It was about nine o’clock in the evening of the last Sunday in October, 1972 when I made a decision that would change my life.  The cold weather started a little earlier that year and the October chill was a new experience for me since I had been living in India till April of that year.  Prior to coming to the United States, I was residing in one of the rooms in the Mar Dionysius Seminary. My room was close to the office of the residence of the Metropolitan of the Outside Kerala Diocese, His Grace Mathews Mar Athanasius, who later became the Catholicos of the East.  At that time, there were not many parishes outside of Kerala so all parishes in the USA, UK, New Delhi, Madras, etc. were all under one diocese called the “Outside Kerala Diocese” led by His Grace Mathews Mar Athanasius.  I had heard much from the Diocesan office and the Metropolitan himself about the trouble of the only parish in New York where priests were ‘slinging mud’ at each other, and where there was lack of leadership among them.  Laity was using this chance to show their prominence, rejecting the leadership of the clergy. Thus, five lay people of that parish incorporated the parish in their own names, excluding all clergy. 

There was a misguided notion in the mind of our people at that time that there was no place for the constitution of the Malankara Orthodox Church in the parishes of the United States.  So they were writing their own bye-laws.  The Metropolitan, to some extent believed this and allowed the congregation to write their own bye-laws.  Since he was a very good administrator and a keen observer of matters, the bye-laws written by the parish were being mailed back and forth from India to the United States and vice versa.  The parish was in a tense stage because of this registration by the laity.  When the members of the congregation knew about this, they started to question the validity of such a registration and strong tension mounted.  This was the time I came to New York from Kottayam.

The date of the General body meeting had been declared in October.  I did not attend the meeting.  I did not even go to the church that day.  I went to a Greek Orthodox Church in Manhattan.  There was man-handling in the general body.  Police came and removed some people from the meeting who made their objections.

The October Sunday evening which I mentioned in the beginning was the evening of this general body meeting.  One of my friends who went to that meeting called me around 9 P.M. and told me what had happened in the parish.  I was very sad to hear about that unpleasant incident.  From the very beginning, I was not happy in that parish.  When I left India six months earlier, the mother Church was facing a very difficult situation due to the unexpected and sudden revolt of the Patriarchal group against the Catholicos and the Church.  In addition to this, a new bishop had been consecrated by the Patriarch for this group to ignite the situation.  I was glad to get out of that big mess, but in spite of my firm decision not to take part in any Church politics, I had made up my mind on that sleepless night to start a new congregation in the Bronx, where I lived.  My intention was to show that the Church in India has full authority over the parishes in the United States, and that the constitution of the Church should be honored by the parishes in the United States also.  The late Fr. John Mathews also joined me.  Both of us, with the consent of a few families, who were also dissatisfied with the congregation in Manhattan decided to start a service in the Bronx.  To find a place of worship was very difficult and John Mathews Achen took the initiative for that.  It was a coincidence that on the first Sunday of November, 1972, on the festival of Parumala Thirumeni, the first Holy Qurbana was celebrated at 1800 Grand Concourse.  Thus, the Bronx Church was started.  It was named the St. Mary’s Orthodox Church, Bronx, New York.  All these developments were duly informed to the Metropolitan of the Outside Kerala Diocese.

It was not an easy path ahead for the Bronx Church.  There was severe opposition from the clergy who remained in the former parish and from some of the members who had resources. They worked very hard to destroy the young parish.  God’s mighty hand protected it from such wanton behavior.  Many of the people who joined us in the beginning left us; but within two years the membership of the parish had increased to 79 families.  The parish was incorporated in the State of New York with the constitution of the Malankara Orthodox Church as its bye-law.  The parish was accepted and recognized as a member parish of the Outside Kerala Diocese in 1974, and I was appointed the first Vicar of the parish by the Metropolitan, who later became Catholicos of the East.

While the parish was still growing, the mudslinging continued.  A diocese was born, a metropolitan was appointed, and a draft of a new incorporation of the diocese and its bye-laws were unacceptable to the parish.  We disagreed with the contents of the incorporation draft, realizing that it had clauses against the spirit of the constitution of the Malankara Orthodox Church.  Finally, after very long correspondence with the Holy Synod and the Malankara Metropolitan, a new incorporation had been written in India and mailed to all parishes in the United States by the Malankara Metropolitan. Thus, our requests were heard and accepted.  We only stood for truth and truth prevailed.

The late Catholicos of the East, His Holiness Baselios Marthoma Mathews I and the world renowned Theologian and Philosopher, Dr. Paulos Mar Gregorios were the only two Church fathers who understood the seriousness of what we had said about the American diocese.  Even they could not do much to straighten the matter.  I was a member of the diocesan council in the beginning and pointed out in the assembly and in the council the wrong way the diocese was moving.  I was blamed and accused during those times.  His Holiness Baselios Marthoma Mathews I, who ardently desired to lay the foundation stone for the St. Mary’s Orthodox Church, Bronx, could not do so because of the arrogant approach of the Diocesan authority. Painfully, he returned to India and that was the beginning of the fall of the first administration.

