984, Pope John Paul II solemnly recognized the heroic virtues of the Servant of God and elevated him to the status of Venerable. On 8 February 1986, during his historic visit to Kottayam, Kerala, Pope John Paul II raised Venerable Kuriakose Elias Chavara to the honours of the altar declaring him ‘Blessed’. Pope Francis declared Kuriakose Elias Chavara a saint on November 23, 2014. Saint Kuriakose Elias Chavara was a visionary Carmelite priest whose creative and path breaking initiatives, played a pivotal role in initiating a spiritual and social revolution in Kerala, the southern state of India.

The Contributions of Saint Kurakose Elias Chavara

Saint Kurakose Elias Chavara is remembered close to one and half century after his death for his various contributions to the religious and socio-cultural development of Kerala. He was endowed with exceptional creative and leadership qualitiesStarting with seven religious houses, including the first one at Mannanam, in different parts of Kerala, the new Congregation made great strides in the spiritual renovation of the Syro-Malabar Church under their leadership. Seminaries for the education and formation of the clergy, introduction of annual retreats for priests and people, a publishing house, a house for the dying and destitute and schools for general education, were a few among the various activities of the Congregation under Saint Kuriakose Elias Chavara’s leadership. In 1866, with the co-operation of Fr. Leopold Boccaro OCD, he started the congregation of the Mother of Carmel (CMC) for women.
An educationist: In the first half of the 19th century, admission to even government schools was denied to children from Dalit and other socially and economically backward communities. Saint Kuriakose Elias Chavara set up schools where admission to students, irrespective of caste, creed and status was guaranteed. Saint Kuriakose Elias Chavara realised that if a girl was educated, a whole family would be educated and provided all educational facilities to girl children.
It was in the first decade of the 21st century that on the orders of the Supreme Court, the government introduced a mid-day meal scheme in government schools. One and half a century ago, Saint Kuriakose Elias Chavara provided meals to students from poor families because he believed that good meals was a must for the intellectual and physical growth of children. He also supplied free books, slates and clothes to needy children. Sir C.P. Ramaswamy Iyer, as Diwan of Travancore, quoted such practices while preparing a note to the Maharaja on the need to universalise primary education.
The Malayalam word for school is “pallikoodam”, which means a hut attached to the church. Saint Kuriakose Elias Chavara gave a new direction to the pallikoodam movement. As Vicar General, he issued a circular in which he made it mandatory for every church to have a school attached to it. In fact, he even threatened that no church without a school would be consecrated. Soon, hundreds of new schools sprouted in the state.
Saint Kurakose Elias Chavara was the first to start a Sanskrit school: Until Fr Chavara arrived on the scene, Sanskrit was more or less the privilege of few. He started a school where he employed a Brahmin from Trichur to teach Sanskrit. The students of his seminary were taught Sanskrit. He himself was a life-long student of Sanskrit. He knew the Hindu scriptures so well that he used them to develop his own theological writing.
Saint Kurakose Elias Chavara, the founder of the homes for the poor and the homeless: He set up India’s first home for the poor at Kainakari, which continues to this day. He gave a written instruction on how funds should be collected to run such homes, which were meant for the destitute. In his own life time, he set up several such homes.
Saint Kurakose Elias Chavara the first playwright: The first Indian drama is Neeldarpan, written in Bengali by Deenbandhu Mishra on the miseries of the indigo cultivators. It was published in 1860. The first Malayalam play is considered Abhinjana Shakuntalam, translated into Malayalam by Kerala Verma Valiakovil Thampuran in 1882. Decades before that, Fr Chavara had written as many as 10 eclogues or liturgical dramas. Unlike in the case of Abhinjana Shakuntalam, which was staged several decades later, the eclogues were staged by the students of Fr Chavara’s seminary. So, he can be considered the father of Malayalam drama.

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