Not many of the thousands of the young and not so young men and women, who attained the Holy Qurbana in the forty and more parishes of the Diocese of Delhi may be aware of the beginnings of the Orthodox Church of Northern India in our own times.
Ever since the Catholicate of the East was transferred to and established in India, in 1912, the Church felt all the more its absence in the national capital. The number of Orthodox Christians in Delhi however remained small-compared to Madras, Calcutta and Bombay, though their strength was gradually growing. Though they occasionally attended the services in one of the other churches and met, together with together Malayalees, at the annual Onam festivities. Those were days when no one inquired about the religious denomination to which one belonged.
As it happened, the Second World War provided an opportunity in 1942 to start liturgical worship in Delhi. In the face of the Japanese onslaught in South East Asia, the British were forced to retreat. Calcutta suffered sporadic bombing, Within another year, Imphal fell to the invaders. Many offices were moved out of the city and so was the Bishops College which shifted to Kathauli in Uttar Pradesh, a few hours journey from Delhi.
Father Mathews, the present Catholicos, Moran Mar Baselios, Mar Thoma Mathews II, was then a student at the Bishop's college. He came over to Delhi twice amongst to celebrate the Holy Qurbana; the remaining he celebrated the Eucharist at the college in Kathauli, where the congregation consisted of students from Kerala belonging to various Christian denominations, accommodating Fr Mathews overnight at Delhi was easy as his habits were simple and his needs few.
Meanwhile, in 1938, the Churches outside Kerala had been grouped into a new Diocese. And, Alexios Mar Theodosios was consecrated the same year as the Bishop of Kollam and the "Diocese outside Kerala". His Grace visited Delhi in 1944 to consider the means of establishing a Church in Delhi. But building a church in Delhi was not easy as there were only about 15 families and some 150 persons living away from their families in Kerala, in the Orthodox community in the city at the time. All the same, hopes remained alive.
Liturgical worship continued more or less regularly. Also in 1944 Metropolitan Thomas Mar Dionsius halted in Delhi on his way back from the Eastern war front and celebrated the Holy Qurbana at the Church at the Redemption. After the service, His Grace gave a graphic account of his impressions of the troops on the frontline. He also recalled the interest taken by an earlier British Viceroy, Lord Irwin, in bringing peace between the Church in India and the Patriarch of Antioch and also his attending the Holy Qurbana In the St George's Orthodox Church on a visit to Thiruvananthapuram.
The Diocesan Metropolitan Alexios Mar Theodosios revisited Delhi in 1952,celebrated the Holy Qurbana in the Chapel attached to the Lady Hardinge Hospital and baptized two infants. A group met with His Grace at the residence of Mr M.M. Thomas (later, advisor to the Union Public Service Commission) and discussed the support needed for a priest in Delhi. This meeting was a turning point in that it decided to go ahead and take steps to construct a Church in the capital.
This important resolve was prompted by several influences. A visit by the missionary Bishop, Pathros Mar Osthathios had prepared the mind of the congregation on the basic need of a Church of their own in Delhi. The 19th centenary of the arrival of St Thomas in India provided the inspiration to formally launch the parish in Delhi in 1952 with that help of Fr T. G Koshy from Bombay. Indeed, this rare celebration, jointly organized by all the Christians, was enriched by the participation of the President of India, Dr Rajendra Prasad, as well as the Prime Minister, Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru, both of whom spoke warmly to the St Thomas tradition as a national legacy. In the words of the President, at the St Thomas Day celebration on 18th December 1952: "Those Indians who trace their Christianity to St Thomas have a longer history and a higher ancestry than that of Christians of the European countries. And it is really a matter of pride to us that it so happened'. The spiritual and political encouragement was reinforced by the offer by Mr. C. P Matthen, Member of Parliament, to meet any deficit in the funds required for constructing the Church.
