It was as if Mary Magdalene had reserved the most ideal spot for India's space mission much in advance.
Way back in 1962, two visionary scientists of Indian Atomic Energy, Homi Bhabha and Vikram Sarabhai, were scouting for a suitable spot to start a space research station when, deep down along the Kerala coast, they came across an imposing red stone church dedicated to Saint Mary Magdalene, the woman to whom Jesus Christ first appeared after resurrection.
The church was within a vast 600-odd acres between the coast and a railway line in an obscure hamlet called Thumba, and what interested Bhabha and Sarabhai was that it was almost on the earth's magnetic equator.
The magnetic equator, which moves in a wavy form unlike the smooth circle of the geographic equator, is the best place for space research. It is where the magnetic field is horizontal to the earth's surface, and so the weakest.
The scientists made a request and the Latin Church, after getting consent from the fisherfolk who believed in the miraculous powers of the deity, obliged. Nearly 90 acres of the church land, which included a primary school also, were handed over and 183 families, too, had to move out. In all, over 800 acres of land were taken over.
Work is worship
The magnificent church was converted into the first office of the Thumba Space Centre. But the sandalwood statue of Mary Magdalene was kept where it was, above the altar, hovering over young scientists like a guardian angel as they went about assembling the country's first rockets.
The church's prayer room was the scientists' first laboratory and the bishop’s quarters nearby was the first design and drawing office. Thumba Equatorial Rocket Launching Station (TERLS) was thus established, and out of it came, butterfly-like, Vikram Sarabhai Space Centre (VSSC) and Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO).
The new Mary Magdalene Church came up a few kilometres north in a considerably smaller area, in 4.37 acres in a barren godforsaken land along the coast called Pallithura. The new school was built across the road from the church, on 3.39 acres. The displaced families, too, were rehabilitated in 10 cents each in Pallithura.
The country's space mission was so blessed that it conquered space in no time. But the transplanted Mary Magdalene Church had to wait for nearly 60 years, till last week, to secure the title deed for the compensatory land it had been given.
The decision to grant the title deed to both the church and the school, now a higher secondary school, was taken by the LDF cabinet on November 21. Of the 183 families that had to make way for TERLS, 141 were granted title deeds in stages, in 1996 and 2001. The remaining 42 families were given title deeds early this year.
“Certain rules that had prohibited the inclusion of schools and places of worship in a rehabilitation project that delayed the grant of title deeds. The cabinet finally decided to remove all bureaucratic obstructions,” said devaswom minister Kadakampally Surendran who played a big role in facilitating the title deeds. Kadakampally also represents the area in the Assembly.
The lack of a title deed had thwarted many of the church's plans. “No development activity was possible,” said Fr Fernandez. Two years ago, for instance, the parish council wanted a grand shrine to be constructed for Vailankanni Matha (Our Lady of Good Health) within the compound. The church had some years before placed an idol of the Lady with the divine child inside a modest shrine at the western entrance to the church. The idol was brought to the church by one of the faithful. “When people started to speak about the healing powers of the idol, the church decided to construct a large shrine and shift the idol to it,” Fr Fernandez said.
But when construction began, someone went to court saying the church was constructing in encroached land. The court imposed a stay.
Museum guarded by saints
As the new church was finding it difficult to settle down in its new environs, the old church had a dramatic transformation. From being the first office of Thumba Space Centre, where the likes of A P J Abdul Kalam had worked, it became a Space Museum in 1985, housing old rocket models and breakthrough satellite launchers like SLV-3, the one designed by a young Kalam.
“A good thing about the VSSC is they have retained most of our old church,” the church vicar Fr Lenin Fernandez said. Besides the Mary Magdalene statue, the facade of the old church, with its Gothic towers that dwarf even the tallest trees around and its arched doors and windows, have also not been touched. The old cemetery, too, is intact. “Every year on All Souls Day on November 2 we conduct a mass at the old cemetery,” the vicar said.
The new Mary Magdalene Church, though unique, does not have the cathedral-like grandeur of the old one. Unlike other churches along the Thiruvananthapuram coast, it does not have mausoleum-like domes or spires or towers. It seems bare, ascetic. Standing face-to-face, the church looks like a set of vertical rectangular structures of various sizes stacked close together. And its position, at the far end of a vast open space filled with beach sand, makes the church seem desolate and lonely.
Spirituality is rocket science
Church vicar Fr Fernandez said even the VSSC had forgotten the sacrifice the church and the laity had made. “Then they had promised jobs for three generations of locals. Now, even contract works are given to outsiders, mostly North Indians,” Fr Fernandez said.
Abdul Kalam, one of the first scientists to work in the 'church lab', had acknowledged the sacrifice of the local fisherfolk in his inspirational tome 'Ignited Minds: Unleashing the Power Within India'.
ere is how, in Kalam's words, Vikram Sarabhai got the consent he so badly needed. “Dr Sarabhai met the Bishop (Rev Fr Peter Bernard Pereira) on a Saturday and requested transfer of the property. The Bishop smiled and asked him to meet him the next day. In the Sunday morning service, the Bishop told the congregation, ‘My children, I have a famous scientist with me who wants our church and the place I live for the work of space science and research. Science seeks truth that enriches human life. The higher level of religion is spirituality. The spiritual preachers seek the help of the Almighty to bring peace to human minds. In short, what Vikram is doing and what I am doing are the same — both science and spirituality seek the Almighty’s blessings for human prosperity in mind and body. Children, can we give them God’s abode for a scientific mission?’ There was silence for a while followed by a hearty ‘Amen’ from the congregation which made the whole church reverberate.”
Miracle in the sea
Even while saying 'Amen', and sincerely dedicating their church to the nation, there were many poor fisherfolk who cried at the impending loss. “We believed our Mary Magdalene was capable of the most wondrous miracles,” said Peter D'Cruz, a 65-year-old fisherman whose father and brothers had attended the bishop's sermon. Legend has it that the sandalwood Mary Magalene was pulled to the shore by a group of fishermen in the area during the construction of the church in 1933.
It is believed that the wood figurine was placed in the sea as an offering by a group of Dutch sailors who were caught in a vicious storm. When it looked like they would be drowned, one of the sailors was found kneeling before an exquisitely carved saintly wooden being none had seen before in the ship. Others too gathered around the radiant figurine, and as though it had a sudden change of mind, the sea calmed.
Overwhelmed by the miracle, the sailors gave the divine structure back to the sea as an act of offering. It was this deity that the fishermen in Pallithura hauled up and installed as the deity in the church. “We strongly believed our Mary would keep us safe in the sea,” D'Cruz said. “We feel deprived but we have no regrets. See what she is doing for our space programme,” he said.
Legend of Pallithura
The title deed might have been delayed but the Latin Church, like D'Cruz, is mighty proud of what it had done. At the western entrance of the church is a red display board on which is written in white the brief history of the parish. The board is lighted from within so that the words would be unmistakably clear even in pitch dark.
Here is what it says: “In 1962, by the able intervention of Rev Bishop Peter Bernard Pereira, the parishioners of Pallithura unanimously decided to dedicate the whole parish for the national cause of establishing the ISRO in Pallithura. They gave up their homes, church, cemetery and school unconditionally. It was an unprecedented uprooting and monumental exodus in the history of the country.”