In many ways, “small” and “minority” accurately describe the Syro-Malankara Catholic congregation who flock from far-flung towns to their Evanston church at 1208 Ashland Ave.
As Christians, they represent a minority religion in their native India. They are also a liturgical minority, one of some 22 churches within the greater Roman Catholic Church to use Eastern rites. They are outnumbered by the Syro-Malabar Catholics who have a similar liturgy and originated in the same South Indian state of Kerala. And in Evanston, where they come to worship, their population is dwarfed by most of the City’s resident ethnic minorities.
But in their church, the Malankara Catholic Mission of Chicago at the corner of Ashland Avenue and Wilder Street, this congregation lives large.
Most of the 220 members, from70 families, travel from suburbs like Morton Grove, Glenview, Gurnee and Downers Grove each Sunday. Others are so widely dispersed over a four- or five-state area that they are able to attend less regularly.
Sunday worship, the centerpiece of their church life, begins at 9 a.m. and usually lasts two hours, says Father Saji Mukkoot, who has pastored the church since 2003. He conducts most services in Malayalam, the language of Kerala. Once a month or so he performs the mass in English, he says, for “a new generation that doesn’t know Malayalam.”
The Evanston congregation is segregated – out of cultural habit rather than religious dictate, the priest says – women on one side, men on the other and children at the front of the church.
The mass differs from the Latin service, says Father Mukkoot. The Malankara priest faces the same direction as the people, as did Western clergy before Vatican II. There is no kneeling, he says, as is consistent with the church’s emphasis on resurrection. The choir is important only to lead the congregation, all prayers are chanted, and the service makes liberal use of incense and bells.
Here in the more somber environs of their adoptive land, the Indian immigrants display the brilliant colors of their native country. Most of the women wear bright saris to church, says the priest, and the ornate altar cloths and clerical vestments gleam even on a dull spring day.
The Roman Catholic archdiocese of Chicago made the empty Evanston church available to the Malankara community in 1995. Originally known as Ascension of Our Lord Church, the building had been closed for several years, says Father Mukkoot. Among its former tenants were two other immigrant groups. The Polish congregation dwindled as Poles moved away from Evanston. More recently the Hispanic, mostly Mexican, congregation migrated to St. Nick’s, St. Mary’s and other churches when Ascension was shuttered.
The local Malankara Catholics had previously been “nomadic,” says Father Mukkoot, finding temporary quarters in various Chicago Roman Catholic churches. Now they meet in a church where the stained glass windows are inscribed with Polish names.
Though they made no significant architectural changes, the Malankara Catholics did modify the sanctuary. They hung a curtain in front of the altar. And, in accordance with Syrian Orthodox tradition, crosses, not statuary, adorn their sanctuary.
The worship service is part of a constellation of activities that give congregants a sense of belonging. Families take turns bringing Indian food for the lunch that follows the mass each week. And in addition to worship, there are men’s and women’s groups, youth groups and Sunday school.
“People spend more than five hours here [on Sunday],” says Father Mukkoot. “It’s their second home.”
In their native Kerala, Christians trace their origins to the visit of St. Thomas in A.D. 52. The nearly 24 million Christians in India today represent just 3 percent of the total population. But the six million Christians in Kerala – 35 percent of that state’s population – own “most of the educational institutions and hospitals,” says Father Mukkoot, adding, “There would be no life without Christians.”
Holding to the Syrian rituals to which they gravitated in the 16th century when they split from the increasingly Latinized church of India’s Portuguese colonizers, the Malankara Catholics officially reunited with Rome and the pope in 1930.
There are only 400,000 Syro-Malankara Catholics in the world. Their one seminary, in Kerala, provided Father Mukkoot’s training. North America now boasts 500 Malankara families and 12 “missions.” Not yet fully established parishes, these small congregations are deemed “missions” of an overarching diocese. Some lack church buildings, and most of their priests have more than one job. Father Mukkoot supplements his church salary by serving as chaplain at Resurrection Hospital in Chicago.
But standing by the priest’s side is one of the reasons for his optimism about his church. Lintu Markose, who was born in India but grew up in Glenview as a member of the Evanston church, is the first North American Malankaran seminarian. He says Father Mukkoot is his mentor and inspiration.
Mr. Markose, who is in his second year at a Roman Catholic seminary on Long Island, understands the importance of his position. “There is no model” for his training, he says, smiling; after four years of seminary he will likely go to India for a year or two to learn the traditions of his church.
A second seminarian is a year behind him, while another is studying in Toronto and a fourth is training in India. Father Mukkoot says he hopes for the day when Syro-Malankara Catholics in North America will be self-sustaining and able to draw clergy from their adopted homeland.