History of the Malankara Church in America

Ancient stone St. Thomas Cross with Persian (Pahlavi) script

Steven Kurian is a member of the Malankara Orthodox Syrian Church. Originally from Tampa, Florida, he holds a Bachelor’s Degree in Chemical Engineering from the University of Florida, as well as a Master’s Degree in Environmental Engineering from Rutgers University in New Brunswick, New Jersey. Currently he works as a project engineer for a process equipment manufacturer in Warminster, Pennsylvania.

Mr. Kurian has been an active member of the Mar Gregorios Orthodox Christian Student Movement (MGOCSM) as well as its sister organizations, the Fellowship of Orthodox Christians in the US (FOCUS) and Orthodox Vacation Bible School (OVBS).  He is also the moderator of the “Orthodukso” facebook page (www.facebook.com/orthodukso). While he grew up in the St. Gregorios Orthodox Church of Tampa, he and his wife Sherry, are currently members of the St. Thomas Indian Orthodox Church of Philadelphia. He may be reached at stevekurian@yahoo.com for any questions or comments.


When speaking of India’s religious makeup, one is usually most familiar with the great “Eastern” religions of Hinduism and Buddhism, as well as with India’s long history of Islam. It may be one of history’s best kept secrets then, that India possesses a  Christian history as old as Christianity itself. In fact, there remains to the present day a Christian community in the South Indian state of Kerala that traces its heritage in continuity back to the Apostolic foundation of Saint Thomas, one of the Twelve Apostles of Christ Himself. These “St. Thomas Christians,” also called Nazranis (Nazarenes) maintained their distinct identity within the larger ethnic and cultural context of South India for roughly two millenia. From this group, an Orthodox Church affirming “Oriental,” or Non-Chalcedonian, theology emerged. This Church, the Malankara Orthodox Church, while having endured its share of struggles throughout history, has emerged as a flourishing Church; growing, along with the general Keralite Diaspora, far beyond her original borders; to other parts of India as well as to the Middle East and Europe, even to the United States. It is in this new American context-where many small “Old World” Orthodox communities have come together, that the Malankara Orthodox are beginning to contribute their own unique experience to what is slowly becoming an “American” Orthodox Church.

Historical Background

The Indian Church maintains the tradition that the Apostle Thomas came to India following the trade routes which at the time of Christ had already brought an existing Jewish  merchant community to India. According to the early Syriac document, “The Acts of Thomas,” the Apostle preached throughout the Indian subcontinent, performed miracles, converted many Hindus to Christ, and was finally martyred at Mylapore near the present day city of Chennai (formerly Madras). Tradition also holds that in the midst of his journey, in the year 52 A.D., St. Thomas arrived in the Malabar Coast (present day Kerala) and established 7 and a half Churches: at Kodungallur, Kollam, Niranam, Nilackal, Kokkamangalam, Kottakkayal, Palayoor, along with a smaller “half” Church at Thiruvancode. Collectively, this Christian community, the St. Thomas Christians would continue to grow, developing into a separate class within the wider cultural and caste system of the region. These Christians would remain in relative isolation from the rest of the Christendom, particularly in the Roman or Byzantine world. Isolated as they were, though, the St. Thomas Christians would also come to be defined by their reliance on distant ecclesiastical authorities.

In the early history of the Malankara Church (Malankara being another name for region particularly around the island of “Maliankara” off the coast of Malabar) Church, the Church’s isolation resulted in a constant struggle to maintain Apostolic succession and continuity of priesthood.This community, fortunately, was sustained at various times in hierarchy and Sacraments by a long-standing relationship with the Syriac Churches of the East. The native Christians of Kerala came to identify themselves with the Syriac Churches so much that they would take on yet another descriptor for themselves,  “Suryani Christyanis” (Syrian Christians). On several occasions, migrants, including priests and bishops, from various parts of the Syriac world would arrive in Malankara and integrate within the existing Christian community. At one point, the East-Syriac Church of Persia even elevated a Metropolitan Bishop for the “Gate of All India.” Whatever the particular theological and liturgical disposition possessed by the Malankara community, the people themselves remained united until the coming of great European colonial powers, who brought schism for the first time to the Kerala Church.

