Appreciating and cherishing our Christian roots

I love those who love me, And those who seek me diligently will find me – Proverbs 8:17

Aug 04, 2023

Many of us who are cradle Catholics often take our birth right as a Catholic for granted. We believe it is a given, when you have parents who are practising Catholics, to be granted Baptism at birth, followed by all the sacraments if you’re active members of the parish.

It’s not the case for those who learn about the faith later in life, as they have to go through the Rite of Christian Initiation for Adults (RCIA). RCIA is the process in which adults become full, participating members of the Catholic Church. Participants, known as catechumens, go through a process of studying the Gospel, nurturing their relationship with God, becoming familiar with Catholic teachings and practices, professing their faith in Jesus and the Church, and receiving the Sacraments of Initiation: Baptism, Communion and Confirmation.

Growing up, I never knew when or how exactly my ancestors embraced Christianity but when I learnt of it, it was awe inspiring how they overcame the odds to remain steadfast in their faith.

It was in the late 1990s or early 2000s when a cousin living in Kulim, Kedah, stumbled upon a website about the Pagasalai families in Kurumbagaram. He was fascinated with the contents of the website as my maternal grandmother, Arokiammal Danapakiam, was mentioned in it. He then asked me to read the contents of the website, and to ask Mom about how the family converted to Christianity. It was indeed a revelation, as her narration was exactly what was mentioned on the website.

To give you a brief history about my ancestors, they were Catholics who belonged to the parish of St Andrew’s Church, Kurumbagaram, Tamil Nadu. They were mainly Pagasalai Sozhia Vellalars who migrated from Pagasalai during the period 1750 to 1800, after they had converted to Christianity. The Sozhia Vellalars were mainly farmers who thrived by their hard work in farming and were called Mirasdhars (a title given to the rich farmers).

Pagasalai is a village in Naneelam Taluk and this small village is surrounded by six smaller villages whose inhabitants were known as Ail-lur Vellalars. They were a conservative community and had very little contact or relationship with outsiders.

In the year 1750, two brothers, Arumugatha Pillai and Shanmugatha Pillai, and their brother in law Thandavaraya Pillai, resided in the Pagasalai village. One of the daughters of Arumugatha Pillai was mentally afflicted and very ill. They tried all methods of treatment prevalent in those days but cure seemed impossible. The daughter’s condition worsened and she became aggressive and unmanageable, creating a great commotion in the village.

It was at this time that a devout, poor Catholic woman, passing through the village on a pilgrimage to the Church of Our Lady of Velankani, stopped by the house of Arumugatha Pillai and enquired about the commotion. It was common then for pilgrims to walk through the villages to get to the church. Often, they relied on the good will of the families in the village to spend the night sleeping at the thinnai, a covered verandah or sit-out with built-in seating near the front door of a house.

The mother of the sick girl explained about her daughter’s condition and their fruitless efforts to cure her. The devout woman assured the mother that her daughter would be cured through prayers and the intercession of Our Lady of Velankani, and went on to explain about Christianity.

The mother was so overwhelmed by the faith and devotion of the old lady that she was fully convinced of her daughter’s recovery. The old lady took her Rosary and placed it on the neck of the sick girl. The girl became silent. Before departing for the church, the old lady sought an assurance from the families that, should the girl fully recover, all the three families would convert to Christianity. The mother discussed with all the members of the three families and assured her that they would convert to Christianity if the sick girl fully recovered.

The old lady proceeded to Velankani and prayed for the cure of Arumugatha’s sick daughter. On her journey back after attending the Velankani festival, she returned to Pagasalai village to enquire about the sick girl. The old lady was overjoyed to learn that her prayers were answered and the sick girl was fully cured of her disease, which had taunted them for four to five years.

Thereafter, the three families learned all about Christianity and were taught all the prayers from the Catholic church nearest to their village. Later on, all the three families were baptised and they continued to remain in the village and maintained harmonious relationships with all their relatives.

However, this did not last long as their relatives, who were still practising the Hindu faith, refused to marry members of their Christian faith, and most of them were ostracised. This was a big blow to the three Christian families who then decided to move to the French colony of Karaikal and settle down in Kurumbagaram around the year 1755. In the ensuing years from 1755 to 1853, the families spread to various villages in Karaikal.

In the year 1854, approval for a church to be built in Kurumbagaram was accorded by the bishop due to the efforts of the families. St Andrew’s Church started in a temporary building till the permanent structure was completed in 1869. The church offered a rallying point for consolidation of the Pagasalai Sozhia Vellalar Community in the region.

On Aug 15, 1947, India became independent and the post-independence era saw a lot of developments in Tamil Nadu.

Following the land reform act enacted in 1960, many of the new generation of Pagasalai Sozhia Vallalars (post-independent era) sold the farmlands and sought jobs in government organisations, industries, schools and colleges, or migrated abroad, with the sole aim of improving their career prospects and economic status.

Many have since settled in Myanmar, Malaysia, Singapore, Saigon, Indo-China, France and its Territories while those who remained settled in Karaikal, Pondicherry, Chennai, Trichy, Coimbatore and Hyderabad for better education facilities and job opportunities.

A Facebook page which was set up for the family members constantly keeps the families updated on the latest developments among the group.

After learning about the history, though a cradle Catholic myself, makes me even more appreciative of the struggles and trials my ancestors had to overcome to practise their faith. Hence, it is very important for us to impart to the young ones the history of our faith journey over the years. Hopefully, our future generations will not take their faith for granted, and through their actions as good Christians, bring greater glory to God.

Note: Historical excerpts taken from the Pagasalai Families of Kurumbagaram website.

(Regina William is an ex-journalist turned head of communications, now full-time grandmother to three, crisscrossing the globe to play the role.)

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