The agony of waking up early in the morning is dreaded even by the best of us. The comforts of a bed fare better than having to rouse from a deep slumber. So you can forgive the little five-year-old Phillip Thomas for finding it difficult to wake up on one Sunday morning.
The drive to Kuala Lumpur was a long one then, so the day began early for young Thomas.
But there was an ounce of excitement for the little chap as well. It was his first time attending a church service at the St Mary’s Orthodox Syrian Church along Jalan Tun Sambanthan in Brickfields, Kuala Lumpur.
Upon arriving and as the service began, young Thomas encountered a little snag. The service was in Malayalam. Why wouldn’t it be since, like Thomas, the congregation was made up of Malayalee believers.
After all, Syrian Christians or Malayalee Syriac Christian are from Kerala, India. And this particular church, built in 1956, just a year after Thomas was born, was an offshoot of the Malankara Orthodox Syrian Church in Kerala, making it the first church of its kind to be built outside of India.
It would take years before the services were held in English. But even back then, little Thomas stayed riveted to the service, the ceremonial atmosphere and rituals keeping him engaged.
Little did he know, decades later, he would preside over the altar himself, conducting the weekly Sunday services at this very same church, as its vicar.
On May 6 1984, when he was just 29 years old, Thomas was ordained as the first Malaysian orthodox priest, making him The Reverand Father Philip Thomas.
Recalling this historic event, parishioner M.J. Marret, who was a young medical student at the time, says: “Our hearts were bursting with joy and excitement. It was the answer to many prayers. Finally, God had granted us a priest who was one of us, who could relate to our struggles and communicate on the same wavelength.”
Rev Thomas’s outlook as the shepherd of the flock was heavily shaped by the church’s social concern expressions.
In 1963, the church was renovated to include a parsonage and a hostel. This opened a new chapter for the church in starting a Community Service Centre (CSC) which, among other things, provides hostel services to poor students and physically challenged individuals at subsidised cost.
The centre also assists in medical treatment and helps support the education of the underprivileged. On top of that, monthly food provisions, medical supplies and monetary assistance is provided for refugees.
“This is what being a parish means,” shares the stately Rev Thomas, now 63, bespectacled and wearing a black cassock with a maroon skufia, a large silver cross hanging from a chain across his neck.
“You are anchored in a locality and then you become a light that benefits all those around you. It’s not just about addressing the needs of your members alone.”
The predominantly Malayalee congregation, which consists of 200 families – although through marriage other ethnic groups are also part of the church now – is also involved in helping the marginalised.
“We have some of our members teaching at a community centre in Puchong or helping out in homes and rehab centres,” Rev Thomas points out.
This year, the church, which was renamed Cathedral of St Mary the Theotokos in 1996, celebrates the 90th year of the arrival of the first Orthodox priest, Rev Fr Alexios OIC to Malaya in 1928.
Rev Thomas says after World War I, people from Kerala went out in search of greener pastures. Among them were Syrian Christians.
Interestingly, Syrian Christians trace their roots to AD 52 when Thomas, one of the disciples of Jesus, came to India and established Christianity in the southwestern part of the subcontinent.
The Indian church eventually entered into a close relationship with the Persian or East Syrian Church, inheriting the language and liturgies and gradually came to be known as the Syrian Christian church.
While many migrated to metropolitan cities in India such as Madras and Delhi (at they were known at the time), some travelled across the Indian Ocean to Malaya and Singapore, two prominent economic hubs, and settled here.
By the late 1920s, there was a substantial number of Orthodox Syrian Christians who gathered regularly on Sunday mornings at the YMCA hall in Brickfields under the leadership of P.K. Matthew. And by 1928, the community was sufficiently large to warrant a visit by Rev Alexios to conduct services in Malaya and Singapore.
Besides commemorating the arrival of Rev Alexios to Malaysia, Rev Thomas says this year’s celebration is also to “recognise the contribution of the older generation who are now in their 80s and 90 and also to capture our own historical understanding of the community. This is something that is fast dissipating and we don’t want to lose our sense of history.”
The commemoration culminates in a fundraising dinner at the HGH Convention Centre in Sentul, KL on Sept 16. The funds raised will play a pivotal role in the church’s expansion plan of its community service.
Part of the funds will be channelled to the Stepping Stones Living Centre, a home for the poor children and battered mothers in Taman Seputeh, KL and also to set up the church’s own retreat house for its young people.
And for Rev Thomas, it is the spiritual health of the church that will eventually uplift and transform the community around it.
“One dimension of the church that we try to show is that spirituality is much more important than one’s social and cultural upbringing.”
Thomas strongly believes that as a priest, he is not limited to his congregation. A priest is for everybody, he says. And if the 90-year history of the St Mary’s Orthodox Syrian Church is anything to go by, so is the church.