The Crusader’s Missionfield
Certainly it was a very happy reunion of the two souls already knit together at Tuticorin and Nagapattinam, as that of David and Jonathan, to engage in a crusaders mission, namely, first to reactivate the Christian Faith among the negligent Catholics themselves and also to evangelize those who have not come to the true Faith.Earlier the Jesuits from the time of St. Francis Xavier were great pioneers in the field of evangelization and made heavy inroads in many parts, chiefly in the southern belt of Tamil Nadu.
However the twin jurisdictions and the missionary activities, one under the umbrella of the PortughesePadrado system and another under the Jesuit mission centres frequently resulted in head on collision, as a result of which the faithful had to suffer for want of pastoral supervision and care.. And with the Suppression of the Society of Jesus in 1773, the missionary endeavours of the Catholic Church became very much scuttled and the goan missionary activities also could not match the earlierattempts of the Jesuits.
This was the root cause for the declining of the Catholic Faith as well as the setting in of moral laxity in the ordinary life of people especially in rural areas and in remote villages where catechizing the faithful with regard to the doctrines and morals were not as frequent as before andin some places it became even totally non-existent.
Perhaps with the exit of the Jesuits from the scene, there must have arisen an unfortunate situation resulting in the paucity of Catholic Priests, both foreign and native. And hence the people became sadly enough a wavering and drifting flock, now here and now there, and without a good shepherd to look after them with pastoral care and concern.
This miserable state of affairs among the Catholics provided a golden opportunity for the entry of the protestant pastors who contradicted the Catholic Practices vehemently and introduced their venomous doctrines very shrewdly. They put up schools and misled innocent children, besides giving food and clothing to those in dire need. The Catholics who were not rooted and grounded in their faith were easily enticed. In short it was a kind of sheep-stealing by the pastors, a practice that even now goes on.
Another disturbing factor was that people in general and Catholics in particular both in the towns and especially in the villages were not so much educated as to distinguish between Religion and Culture. In India atleast some of the elements of what we call the cultural and the traditional practices have their backbone in the Hindu religious beliefs.. The Catholics being converts from the Hindu religion, without understanding the similar and the dissimilar elements between religion and culture, began to make compromises with certain Hindu beliefs and practices in the name of culture and tradition. The social stratification based on the caste system of the Hindu way of life has been unfortunately inherited by ours and it continues even today as a non-erasable tattoo and a haunting ghost.
In certain other occasions when struck by contagious diseases like cholera, small pox etc, they began to adopt out of fear, certain specifically Hindu worshipping practices that were meant to obtain cure from sickness or to placate the wrath of God or even to ensure success and good fortune in business and married life. In short syncretism of religion has crept very surreptitiously into the day today ordinary way of life among the Catholics. The due importance that should have been given to the Word of God and the Sacraments in forming and shaping the life of the Catholics to bear witness to Christ among the people of other beliefs was easily forgotten, as a result of which among a large segment of catholic population then living in the village, only fifty were present even for the Sunday Holy Mass.
Moreover like the Tsunamis of these days, a very great famine of what they called the ThadduVarudaPanjam, was sweeping all over the village in 1876 and many died of starvation to such an extant that there were not enough people to carry dead bodies and there were not enough pits to bury them either! They were simply left to decompose then and there as a result of which the whole village became an open polluted mortuary with stinking smell that caused further diseases and untold miseries.
Our young enthusiastic Augustine filled with the love of God and zeal for souls saw the plight of the catholic flock as he surveyed the village areas bit by bit and on talking to people of different age groups, he became more and more filled with a sense of deep sorrow at their ignorance and as an anguished soul, he shed copious tears that were not merely sentimental.
Yes, he must have remembered what our Lord had said Any one who puts his hands on the plough and looks back is not fit for me. Earlier our young Augustine did not heed to the promptings of his father to enter into the family business life, like St. Philip Neri who also in order to follow Jesus more closely as a Priest, renounced very much earlier his father’s advice to enter into the mundane life of business activities.
And thanks to the invisible hand of God working in mysterious ways that the Restoration of the Society of Jesus took place in the year, 1814 as a result of which, the New Jesuit Madurai Mission was formed under the jurisdiction of the Toulouse Province in France and once again missionaries from foreign countries began to arrive in India and that was how Fr. Larmey became the Parish Priest of Panjampatty in 1875.
