Every denomination has its own unique history of origins. For the Mar Thoma Church, it traces its roots to one of the twelve apostles, Thomas, who arrived in India in the first century to preach the gospel to the Jewish community. Some of the Jews and locals in India had become followers of Jesus of Nazareth and they were later known as the Mar Thoma Christians.

            Kerala, lying on the South Western coast of India, was the focus of such activities. The remnant of that Church, still independent and under local leadership is known today as the Malankara Mar Thoma Suryani Sabha. This is the official name for Malankara Mar Thoma Syrian Church, which became known as Mar Thoma Church, in short. Maliankara is a place near Muziris, where the Apostle Thomas also known as Mar Thoma or “Saint Thomas” first landed in Kerala in the first century. “Sabha” in Malayalam simply means a place where God is worshipped. In modern English, this is equivalent to the Church, a word which originated from the Greek 'ekklesia'. Till today, the Mar Thoma Church continues with the Eastern Syriac liturgy in all its services.

            Currently, the Church has over one million members, where majority of its members are in the southern Indian state of Kerala. With the 20th century Indian diaspora, the Mar Thoma Church has also spread its wings to Europe, North America, the Middle East, Malaysia, Singapore, South Africa, Australia and New Zealand. John Kuruvilla was one of the main instruments God had used to build His community of believers in Malaysia, especially in the Kedah town of Sungai Petani.

            Sent by the Mar Thoma Church in Kerala, Rev. T.N. Koshy became the first Achen (which literally means, `Father’ in Malayalam) to Malaya. In 1938, after his arrival, Rev. Koshy conducted the worship services in Sungai Petani at a humble shoplot in Jalan Merbau, Sungai Petani, belonging to the Chinese Methodist Church. By about 1940, the Mar Thoma Church moved to the premises owned by the Tamil Methodist Church in Jalan Sekerat, which was just a little walking distance – about one kilometre – from Kedah Medical Hall, where John Kuruvilla operated his pharmacy business.

            As a lay leader, John Kuruvilla had always played host to the visiting bishop and priests who came to Sungai Petani for a visit. They would also always stay with him and the family. Gracy was a good cook, who never failed to prepare good food for the visiting men of God. There was an incident once when one of the bishops from Tiruvella, which was the home of the original Mar Thoma Church, came to stay with him. After leaving for India, the Bishop, being a busy and well-travelled man, must have forgotten John Kuruvilla. When they met up face to face, John Kuruvilla, with tongue in cheek, said over lunch: “Thairumeni (addressing the Bishop, in Malayalam), when you came to Malaya, we took good care of you. Now, when we visit you, you don’t even know us. Big shots are like that…they cannot meet people unless they have an appointment.” The Bishop was immediately apologetic saying that he had been meeting so many people over the years, but little did he realize that John Kuruvilla was only being cheeky, with no ill-intentions.

            With John Kuruvilla, it is his hospitality that stands out. “I always try to entertain people. It is my way of serving my God. I always feel that I must provide God’s servants with food and lodging,” he explains, as he talks about his gift of hospitality. For him, if God had provided his needs, it was his obligation to also provide not only for his family but people who belonged to the community of believers.

 

After the War

 

            When the Japanese occupied Malaya, the war had destroyed much of the infrastructure, including the roads and bridges. This had made it almost impossible for Rev. Koshy to visit Kedah, although on several occasions, he had travelled to Penang. During the war, in 1943, John Kuruvilla wrote a telegram which was sent to the Achen. Unfortunately, it was translated into Malay by the telegraph officer who sent the message by Morse Code that Rev Koshy on his end could hardly understand a word of it at all.

            Finally, after the war ended, in 1946, Rev. Koshy visited the state of Kedah. The worship service conducted by the reverend was supposed to take place at the Tamil Methodist Church, but its congregation was having another function on that day. Rev. Koshy suggested that he would conduct the worship service at the nearby Anglican Church instead; so, together with Rev. Koshy, John Kuruvilla went to see the European OCPD at the Sungai Petani Police Station. The OCPD was the Secretary of the Anglican St. James at Sungai Layar in Sungai Petani. Thankfully, he was very fast in responding and immediately handed them the duplicate key into the church premises. Since then, the Anglican Church became their regular meeting place for many years to come.