The next step was to choose a priest who would be satisfied with a modest living allowance. The Diocesan metropolitan Mar Theodosios selected Father K. C. Thomas (at present metropolitan Thomas Mar Makarios of the Diocese of America). Fr Thomas lived at the YMCA, sharing a room and cheerfully putting up with considerable inconvenience. He served the Parish for about 11 years.
The Holy Qurbana was being regularly conducted for a time in the St Thomas Church on Reading Road (now Mandir Marg) and thereafter for many years in the Saint James Church at Kashmiri gate by the courtesy of the Cambridge Mission Brotherhood.
In 1961, the Delhi Orthodox Syrian Church society was set up as a registered body with the three fold aim of establishing a worship for the parish and an educational institution and a health care facility for the public. The effort to mobilize resources started in earnest and intensified during 1964-1968. By the end of this period, the Saint Mary's Orthodox Church (now Cathedral) was completed, thereby laying the foundation for the new Diocese of Delhi, which came into being in less than another decade.
How could a small congregation of a few faithfully achieve this ambition? The contributing factors were many. With the coming of independence, the Orthodox Church felt the urge, even more strongly than before, to express the national identity of its ancient faith, through an active socio-cultural presence in the cultural capital of India. His Holiness, the Catholicus, Moran Mar Baselios Geevarghese II, who guided the Church for 35 years, and till 1964 ardently wished and prayed for this to happen. His successor, His Holiness Baselios Augen I is strongly supported the initiative of the Delhi Parish. Also, there was peace within the Church, following the 1958 accord between the Catholicos and the Patriarch of the Antioch. This explains the happy event in 1964, when the patriarch Moran Mar Ignatius Yakkoub III laid the foundation stone of the St Mary's Church, with the participation of the Diocesan Bishop Mathews Mar Athanasios (who later became Catholicos as Baselios Mar Thoma Mathews I). Further the public support of the President and the Prime Minister of India, from the very beginning, for the role of the Orthodox Christian Community, in the renewed socio-religious life of India was invaluable and continued through the powerful goodwill expressed by their successors, Presidents, Doctor S. Radhakrishnan and Dr Zakhir Hussain and Prime Minister Lal Bahadur Shastri and Shrimati Indira Gandhi.
The resources generated were managed with efficient care, on financial matters by Mr A. V Paulose (who subsequently became Secretary to Government to the Ministry of the Railways). And on the engineering aspects by Mr P.K Thomas (later Chief Engineer, Roads, Ministry of Transport). Besides them, the Church Society had the benefit of the mature leadership of the presiding vicars, Father C.V Samuel who succeeded K.C Thomas and, from 1965, Father K.A George. Mr. A. M Thomas Minister of state for defense production was an unfailing source of support. Mrs Achamma John Matthai, ( wife of India's Minister of Railways and thereafter Finance Minister ) was another staunch supporter of the Church Building project. Senior members of the Parish like Mr P.C Mathew, secretary, Ministry of Labor, and Dr K.C Thomas, Secretary in the Ministry of Irrigation and Power and many others in and outside the government, but consistently helpful in realizing the collective vision.
Even as progress was maintained in the construction of the Church at the headquarters of the future Diocese, care was taken by the Vicar and the parishioners to ensure the regularity of the Holy Qurbana as well as allied activities for spiritual growth through Prayer Meetings, Martha Mariam Samajam, Youth League and Bible Class. Though limited in resources, the Delhi Parish extended spiritual and material support one way or another, to congregations such as of Ambala, striving to come into their own, emulating the Delhi example.
Indeed, nothing would come in the way of congregations organizing themselves, Parishes being established and Churches being built by relatively small groups of Orthodox Christians in other cities and towns in North India.
This momentous trend signified the return to the North of the Faith of the Saint Thomas Apostle who according to historical tradition, had spread the gospel in places such as Takshashila (Taxila near Islamabad in Pakistan), the ancient Buddhist university center, clearly this good fortune came as a Divine gift, expressed as unprecedented goodwill of men and women within and well beyond the Orthodox community.