Our young man Augustine at the prime age of 23 committed himself totally to Jesus to spend all of his life for working among the negligent catholic flock in Panjampatty, along with Fr. Larmey. This is not simply a pious wish but a decision resolutely taken under the influence of the Holy Spirit. It can very well be seen from his letter written 25 years later to a friend about this decision Though I was saddened to see the plight of this negligent catholic flock, yet, I realized in the very beginning itself that the good Lord has called me to work precisely among these people only. So when my family members knowing my inclination to live a religious sort of life, they earnestly advised me to go over to Sri Lanka and join any priestly religious order. However the comfortable atmosphere in Sri Lanka did not attract me either. But the illiterate, negligent and the poor catholic flock of the village of Panjampatty has become my chosen people among whom I am destined to work along with Fr. Lamey till the end of my life for the glory of God and for the salvation of these people.
This letter speaks volumes about his inner motivation and orientation namely, if one were to follow Jesus’ way of life earnestly, one must acquire his mindset that is shaped and polished by the virtues of simplicity, humility poverty, purity and a burning missionary zeal to work hard among the needy with a self-emptying and self-sacrificing spirit. Thus while his mind was totally set on working among the needy in Panjampatty, he also understood at the same time and felt it as the need of the hour, for taking Fr. Larmey as his sole mentor, next only to God and Mother Mary.
This inner stirring or longing as we may call it, is understandable from the very fact that our young Augustine was only a lay collaborator and a catechist and this position as such was inadequate for him to do such large scale of missionary endeavours, all on his own and independently; and hence he needed the pastoral guidance of an ordained Priest. Truly speaking Fr.Larmey also on the other hand was looking for the selfless services of a good catholic lay man to help him in his vast Parish area.
Since their hearts were very closely knit together already and as both of them needed each other, again it must have been in the plan of God that Augustine on his part should choose Fr.Larmey as his mentor such that he would play a very constructive role in the personal life of our hero.. And the large hearted Fr. Larmey also on his part, freely and publicly acknowledged that without brother Augustine, he alone could not have done all the good works in the vast parish area. It is therefore a very clear proof in this case that the Divine- Human interaction had cooperated very well for the happy fulfillment of God’s saving plan there.
It is very obvious therefore that Panjampatty owes very much even today to the selfless services rendered by these two great missionary stalwarts in that primitive period marked by illiteracy, ignorance, poverty, wavering faith and moral laxity in the life of catholics. This fact is attested by the tribute paid by Fr. James Planchards.j, who became the Parish Priest of Panjampatty at the beginning of the 20th Century Panjampatty has become a little Rome! (In the good sense of the term).
Another tribute to the pioneering missionary work done by the trio, namely Fr.Larmeys.j,, Fr.Augustine Pereira and later Fr.Nesplouss.j, ( as one of the three founders of C.I.C. at Panjampatty), was the significant visit of the Papal Nuncio to the then thriving catholic village Parish of Panjampatty in the year 1909 and the subsequent letter of Pope Pius X1 himself, imparting his papal blessings to all of them. These two events assumed greater significance in view of the fact that Panjampatty was chosen for the visit of the Papal Nuncio.
Mission As Formation (1875—1900)
Before actually dwelling on this topic it is better for us to know about what was going on in the mind of Fr. Larmey about our Augustine whose personal life of sanctity clothed by the virtues of simplicity, humility, poverty, purity of mind and heart and selfless service was all an open book, not only for him, his mentor, but also for all to see without any bias. So much so, our hero was affectionately addressed as Augustine Sanyasi!
Even the youth of the Parish both boys and girls, were so much taken up with his life style and the manner of his going about in his mission work, that four girls were ready to offer themselves to serve the Lord. They approached Fr. Larmey who wanted to include them also in the spiritual and social uplifting work for women and accordingly entrusted them to the spiritual care of our sanyasi. A wise decision indeed and it might have been a pointer as to what would happen as an historic event in the near future!
