Mar Varghese Payyappilly Palakkappilly is the founder of the Congregation of the Sisters of the Destitute (S. D.). He is declared as Servant of God by the Syro-Malabar Church.
He was born on 8th August 1876 to Payyappilly Palakkappilly Lonan and Kunjumariam at Perumanoor. He had four brothers, namely Kunjulonan, Korah, Thoma and Kunjautha. His relatives were very learned and were occupying important positions in the society and some of them even had received honorary titles from the King of Kochi. But his parents were of simple and straightforward nature. He had the fortune to grow up in a family richly blessed with vocations. His primary scholastic education was done at the parish school in Perumanoor and high school education at St. Albert’s School, Ernakulam. While studying in 9th class he joined the Central Seminary at Puthenpally. He completed his priestly studies from the Papal Seminary in Kandy, Sri Lanka. He received the Holy Order of Kashisha and celebrated first Holy Qurbana on 21st December 1907. He learned the Syriac language under the guidance of Pazheparambil Mar Aloysius, Vicar Apostolic of Ernakulam vicariate.
Varghese Kathanar’s first assignment as pastor was at Mar Augustinose Syro-Malabar Catholic Church, Kadamakkudy (1909-1910). And later he served the parishes of Marth Mariam Syro-Malabar Catholic Church, Alangad (1910–13, 1918-20) and Marth Mariam Syro-Malabar Catholic Church, Arakuzha (1920–22) as parish priest. He was also a member of the Diocesan Council and had rendered his services as Director of Apostolic Union as well as Priests’ Provident Fund. While he was the vicar of Arakuzha parish, he began the St. Mary’s School there. He was instrumental in bringing a total transformation in the parish and had helped to solve many of the long lasting family problems. He also purchased 12 acres of land in M. C. Road for constructing Mar Ouseph Syro-Malabar Catholic Church at Meenkunnam.
In his 22 years of priestly life, only 10 years he could spend in parishes. His life with fellow priests was in total communion of service and love, an imitative example of community life. They were always together, praying together, eating together, planning together, recreating together; a holy fellowship that helped one another to grow in holiness and service to the flock of the Lord. An imitation of the life of the first Christians, we might say.
He was always a source of comfort to the poor and the suffering. When his elder brother Kunjulonan, deeply grieved at the immature death of his wife, was on the point of death, Varghese Kathanar comforted him saying that he would care for the orphaned children and took them, namely Lonan, Cheria, Rosa and Kunjumariam, under his paternal protection. He was silently contemplating in his mind about his future mission, and now concretely with the orphaned children of his dead brother.
He was appointed as the manager of St. Mary’s High School, Aluva which was one of the foremost educational institutions in the Travancore. He held this office for two terms; from 1913 to 1918 and again from 1922 to 1929. In 1913 when he became the manager of the school, the institution was passing through a period of deep crisis for the recognition was withdrawn in 1909. The silver jubilee report of the school explains how Varghese Kathanar had tackled the problem.
Cardinal Parecattil Mar Ouseph, Metropolitan and Head of the Syro-Malabar Catholic Church, was a student of Varghese Kathanar and studied staying in the school boarding and as such had ample opportunity to know closer the figure of Varghese Kathanar. During the time of Varghese Kathanar, the school was a seedbed of priestly vocations as testified in the autobiography by Metropolitan Mar Ouseph:
“Varghese Kathanar was the manager when I joined the school. A slim figure with sunken eyes and with a serious expression on the face, he was an outstanding person. I may never have seen anybody with a will power stronger than what he had. Nothing could shake him or take away his inner tranquility. I can sincerely say that the formation that I had received under him did exercise a great influence in my life. The air that one was breathing at the boarding was really a spiritual one and one cannot but give full credit for it to our saintly father. All those who wanted to become priests had to inform Varghese Kathanar about their decision. This was the directive in the hostel and after much prayer and reflection I arrived at the conclusion and then I went to Varghese Kathanar and told him of my desire“
He had a great influence among the prominent persons of Aluva. Once for the election of Municipal Chairman, the tug of war became so strong and inconclusive that both warring parties approached Varghese Kathanar and asked him to become the Chairman. Both groups had promised that they would be faithful to him. But he did not comply with their request. He was held in great honor by the church authorities and equally by the officials in the education department and government officers. The government had given him free pass to travel in the railways.
During the great flood of 1924, which the older generation would call as the great flood of 99 alluding to the year of the local calendar when the flood struck, Varghese Kathanar readily went amidst the populace that had suffered the loss of everything. He comforted, encouraged and gave them a motivation not to give up, but to rebuild. He suffered for them and with them. He gave them accommodation in St. Mary’s School and provided for them as best as he could. He braved the raging waters of the flood and in a small hired boat he reached the homeless wherever they were to be found and brought them relief.
Until the 19th century there were no organized form of charitable services in Kerala to care for the poor and the destitute. Varghese Kathanar came forward with the idea of founding a congregation to continue Christ’s redemptive mission among the poor. He made the purchase of 75 acres of land at Chunangamvely in the name of Ernakulam archeparchy and founded the Congregation of the Sisters of the Destitute (S. D.) on 19 March 1927. It was originally named Little Sisters of the Poor. But in 1933, the name was changed to Sisters of the Destitute, since there was another congregation having the same title.
He picked up those found lying abandoned, brought them to the shelter of the Home for the Aged and nursed them personally. He and the nuns used to go far places such as Changanacherry, Kottayam, Kothamangalam and Pala to seek alms for their poor. Once a young nun, Kochuthresia, stood helpless before an aged disabled person as to what to do for the man had been lying drenched in his excrement and with such foul smell that it was impossible even to go near him. Varghese Kathanar stepped in, rolled up the sleeves of his cassock and took him in arms, changed his stinking dress, bathed him, dressed him in a clean dress, fed him and laid him back on his cot. While he was assisting the poor man, he just looked at the nun and told her, “Do you know who is lying here on the bed?” His glance and the question tore right deep into the heart of the nun and immediately she recalled the fact that it was Jesus himself who was there lying in that miserable condition. This fact, later, she herself has testified.
Varghese Kathanar died of typhoid on 5th October 1929 and was buried at Mar Yohannan Nepumsianose Syro-Malabar Catholic Church, Konthuruthy. The funeral rite was administered by Kandathil Mar Augustinose, Metropolitan and Head of the Syro-Malabar Church, as the main celebrant in the presence of numerous priests and a huge gathering of people. “I feel a part of me has been paralyzed” was the mournful expression of Metropolitan Mar Augustinose.
The Cause of the Beatification of Varghese Kathanar was initiated by Cardinal Vithayathil Mar Varkey, Major Archbishop of the Syro-Malabar Catholic Church, in 2009. Subsequently, in February 2011, his remains were exhumed, identified and transferred to a new tomb. The Miracle Tribunal that had been established to study the miraculous healing of Sr. Mercina through Varghese Kathanar’s intercession was closed in May 2012 and the Archdiocesan Tribunal was closed in November 2012 in the presence of Cardinal Alencherril Mar George, Major Archbishop of the Syro-Malabar Catholic Church.