Our Church has a hierarchical administrative system.  The Malankara Metropolitan (and Catholicos) is accountable to the Holy Synod.  The Metropolitan of a diocese is accountable to the Malankara Metropolitan.  The priest of a parish is accountable to his Metropolitan.  The laity are accountable to the priest in parish matters.  If any of these functions are not working in the right way, then there is an imbalance in discipline.  That is what we see in our Church to a great extent and that is the reason for our failings in many aspects.

Many commissions were sent to study and find solutions for the American diocesan problem.  Most of the commissions were ineffective.  There is a joke in the American community quoted partially from the Holy Bible: “For God so loved the world, that he did not send a commission, but his only begotten son…”  Selfish motives or prejudices will never help a fact finding mission.  They were looking to save someone, rather than saving a whole Church.  None of them took pains to find the root cause of the trouble and didn’t care that much, because after all, it’s somebody else’s children.  I always look for a disciplined community with visions of growth.  Thus, my struggle continues even today.

In spite of all the troubles I went through, the parish was growing miraculously.  Physically and spiritually, it was a success story.  The growth has been hampered at times by the vicious and senseless work of our own people, but the earnest prayer and hard work of the majority made it well.  In the American diocese we have to be proud of so many things.  We are the first in many things; in membership, charity work, collections for the mother Church like Church day, Theological Seminary, Mission Sunday, spiritual work like Sunday School, Youth league and the St. Mary’s Association (Martha Mariam Samajam).  The Martha Mariam Samajam is the back bone of this parish.  They are doing so many exceptional things for the parish as well as for the mother Church.  Ettu Nombu Perunnal and the Holy Week are celebrated with great enthusiasm and in turn give spiritual growth to those who attend it.  A team of good teachers and a dedicated Principal, who work very hard to make every event a success, are what makes our Sunday School the success that it is.

After working 40 years for this parish, I look back and see what the parish and the parishioners have achieved spiritually and physically.  This is something that weighs on my mind all the time. I have no regrets at all.  I am happy in my soul to see that God has performed wonders in this parish.  My God and my parishioners are my judges. My intentions were always sincere, which some of my people could not comprehend.  It is very sad.  I was always looking for the spiritual well being and physical growth of the parish.  Now we have a church building valued around 4 million dollars, with all new facilities.  When we started this parish 40 years ago, we had nothing except a table with three legs, which was given to us by some other church.  One of my brothers in the parish attached a fourth leg to that table.  It was on that table that we celebrated Holy Qurbana for a long time.

Our church was mostly in a box; meaning that we, the Achens, were carrying our own Church articles every Sunday to the places where we celebrated the Holy Qurbana.  Once the service was over, we would fold up the articles, put it back in the box and return to our apartments.  Mostly we were carrying these boxes through the subways and trains.  Now our own people grumble for every small inconvenience.  We have completely forgotten our past.  We should always be thankful to God for the many wonderful things He has done for us.

My life was not very easy in the United States, mostly due to my involvement in Church matters.  (I would not be lying to you when I say that I had so many sleepless nights in the past years just because of this parish).  I had two full time jobs.  One job (my regular job) was in the headquarters of all the American Churches named the Interchurch Center.  I took that job to sustain my family.  If the parish had resources to support me, I would have worked as a full time priest in the parish, which is what my God called me for.  But my service in Saint Mary’s was not a part time or weekend job; it was more than a full time job.  I never had less than 100 families.  Our parish celebrates all obligatory days, even if it falls on a weekday.  After the Holy Qurbana, I would go to my regular job.  This happened even on Maundy Thursday, during the Ettu Nombu perunnal and on many of the obligatory days.  When sickness and other sorrowful things happen in the parish, the priest should be there.  In addition to all this, the pain and suffering inflicted upon me and my family by some of our own put me in perpetual agony.   It started from the very early years.  During the time of the litigation in the parish, Osthathios Thirumeni wrote: “If God is for you, who is against you?” God was always with me during my times of suffering and pain.

We could not use our abilities and resources fully for development because of the negative force which worked to divert our concentration and attention from building up.  I hope an end has come to such kinds of trouble in the parish.

Those who worked with me for the improvement and growth of this parish are in my thoughts and prayers.  So many good people contributed to this parish through their hard work and hard earned money.  May God strengthen them.  My heart aches for those who departed from us and entered eternal glory.  All of them worked very hard for this parish.  May God give them rewards for the sincere, hard work they have done for this small community.  May their souls rest in peace. 

My brothers, sisters and children, my sole comfort in life – and in death too – is that I am not my own, but belong body and soul to my faithful Savior, my Lord and my God, Jesus Christ.  He watches over me in such a way that not a hair can fall from my head without His will.  When I walk in the valley of darkness, I have no fear, because my Lord is with me.  He is my keeper and my guide, my salvation and my hope.  I thank you all for your goodness, magnanimity, kindness and love shown towards me and my family.  May God shower His choicest blessings upon you all.