Apart from this personal knowledge about our sanyasi, Fr.Larmey, was also a joint partner with him in the extensive Parish ministries, both spiritual and material. He saw with his own eyes the beneficial and efficacious results due to the selfless and committed services of our sanyasi among the poor, illiterate, negligent and wavering Catholics with loose morals. Our sanyasi was doing much of the Priestly ministries except celebrating the Holy Mass and hearing confessions.
Hence during the course of a long period of about 25 years of joint missionary endeavours, he came to the conclusion with a discerning mind that it would be much better and fruitful if our sanyasi became an Ordained Catholic Priest! There was also another reason for this kind of thinking going on in the mind of Fr.Larmey namely, though himself was lion- hearted, yet he was both ageing and suffering from a chronic heart ailment and would not therefore continue to live and work for long. And hence he thought that our sanyasi as an Ordained Priest would be a better substitute for him to continue to work at Panjampatty.
On the other hand Augustine Sanyasi did not think of his life and his missionary work in terms of becoming an Ordained Priest. Even though there was a kind of inner pull towards becoming a Priest, he considered himself unworthy for such an exalted spiritual office and hence he declined several times when invitations came from Colombo towards that direction.
Similarly when FrScorrelles.j, the Provincial of the Toulouse Province came to the Madurai Jesuit Mission as the Visitor, and after having heard about our Augustine sanyasi and the marvelous missionary work going on for about 25 years, he paid a visit to Panjampatty on 18th November, and certified that though our Sanyasi did not fulfill the canonical requirements of theological studies, he lived a sort of religious life with a determined purpose and a higher goal, with spiritual and moral values. Though not trained in the priestly way, yet he imparted the Spiritual Exercises of St Ignatius to ordinary people as to reform and regulate their lives in the proper Christian way. His sense of reasoning and judgement, his impeccable personal life of sanctity bore ample witness towards ordaining him as a Priest with due exemption from the canonical point of view.
Other priests were also of the same opinion that even though our hero could not fulfill the canonical requirements of the study of Latin as the liturgical language in those days and certain other theological subjects at an advanced age , yet considering his personal life of sanctity, maturity in Catholic Faith, missionary zeal, hard working, selfless service mindedness etc, exemption could be given to him as a very special case and due process could be initiated towards ordaining him as a Priest. Even then he politely declined as usual out of humility any such move.
However a decision was taken at a higher level, towards his Priestly Ordination which move our sanyasi did not like and expressed his desire to continue to be a Catechist till the end of his life as per his earlier promise made to Fr.Larmey. There was also a fear lurking in his heart that if he were to become a Priest, he might not be able to discharge his duty of being the guardian of the first four girls who volunteered to consecrate their lives for Christ and also to work for other simple, illiterate women of Panjampatty.
However after considering the helplessness of Fr. Larmey, his mentor and the good of the catholic flock, he finally yielded to the process of getting ordination and eventually he was ordained as a Priest at the age of 46 on 14th January, 1900. Here again we see the invisible hand of the good Lord, gently preparing him stage by stage through his mentor towards this crowning event, even without his own knowledge and much against his will.
Another historic event will of course be the formation of the Trio, namely Fr.Larmey, Fr. Augustine Pereira and Fr. Nespoulous for the Founding of the Congregation of the Immaculate Conception for the Sisters and here again we will see later the finger of God at work.
But now we will go back to the year 1875 when Augustine our hero had set his foot on the soil of Panjampatty and let us have a glance at the monumental missionary work which earned him the two glorious titles first the title of a great pioneering Lay Missionary in the company of his mentor Fr.Larmeys.j. and second the title of a Priest and Co-Founder of a Religious Congregation for women in the company of Fr.Larmeys.j, and Fr.Nespoulouss.j who later became the Parish Priest of Panjampatty.
When we think of the evangelizing ministry in a country like India, we must admit that it will involve also the social uplifting of the poor, the illiterates, the downtrodden, women, the sick, the abandoned and children etc, not only because they exist as the challenging realities but also because of the fact that Jesus, our Master and our Role-Model had a special concern for them and for sinners also, during his public ministry.
