By Malie Hudson
Every Sunday around 2 p.m., children from the Syro-Malabar Catholic Community busily help their parents prepare for a liturgy celebrated completely in Malayalam, a language spoken predominantly in the Kerala region of India.
Since May, about 30 families of the Syro-Malabar Community have been celebrating Mass at 2 p.m. every Sunday at Christ the Redeemer Church in Grand Terrace. It is the latest Eastern Rite Catholic Community to be welcomed in the Diocese of San Bernardino.
For several years many of them made the long commute to St. Thomas Syro-Malabar Catholic Forane Church in Santa Ana to celebrate Mass, with some of them travelling from as far as Palm Springs and Victorville. Others commuted from Redlands, San Bernardino and Ontario.
“This is important to us because it brings our community together to the Church and the kids grow with our tradition. It’s very important that the kids grow with our traditional language and culture,” said George Mattappally, a parish committee member.
“It’s difficult for them to drive every weekend to Santa Ana which is about 80 miles,” said Father Soney Sebastian, S.V.D., director of the Syro Malabar Community. “It takes a whole day for them. So they asked, why not start a Mission of their own in San Bernardino? I gave them my support but wanted the community to work together and take the lead.”
The origin of the Syro-Malabar Church dates back to St. Thomas the Apostle who visited Southern India in 52 A.D. and founded several Christian communities on the Malabar coast of Southern India, today known as the State of Kerala. The early Christians from this region became known as the St. Thomas Christians. By the 19th century, the Vatican officially assigned them the name Syro-Malabar Church. It is an Eastern Catholic Major Archiepiscopal Church that is in full communion with the Pope and follows the East Syrian Rite liturgy.
Members of the local Syro-Malabar community wrote a letter to the pastor of the church in Santa Ana, which he forwarded to the Bishop of the Catholic Diocese of Syro-Malabar of Chicago. The Chicago bishop later wrote to Bishop Gerald Barnes about the possibility of forming a mission in San Bernardino and asked Fr. Sebastian if he could become director. Once the process was completed, the community was officially named St. Jude Syro-Malabar Mission of San Bernardino.
One characteristic of the community’s Mass is the active participation of the children. The children sing in the choir, prepare the altar for the Mass and assist the priest as altar servers. Before they began the Mission last May, about six children and their parents met with Fr. Sebastian to practice the prayers, responses and songs in Malayalam. Since the children weren’t familiar with the Indian alphabet script, parents translated the prayers and songs into English so that the children could easily read them in Malayalam during Mass.
“It’s a beautiful thing to listen to the children read and respond to the Mass. It’s a lot of participation but one disadvantage is that they don’t understand everything that they are saying since they are more English oriented children,” explained Fr. Sebastian. “They are reading it and fully absorb or understand. But the parents have explained it to them and they’ve been going to the Mass during their childhood and onwards so they understand most of it. So our plan is to eventually incorporate both English and Malayalam in the Mass.”
Fr. Sebastian hopes to begin using both languages by the end of September and also start offering CCD for children in grades pre-K to 12th grade. The catechism classes will be taught in English.
“We also are planning to celebrate the feast of St. Jude in October, the patron saint of our mission,” said Fr. Sebastian. “We plan to have families host a novena and end with a procession around the church.”
Within the Diocese, there are a number of other Eastern Rite churches recognized by the Vatican and the Diocese. They include St. Joseph Maronite Catholic Mission in Riverside, St. Philip the Apostle Melkite Greek Catholic Church in San Bernardino, St. Anthony the Great Melkite Catholic Mission in Palm Springs and St. Nicholas of Myra Byzantine Catholic Church in Fontana.
Malie Hudson is a freelance writer based in Riverside.