Column | When a Kottayam Bishop came under the spotlight of Australian Press

Representational Image. Photo: Manorama

In the early 20th century, government policies in Australia aimed to keep non-Europeans out. While the so-called ‘White Australia’ measures at that time mainly targeted the Chinese and Pacific Islanders, it was next to impossible for the Indians to go and settle in the country. In 1928, when Sydney hosted the International Eucharistic Congress, an invitation was extended to the 51-year-old Bishop of the Syro-Malabar Catholic Church in Kottayam - Bishop Alexander Chulaparambil.

Born at Kumarakom in 1877, Chulaparambil had been the bishop of Kottayam since 1923 and had travelled to many parts of the world by the time of the Sydney Congress. Like many other Catholics from Travancore, he had studied for the priesthood at the Jesuit seminary in Kandy, Sri Lanka (then Ceylon), before becoming ordained in 1906.

In 1922, Chulaparambil attended the Eucharistic Congress in Rome, where he formed a close friendship with the Archbishop of Brisbane, Rev Duhig. “This friendship was an important factor in his decision to accept the invitation to be present at the coming Congress in Sydney,” the Catholic Weekly wrote in August, 1928.

Accompanying Chulaparambil to Australia in 1928 was his secretary Father Thomas Tharayil, a priest who was educated in Rome. They embarked on the British India Steam Navigation Company’s SS Comorin from Colombo for Sydney, and in all likelihood became the first Malayalis to visit Australia.

The Indian clergyman received a fair bit of coverage in the local press. “The arrival of Bishop Alexander Chulaparambil from India elicited a mixed response, with much of the secular press referring to the bishop and his chaplain as 'dark-skinned' and as 'natives' and the Communist Party of Australia decrying the presence of non-white delegates in the country as a contradiction of the White Australia Policy,” Sydney-based historian Samantha Frappell wrote in an article for a website run by the State Library of New South Wales.

“The Bishop, in his episcopal soutane of black with purple facings, was a picturesque figure as he landed yesterday from the Comorin,” the Sydney Morning Herald reported on August 24, 1928. “As already stated, he will probably be the only dignitary of the hierarchy from India at the Congress, and is, it is likely, the first of the native bishops of India to visit Australia.”

When a reporter from the illustrious Sydney paper wanted to talk to Chulaparambil and get a rare Indian voice on the political situation in the country, the bishop declined. He told the paper that things were complicated in the country by differences in caste and dialect.

At that time, the princely state of Travancore had six lakh Catholics, and the church had more or less been Indianised. Chulaparambil told the paper that Indians were gradually taking the high offices in the church across the country.

The religious press in Australia was impressed with Chulaparambil. “A native Indian, Bishop Chulaparambil, who speaks in admirable English, displays an extensive knowledge of Australia in its relation to Church affairs,” the Catholic Weekly wrote.

The secular media seemed to have a fascination for the Malayali bishop’s clothing. The Sun, Melbourne, wrote, “The Right Rev. Alexander Chulaparambil, Bishop of Kottayam, Travancore, India, made a gay patch of colour against the grey with which Melbourne veiled her face today, for he was wearing ceremonial robes, rich with splashes of green and red. Ordinarily, he appears in a red fez and black cassock, with pipings of purple.”

Little is known of Chulaparambil’s contribution to the congress and his visits to places like Brisbane, where he went to spend time with his close friend - the archbishop. The Queensland Times called him “outstanding in importance.”

The Malayali bishop had also wanted to visit Tasmania and New Zealand, but this writer was not able to find anything in the archives about any such visits. This visit may have never happened but for a stroke of fortune or divine will, based on what one would like to believe.

In April, 1928, when a mass was beginning in Kottayam, lightning struck the cross over the altar of a church. “Several Roman Catholics were about to say their prayers when tremendous showers of rain fell, followed by lightning and thunder,” the Bombay Chronicle reported on April 12, 1928. “The priest as well as about thirty others received severe shocks,” the paper said, adding that five people were killed.

Similar reports in the international press mention the tragedy but not which of the city’s churches suffered the tragedy. If it did happen at the main Syro-Malabar Church, it was a close escape for Bishop Chulaparambil and Father Tharayil. If Bishop Chulaparambil did write about his time in Australia, it would make for fascinating reading.
(Ajay Kamalakaran is a multilingual writer, primarily based in Mumbai)

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