July 23, 2008
New $9 Million Syro-Malabar Cathedral Opens Near Chicago
CHICAGO _ When the Rev. Jacob Angadiath first came to the United States as a missionary priest in 1984, he arrived in Dallas with no flock other than two Indian Catholics whose names were scrawled on a note in his pocket.
Today, he is bishop of a diocese that claims 35,000 faithful across the United States and Canada.
In a sign of his faith's growing numbers and cultural confidence, the diocese this month opened a $9 million new St. Thomas Syro-Malabar Catholic cathedral. The cathedral in west suburban Bellwood, Ill., outside Chicago, is the denomination's first ecclesiastical seat outside of India.
The diocese was founded with the approval of Chicago's Cardinal Francis George in 2001, but until this month worshipers have met in an old church on the same site at 5000 St. Charles Rd.
The new Mar Thoma Sleeha Syro-Malabar Cathedral, which opened July 5, is drawing throngs of Indian immigrants and their families, who are preserving their spiritual heritage, their unique forms of liturgy and their south Indian language, Malayalam, in North America.
"By the establishment of this particular cathedral, we'll remain a central place of worship and a mother church for other congregations for coming generations," Angadiath said. "No doubt about it, it will remain a focal point."
The church is distinctly South Asian and yet traces its roots directly to the Apostle Thomas, who founded the Indian church in 52 A.D. and was martyred there centuries before the arrival of Portuguese and other European missionaries.
Oral traditions surrounding St. Thomas run deep in the church, said Rev. Roy Joseph Kaduppil, the diocese's chancellor. According to one, St. Thomas found a group of Brahman priests performing ritual purification by throwing water in the air. When he did the same, the water miraculously remained suspended in the air in the form of flowers.
Like the Maronite, Byzantine and Romanian Catholic churches, the Syro-Malabarians are Eastern-rite Catholics: They are in union with Rome but hold to distinct worship, language, canon law and hierarchy. Worldwide, there are 3.7 million Syro-Malabar Catholics.
In the new cathedral Sunday, the faithful who streamed in could have been worshipers in India, the women dressed in colorful saris. The congregation sang in Malayalam, accompanied by recorded music, and a heavy velvet curtain hung around the altar to hide it from view. It parted as the service began.
"In the Eastern Catholic church, this is to show the separation between heaven and the earth," said the Rev. Antony Thundadhil, pastor of the cathedral. "During the celebration, we open the curtain and enter into the Holy of Holies where heaven is represented and celebrate the sacrifice."
The cathedral serves not only as a spiritual center, but as place where Indian parents and increasingly Americanized children can hold onto their cultural heritage. As such, it parallels similar roles filled by Hindu temples and Muslim mosques among Indians in the greater Chicago area.
In 1970, there were just 51,000 India-born immigrants in the United States, according to the Washington-based Migration Policy Institute. By 2006, their numbers had grown 30-fold to 1.5 million, making them the nation's fourth-largest immigrant group, after Mexicans, Filipinos, and Chinese.
There are 14 parishes within the two-nation diocese, and the cathedral serves as a home church for Chicago-area Syro-Malabar Catholics, drawing about 2,500 to its four masses each Sunday.
"For those who migrated from India, it is a place for them to come and gather and share their faith, share their rituals, share their culture and their traditions," Thundadhil said.
Most of the women in the congregation immigrated to the United States to work as nurses, and from time of the first arrivals in the 1960s, they had been seeking a place to worship together. Only in 1988 was a church opened.
"If you talk to the older generation, they used to tell us that they were badly in need of a place to gather," Thundadhil said. "And it is because of their work, the pioneers who came before us, that we got these facilities."
Yet much of the focus now is on the young people, caught in the traditional immigrant's tug-of-war between their parents' culture and the nation many of the youngsters were born into. Many children cannot speak Malayalam well, and so the church also has English-language worship services. Some 670 youngsters are enrolled in catechism classes.
This bodes well for a generation whose leadership the church will need in the future if it is to thrive as a distinct Catholic identity in a new country. Currently, all the priests come from India, particularly the state of Kerala, limiting them culturally and linguistically.
"For our children born in the U.S., we still want them to bring our culture from India and mix it with American culture," said Joseph Chandy, a hospital administrator who is active in the cathedral. "Our way of life is deeply rooted in the Hindu culture, even though we have been Christians from the first century."
(c) 2008, Chicago Tribune.
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