Each major European power brought to Kerala a particular theological and hierarchical bias. The arrival of Vasco Da Gama and the Portuguese to India also signaled the first contact of Latin Rite Catholicism with Malankara. The occasionally heavy handed tactics of the Portuguese to bring the alleged “heretic” St. Thomas Christians under the jurisdiction of the Pope of Rome also hastened a significant party against forced Latinization to pursue a formal relationship between Malankara and the (Non-Chalcedonian) Syrian Orthodox Church of Antioch in the mid-17th century. Thus marked the first split amongst the St. Thomas Christians, between the “Orthodox” Christians in Communion with Antioch, and the community which chose to enter into Communion with the Rome. The latter party would later coalesce into the Syro-Malabar Rite Catholic Church, an East Syriac rite underneath the Papacy. Years later, after the arrival of the English and inspired by Protestant theology, another schism between the Orthodox and a “Reformed” party within the Church would occur. The product of this became what is known as the Mar Thoma Syrian Church whose adherents to this day use a modified Syriac-rite liturgy imbued with Reformed theology.

The 20th Century saw two more schisms which further divided the St. Thomas Christians. In 1912, Baselios Paulose I was elevated as “Catholicos of the East” and primate of the Malankara Orthodox Christians. A faction of the Church, declaring his elevation invalid,  pledged their allegiances solely to the sitting Patriarch of Antioch, Ignatius Yakub III. Thus, a schism pitting Orthodox Christians against other Orthodox was precipitated. Those claiming the supremacy of the local Catholicos continued as the Malankara Orthodox Syrian Church (Metran Kakshi, or Metropolitan’s group), while those who claiming the spiritual and temporal primacy of the Syrian Patriarch of Antioch continued as the Malankara Syrian Orthodox Church (Bhava Kakshi, or the Patriarchal group). Though there was a brief period of reunion between the two factions between 1958 and 1975, this division has persisted to this day even in the diaspora. Yet another schism occured when in 1930, two Metropolitans of Orthodox Syrian Church, Geevarghese Mar Ivanios and Jacob Mar Theophilos, entered into communion with Rome bringing with them the Bethany Ashram monastery and a number of faithful. Their followers subsequently became the Syro-Malankara Catholic Church, remain as an Eastern Rite Catholic Church using essentially the same Liturgy as their former Orthodox brethren. Thus, even amongst the St.Thomas Christians sharing an identical Liturgy, there are at least three jurisdictions celebrating separately in Kerala on any given Sunday.

Photo of Malankara bishops taken in 1892; Rene Villate (Mar Timotheos) seated on the far left with Parumala Mar Gregorios second from the right, Alvarez Mar Julius far right

History of the Malankara Orthodox in America

It is worth noting that, in a sense, the history of the Malankara Orthodox Christians in America began in the early 1900s in the mysterious person of Joseph Rene Villate. Villate, who at various times of his life was a priest in the Old Catholic, American Episcopal, and Russian Orthodox Churches as well as a minister in the Presbyterian Church, had contacted the fledgling Goan mission of the Malankara Church. On May 29th, 1890, Villate was consecrated as Metropolitan Mar Timotheos by three Malankara Orthodox bishops: Alvarez Mar Julius, Kadavil Mar Athanasius, and the Saint Parumala Mar Gregorios in Colombo, Ceylon (now Sri Lanka). Mar Timotheos was tasked with ministering to America, presumably amongst the ‘Old Catholic’ community from which he came (The term “Old Catholic refers to the body of Churches which maintained the Latin Rite but which had grown dissatisfied with developments in the Roman Papacy, including Papal Infallibility). It is also worth noting that after his consecration, the Malankara Church had lost contact with Mar Timotheos as well as any connection with the American Orthodox. What is known though is that Joseph Rene Villatte Mar Timotheos continued ministering in America independently. And, almost a century later, a handful of Churches in America unaffiliated with any of the “canonical” Apostolic Churches have been found to nonetheless trace their Episcopal succession through the alleged “Villate Succession.”