            In 1947, Rev. V.E. Thomas became the second Achen after Rev Koshy retired. On the first Episcopal visit of Matthews Tirumeni in 1953, John Kuruvilla organised a welcome reception at the Ibrahim Secondary School, where K.K. Koshy was serving as the Headmaster. The reception was well attended by the church leaders and members of other churches, the District Officer and other local dignitaries. John Kuruvilla was already a member of the school’s Board of Governors, while Dr. K.K. Mathen was representing the parents in the Board.

            When the Mar Thoma Church was being restructured, Rev P.C. John later became the first Achen to reside in Sungai Petani. He was living in a rented house at No. 327 Jalan Hospital. At the same time, he was also appointed the Vicar of the parish and other parishes in the North. Mammen John who was employed at the Bukit Lembu Estate was also the parish Vice-President and the treasurer of the All Malayan Church. At that time, there were about 40 families in the parish. The congregation was starting to think about buying a suitable land in order to put up a parsonage, and if possible to build a church, too.

            In God’s own timing, a broker informed the church that a triangular plot of land near the Cemetery at Jalan Sungai Layar was available for sale. The area was slightly less than one acre and the price quoted was M$10,000, which worked out to be about 25 cents a square foot. Back in 1955, the price was a huge amount, but for want of a piece of land to build their place of worship, Mammen John paid M$1,000 in advance as earnest deposit.

            Later, it was learnt that the seller who was working with the Land Office, had bought the land for only M$2,000. Because the price differential was too steep, the church decided to pull out from the purchase. With some convictions that God wanted them to proceed with the purchase of the land, John Kuruvilla went to re-negotiate with the owner to see if he was prepared to accept M$4,000 paid in cash, provided he would take the earlier deposit as part of the whole deal. God was gracious, and must have touched the seller’s heart. He finally agreed to M$4,000, and the rest of the amount was paid in cash.

            With no Board of Trustees in the Malayan zone those days, the Parish Committee decided to transfer the property to John Kuruvilla’s name as the trustee. When Rev. P.K. Koshy was Vicar a few years later, John Kuruvilla transferred the property to the Vicar’s name as Trustee. When the Board of Trustees of Mar Thoma Church was finally registered, the title of the land was transferred to the name of the trustees. The total cost of the land, including the stamp duty and transfer expenses done thrice, was a small sum of only M$4,500, small in comparison to what it would have cost now.

            The Mar Thoma Community Centre and Church was finally built in 1997 at the cost of RM450,000. It was timely because thereafter Malaysia was facing one of the worst financial crises hitting Asia. Mohan, the youngest son of John Kuruvilla, who was the Vice-President of the parish at that time, played a significant role in raising funds with the help of the building committee. The Board of Trustees, of whom John Kuruvilla was a member, empowered him to be responsible and sign the contract for the construction of the building on their behalf. The church was completed in a matter of 12 months, but sadly, the church was destroyed by arson without any provocation on the part of the church. In his journal, John Kuruvilla writes with tears in his eyes:

“Mohan and I, we did it economically, not neglecting quality, and we held it emotionally as very dear to us. After the church was burnt down, we had to re-build it with money from the insurance claims, collections from many of our church members, and a gift from government relief fund through the recommendation by the then Honourable Prime Minister, Datuk Seri (now Tun) Dr. Mahathir Mohamad, at my request. The new church and community centre was built at a cost of RM400,000 with additional facilities, an extra room upstairs, separate special bathroom near the children’s room, and a brick wall around the compound. Now, the land value, as all properties in towns, has appreciated, may be by about 100 times.”

            John Kuruvilla has served as the Vice-President of the parish for about 20 years and as Zonal Assembly representative for many years. He was also the Church Council member for a three-year term in 1956. During his last visit to the church in 2007, there were only eight families in the parish, where most of them were senior citizens, who could hardly bear the maintenance cost of the church. Most of the younger generation of believers have moved out of the district to bigger cities for employment reasons.

            John Kuruvilla’s example set for his children and his grandchildren has become an inspiration to both his family as well as people who knew him as a friend and a comrade. God has blessed his family. All his children have their own families. Vijayan had married Lysa Manavalan in 1981, while Pearly was married to Reverend George Geevarughese from Johor Baru in 1982. Ravi married Doreen from the United States in 1981. In 1983, Mohan married Shirley, followed by Petsy to Mamman George in 1986. As parents, John Kuruvilla’s biggest desire was to see that they have well-groomed children, and to bring them up with proper guidance. As a father, he made sure that they were sent to Sunday School, and encouraged them to be involved in church activities. It has been the practice of the family to hold daily prayer times and they have stayed together as a family attending church together.

 

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