On 21st December this year, Bishop Jonas Thaliath of the CMI Order would have completed one hundred years, had he been alive today? The Church in India, especially the CMI Order, owe a great deal to this visionary priest and bishop. Born into the illustrious Thaliath family in Puthanpally, whose father was a high court judge, he proved himself to be a precocious student, winning gold medals after gold medals. He finished his priestly studies in Kandy and later on went to Rome for his Doctorate.
On his return to India, his superiors entrusted him with various responsibilities which he discharged to their complete satisfaction. By this time, Fr Jonas had begun to feel that for a fuller growth of the CMI Order, their main training centre would have to be moved to Bangalore. He, together with a few of his colleagues, succeeded in persuading their superiors to accept their proposal and a new seminary called Dharmaram college was established with Fr Jonas as its Rector. If Dharmaram College today is an internationally reputed institution, the stepping stones were laid by this amazing visionary and a band of his colleagues.
On becoming the Rector, one of his dreams was to make Dhrmaram College self-sufficient and not depend upon grants and donations. After cracking his brain, he found his answer in the simple coconut tree. He bought up large tracks of agricultural land close to Dharmaram and planted scores of coconut trees. His calculation was that each tree would produce sufficient number of nuts which would give the College enough income to meet the average cost of maintaining a seminarian. Self-sufficiency to meet the daily milk requirements of Dharmaram was yet another of his goals. He wanted to set up a big dairy farm in Dharmaram with high yielding varieties of cows to be imported from America. His plan was to sell the excess milk and reduce the running expenses of the college. He succeeded to get the government’s Dairy Board to set up a milk processing plant nearby the college. With these plans in his pocket, he travelled to the United States and managed to obtain the required number of Hollestin cows and a variety of other productive animals. Along with the cows, he also brought two stud bulls to avoid mixing up the breeds, at least for some time. Then he chartered a Boeing cargo aircraft and brought his live cargo safely to Bangalore. To the dismay of people around, he built a large air conditioned shed to ease the climate change problems of these animals from a cold climate to the rather hot conditions of Bangalore.
Since Dharmaram was to be the host, the responsibility to make all arrangements, under the guidelines provided by the Executive committee, was entrusted to Fr Jonas. It was indeed a Herculian responsibility which included providing food and lodging to more than five hundred Indian delegates, all the Catholic Bishops of India, foreign delegates, and a specially nominated Papal Legate in the person of Cardinal Sergio Pignedoli, Prefect of the Congregation for the Evangalisation of People. Fr Jonas and his team did this with high voltage efficiency and staggering equanimity. It is worthwhile mentioning here that all the while, Fr Jonas was functioning with only one lung, the other one having been surgically removed much earlier. The Seminar was hailed as an epoch making event in the history of the Indian Church. Sometime after the National Seminar, he was made Deputy Secretary General of the CBCI, which required him to shift his base to New Delhi until his elevation as bishop of Rajkot in Gujarat State.
More than anything else, his contribution to ensuring financial autonomy for St John’s Medical College in Bangalore, a CBCI project, was his crowning achievement. The College began to function with high reputation but its financial stability was far from secure. Soon, the CBCI came to the conclusion that a Trust Fund had to be established out of whose income, at least the most essential services could be continued without disruption. Having recognized the enormous capabilities of Fr Jonas, the College Management decided to entrust this nearly impossible task to Fr Jonas.
After doing his homework thoroughly, he departed for the US with a letter of introduction from Cardinal Gracias to his counterpart in Boston, Cardinal Cushing, considered the most powerful Cardinal in the US at that time. Cardinal Cushing, on his part, put Fr Jonas in touch with several leading Catholics, especially the Speaker of the US House of Representatives and many influential Senators belonging to both political parties. He started his work in right earnest, returning to India only to escape the severe American winter. He had to do this three times, each time reporting some progress. Using his famous wit and charm and persuasive skills, he was able to convince his American friends about the urgency of the situation faced by St John’s Medical College.
There was also a lighter side to his persona. He was very fond of Kerala’s red fish curry in which a lot of red chilly powder and other hot and sour ingredients were used. Sometimes he would telephone Aleymma, my wife, and ask her very innocently whether she had prepared red fish curry for dinner for which her answer would always be yes. In the evening he would turn up for a sumptuous meal. On another occasion, there was to be an evening function to which Aleymma and I had been invited. He asked me whether we planned to attend. I told him that we intended to go although this would entail leaving our children in the care of our maid. Later in the evening when we returned home after the function, what do we find? Fr Jonas squatting on the floor playing caroms with our kids.