The history of the Malankara Orthodox Syrian Church in the Americas properly begins in the 1960s with the rise of the global Malayalee diaspora. Kerala, with its high percentage literacy and relative number of opportunities for women, began to import large numbers of young nurses overseas. In 1965, President Lyndon B. Johnson and the United States Congress passed the “Immigration and Nationality Act,” liberalizing American immigration policy and giving preference to skilled laborers entering the US, particularly in those occupations with chronic labor shortages. Women nurses generally preceded their husbands and families in settling overseas, but nonetheless, Malayalee communities began to form. By the 1970s, many of America’s major cities, particularly New York City in the Northeast, but also Boston, Philadelphia, Chicago, Houston, and Dallas began to see Malayalee parishes of the various denominations, including the Orthodox Church form. According to self-reporting (via parish websites and jubilee souvenirs), parish were formed both in Manhattan, New York and Boston in 1964; in Washington D.C. in 1965, and in Chicago, Illinois in 1971. The parish in Manhattan (having since moved to Yonkers, New York) is the first to be incorporated as a parish of the Malankara Orthodox Church. However, many of these early parishes were also resistant to official incorporation as they were “ecumenical” in nature; having members from all the various Kerala Churches, who at that time came together to worship with fellow Malayalee immigrants.

Responding to the rapid diaspora, the Holy Synod of the Malankara Orthodox Church originally formed a single Diocese for “Outside Kerala,” encompassing the entire diaspora community in 1959 under the Metropolitan Alexios Mar Theodosius. Later, in 1976, new dioceses were formed at  Bombay, New Delhi, and Calcutta, with the Americas falling under the jurisdiction of Bombay (now Mumbai). Finally, the American Diocese was properly formed in 1979 underneath the Late Lamented Metropolitan Dr. Thomas Mar Makarios (formerly Metropolitan of Bombay) who resided in New York  while also lecturing at Alma College in Michigan. In 1992 Metropolitan Mathews Mar Barnabas (formerly of the Idukki, Kerala Diocese) succeeded Mar Makarios, becoming the second Bishop presiding over the American Diocese, establishing his Episcopal residence in Bellerose, New York.

Meanwhile, the “Patriarchal” Orthodox from Kerala were initially placed under the direct supervision of the local Syrian Orthodox Archbishop, the Late Lamented Mar Athanasius Yeshue Samuel. This arrangement put the “ethnic” Syriac community from the Middle East in one jurisdiction with the immigrants from Kerala. Answering the petitions of the Malayalees within the diocese,  a separate Archdiocese was established for the Malankara Syrian Orthodox Christians in North America in 1992 with the Archbishop Zachariah Mar Nicholovos as its first hierarch. After ten years, in 2002, this Archbishop entered into Communion with the Malankara Orthodox Syrian Church along with a handful of followers. This resulted in his immediate suspension and subsequent excommunication by the Patriarch of Antioch, Ignatius Zaka Iwas.

At this present day in America, roughly 4 decades after the first immigrants from Kerala began arriving in America, the Malankara Orthodox Churches (both Patriarchal and under the Catholicate) are experiencing unprecedented growth; both due to sustained immigration from India as well as continued population growth among the existing 1st and 2nd generation communities. As of 2010, the American Diocese of the Malankara Orthodox Syrian Church was divided into the Northeast American Diocese under the aforementioned Metropolitan Zachariah Mar Nicholovos, and the South West Diocese (based in Houston, Texas) under Metropolitan Alexios Mar Eusebios. The current Archbishop of the Malankara Archdiocese of the Syrian Orthodox Church in North America is Archbishop Mar Tithos Yeldho. According to the comprehensive US Orthodox Census by Alexei Krindatch in 2010, the Malankara Orthodox Syrian Church has 15,700 adherents in America while the Archdiocese has 6,400. Both numbers are a 53% increase from the year 2000. This combined community of 22,100 faithful has rooted itself firmly in America, and as time progresses, will reflect an increasingly American-born and English-first population. As this happens, the Malankara Orthodox Church(es) will continue to carve out their own unique place amongst the Churches of this nation.


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This article was written by Steven Kurian. He may be reached at stevekurian@yahoo.com for any questions or comments.

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