And therefore Christianity must be understood and lived basically as a religion of compassionate love towards the suffering and the needy- both spiritually and materially. It is a two pronged approach for us, one of spiritual service for all and the other, the economic help for the poor and the downtrodden as the basic need for their own survival and development. We have already had a glance at the socio- cultural-religious situation of Panjampatty area at the time of the arrival of our Augustine sanyasi.
In the absence of modern electronic and print media net work of communication in those days and also in the absence of a full fledged day to day documented record of events, we may not be able to do full justice to cover all the exemplary and monumental missionary endeavours of the duo, Fr.Larmey and our hero, Augustine sanyasi. However we can surely indicate certain areas of their noble work that would speak gloriously of their combined efforts and very particularly the missionary zeal and work of our Augustine sanyasi.
Earlier we saw how our hero knowingly or unknowingly followed the noteworthy example of St. Philip Neri, who discarding his father’s advice for taking up the mundane business life, became a Priest of Jesus Christ in order to work in the vineyard of the Lord. And now after deciding to work among the simple, illiterate, negligent people of Panjampatty, again knowingly or unknowingly Our Augustine sayasi would follow the example of St. Francis de Sales especially in his spiritual ministry.
First of all he would go to a particular place and stay there for a few days, explain the Good News, teach catechism to them, contradict the false doctrines of the protestants, try to help them to stick on to the true Catholic Faith and also try to wean them away from their two- minded, negligent and wavering life of faith, He would also explain to them the sanctity of married life from the point of view of our Catholic Faith and moral teachings, exhort them to give up laxity, their loose and immoral way of life Like St. John, the Baptist to our Lord, our sanyasi also played the role of the forerunner to Fr. Larmey, who would then go to that particular place, preach the Gospel, hear Confessions, celebrate the Holy Mass and give the Holy Communion to those who were well prepared to receive it. Thus through the combined and sustained pastoral efforts of these two great missionaries, our good Lord enlightened and converted the negligent and wavering people and brought about the revival of the Catholic Faith in many villages in the Panjampatty area.
And what was striking as something more than the ordinary in all these missionary journeys, was the fact that in those days when travel facilities were more primitive and less convenient and sometimes more torturous also, our sanyasi, born in a wealthy family and discarding a thriving, prosperous business life, would drive a bullock cart all by himself on village roads that were there with more of pitfalls and pot holes. These hurdles and other dangers would not matter for our sanyasi. Such was his immense love for imitating Jesus, the poor and the ardour of his praiseworthy and fiery missionary zeal to undertake hard, painful and unpleasant journeys for the great cause of reviving the Catholic Faith.
We have seen earlier his childhood experience of going along with his mother to the convent of the sisters of Dame Repatrice and how it must have created in him a sense of reverence and esteem for the religious life. And the same old sense of reverence manifested itself in dealing with the four girls (Viagulammal, Annammal, Visuvasam and Savriammal). Entrusted to his spiritual care by Fr.Lamey and our sanyasi called them, the little children of AmalorpavaMatha( The Immaculate Mother). These four were simple, generous, ordinary village girls.
He began to teach them to read and write the Tamil alphabet and once they became a little proficient, he introduced them to the reading of the life examples of certain women saints, then the reading of the Gospels, himself explaining the meaning and also other spiritual matters like the Examination of Conscience, Meditation, the importance and significance of the Holy Eucharist in our daily life etc. In shortlike St. Antony of the Desert, our sanyasi also would teach and train the four simple, shy, timid village girls in such a way that would ultimately lead them to what we call the Religious Way of life for women.
Moreover with the monetary help received from his own kith and kin as well as from Fr.Chinnappar, he would establish a small house called, The House of Amali, in order to accommodate these four girls on the 2nd , February, 1899, on the day of their vestment in white sari and commitment to the Lord with burning candles in their hands.
This whole episode though simple and yet colourful might not have evoked much sense to the ordinary eyes in those days but then, looking from another perspective, its significance could be understood as the first prelude to the whole drama of Founding of the new Religious Congregation of the Immaculate Conception, that exists to celebrate gloriously and very happily now, the First Centenary of its birth.
We have seen earlier that as a result of his spiritual retreat done during his college days at Nagapattinam, how his personal relationship with our Lord became more pronounced and marked by a certain purposeful and pointed direction. Also, he as an Assistant Prefect encouraged the inmates to have special devotion to the Eucharistic Lord and to our Blessed Mother Mary, which spiritual disposition he cultivated all through his own life.
We can see that the same spirit was working in him, not only when he was asked by his mentor, to be the guardian of the four girls but also even when catechizing and instructing the ordinary, ignorant, negligent people of the villages. More particularly his devotion to the Most Sacred Heart of Jesus and the Immaculate Heart of Mother Mary became evident in all his preaching and exhortations during his days as a simple sanyasi for about 23 years and later as a priest for about 12 years. We can see the full blossoming of this devotion during his Priestly life.
Another area of our sanyasi‘s apostolic ministry was his social concern for the uplift of the poor, the illiterates ,women, children and the sick specially for whom he became a Native Medical Practitioner offering medicines as ointments and liquids made out of herbal plants.
We have seen earlier that there was widespread illiteracy prevailing among the villagers. In the history of the Catholic Church throughout the world, it has been one of its great concerns, namely the education of children and the youth. Accordingly following the foot steps of the early missionaries, primary schools were started here and there numbering about 20. It was one of the most cherished activities of our Augustine sanyasi to teach catechism in the schools in his long period of service among the people, for children during the morning hours and for adults in the evenings after their return from works.
It is because he firmly believed that through proper education only , their ignorance in general could be eradicated and also more specifically in matters relating to the Catholic Faith such that \ their negligence in practicing the Catholic Faith and laxity in moral life could be tackled effectively for their betterment . Due attention was also paid for the inclusion of non- catholic children in our schools for giving them opportunities both for acquiring general academic knowledge as well as for cultivating human and ethical values.
Moreover it helped the non-Christians to come to know something about Christianity. And that could create a friendly, congenial atmosphere for maintaining and promoting mutual understanding, harmony, peace and progress among various sections of people. Government approval was also obtained so as to get the educational grant for the schools from the Government besides seeking financial support from the Bishop of Trichy Diocese under whose jurisdiction Panjampatty was included.
While the charitable nature of our sanyasi was generally known even to the point of sharing his own meals with those suffering from hunger, the great quality of his generous and compassionate heart was visibly noticed and very much appreciated even by the Government staff, during the time of the severe famine sweeping over the whole villages of Panjampatty area. Then our sanyasi would also stand in the queue for hours together before the Government ration shop in Madurai like all others to get the food articles required for his people at Panjampatty. So much so that the Govt. officers themselves were taken up with his motherly concern for his people and saw to it that our sanyasi got the required quantity of the foodstuff.
His special concern for both the welfare and emancipation of the illiterate, shy and timid village womenfolk could also be seen in his over all missionary endeavours. The very sight of men would drive these girls to run away and hide themselves out of fear. In order to get rid of that fear from them both Fr.Larmey and our sanyasi would sit together with them, ask them to take lessons and later correct them gently. And that was the method they followed in training the first four girls who volunteered to serve the Lord.
One of the deep felt longings of our sanyasi was to make this little band of girls into a group of virgins duly consecrated to our Lord and His service.He also would supply them with printed booklets on the Rules of the Congregation of St. Ursula, so that their mind would be pre-occupied with great apostolic concerns instead of the cares and worries of the ordinary people in their mundane life.
Hence from the financial help received chiefly from his nephew I.X.Pereira, he took several measures to help and support them in various ways like buying cultivable land in Kalladipatty village for the sustenance of these girls, sending them to Dindigul for general academic studies and later some of the proficient girls to the ViagulaMatha Madam at Trichy for Teacher Training Courses and later appointing them as teachers in the primary schools. He also introduced some of them to self help projects such as Rosary and bag making, tailoring, and even growing grape vine orchards.
The number of such girls increased by then to 23 and under their care some 70 children; both boys and girls were getting their general academic education as well as knowledge on the Catholic Faith through the catechism classes. His generosity, magnanimity and the Christian charity extended to all sections of poor people irrespective of caste and religion earned not only their appreciation but also some of them belonging to the backward communities in Panjampatty, inKalikampattyPudupatty, Kolampatty and Michaelpatty accepted Christ as their personal Redeemer and came to the Christian fold. Their descendants are still living to bear witness to this fact.