A Brief Biography of Fr Thomas OMI
Founder of the Congregation of THE ROSARIANS
Fr.Thomas, the Founder of the First Asian Contemplative Congregation, whose life and work is briefly described below, was known to the Editor of "Christ to the World" who as lay man at the age of 24 spent three days at the Mother House of the Rosarians at Tholagatty to follow a Retreat preached by him. The Editor observes - It was my first experience with a man to whom God was all. Fr.Thomas was filled with God: he seemed, as it were, to breathe God. His answers to my questions went straight to the points, so much so that, in the case of one of them, I never asked it again. I was at that time tormented with the thought of the fate of those who did not believe in God. How would they be saved? Would they get the light to know God even at the last moment and would their sin of disbelief be forgiven them? Fr.Thomas said to me simply and with finality "Pray and do penance, have faith. Your concern for them is only a reflection of God's immense love for all souls".
Another thing, which impressed me in the saintly priest, was the extraordinary combination in him of rare intelligence and extreme simplicity. When he spoke of the Blessed Virgin, he could not refrain from tears and smiles "I no longer pray to her - you can literally say this," he said "I simply watch and wait when I have a problem, saying, 'Mother let us now see how you will solve this one. It is she who does everything here," he confided.
Fr.Thomas might seem to some like a figure from another age with a message no longer relevant to the society of today. Yet to a world soaked in disbelief and entirely turn towards material things, he prophetically proclaims God's perennial truth. "Unless you do penance you shall all perish."
Birth and Childhood
Bastiampillai Anthonipillai was born at Pandianthalvu, Jaffna, Sri Lanka on 7th March, 1886. His parents were a pious and well respected couple. The father, Mr.Bastiampillai was a mason and a building contractor, belonging to a middle class family. He was financially secure and was influential in the village. He had a happy life with his devoted wife Lysapillai (Lucy), who was a model for piety and virtue. They were blessed with seven children, six boys and one girl. Fr.Thomas whose baptismal name was Antony, was the second child. Of his five brothers, three died young, the fourth Mr.Soosaipillai lived to a ripe old age and was present at Fr.Thomas' funeral. The fifth Mr.Benjamin died as an adult in a train accident. His only sister Mariamma, who married Mr.Augustine, a teacher at St.Patricks College, Jaffna also lived long and served Fr.Thomas.
When Fr.Thomas was born he appeared so feeble and sickly that fearing his survival, Fr.Yves de cam, the parish priest of the Cathedral was called to the house, where the child was baptized on the very day of his birth. He was given the name Antony after St.Antony, the wonder worker and the patron saint of the neighbouring parish, whose protection the mother had been earnestly asking for her child. Gradually the child's health improved, though ill health and weakness haunted him throughout his life. Antony grew up under the care of his
pious parents in a catholic and religious atmosphere. He regularly attended the Church services with his parents and often spent even his playtime in the church premises. This helped him to develop affection for religious values and devotions.
He had his early education in St.Charles Tamil School, situated in the Cathedral compound. After four years of vernacular studies there, Antony joined St.Patrick's College, one of the fore-most educational institutions in Jaffna at that time. During this period Antony came under the influence of several eminent missionaries. One of them was Fr.Maingot, who came to Ceylon in 1887, was ordained in 1889, and was parish priest of the Cathedral in 1901 and left for Algeria in the following year to join the Trappists. His life and ways left a deep impression on young Antony as he would recall in 1931 when he heard about his death.
In 1904 Antony passed the Senior Cambridge Examination credibly and also got through the Government Clerical Service Examination, which entitled him for a comfortable job under the British rule either in Ceylon or out side. Infact it is said that his father obtained for him a job in the Jaffna Kachcheri (Civil Office). But the Religious atmosphere in which Antony grew had already drawn him towards higher things, the service of God and His church.
By the time Antony completed his studies in St.Patrick's college he was fully resolved to join the seminary. Though his mother favoured his ambition to become a priest, his father strictly opposed the plan convinced his son's poor health made him unfit for the priestly ministry. Finally he yielded to his son's aspirations when on 26th February 1904, Antony stealthily left home and took shelter in St.Martyn's Seminary, Jaffna. On his admission to the seminary he was given the new name Thomas. Almost from the beginning of his seminary days he became ill and right through his life he remained an invalid. Though fragile and week physically, he was strong in character and convictions. He took a keen interest in philosophy and was so fond of discussing it with his companions that they dubbed him 'philosopher'.
An Oblate of Mary Immaculate
At the end of his philosophy studies, Thomas opted to join the OMI Congregation. He was sent to Colombo in January in 1907 to begin the novitiate. The novitiate began on the 1st February 1908. During the novitiate Fr.Thomas became seriously ill and his recovery was regarded as a miracle worked by St.John Mary Vianny in response to a novena made to him. Having completed the novitiate with great difficulty due to his poor health, he was allowed to pronounce his 1st vows on 2nd February 1909.
From the novitiate Fr.Thomas proceeded to St.Bernard Seminary, Borella to begin the study of Theology. His health had not improved and it is said that he spent a good part of his time in the infirmary, so much so most of his examinations were conducted in the infirmary. After his final vows on 2nd February 1910 he continued his theological studies in the Seminary. He fell ill again and became so serious that the doctors predicted that his death was near, but against all hopes he survived and continued his studies.
Having completed his Theological studies Fr.Thomas returned to Jaffna in 1911. His health continued to be so poor that Bishop Julain, omi hesitated to ordained him to the priesthood. Finally yielding to his earnest pleas, he was ordained priest on 6th January 1912, at the Jaffna Cathedral Church.
Early priestly ministry
Considered unfit for mission work owing to his weak health the Bishop assigned him to St Patrick's College whose Rector Fr.Charles Mathew,omi was instructed to take special care of the new priest's health. Fr.Rector put him in charge of the Boarding House for non-Christian students. He also taught scripture, mathematics and Tamil to different groups of students. From 1912 to 1928. He continued his Service in St.Patrick's College. The glowing tributes paid later by many of his former students bear witness to the efficacy of his presence and ministry during this period. The Hindu students hailing from devout and affluent families had a regard for him bordering on veneration. In his asceticism, spiritual integrity and rectitude of chatector they found qualities attributed to holy men of their religion. The exemplary life of Fr.Thomas certainly polished and improved the image of the Catholic Church in their minds. Its impact on some of them was so profound that a few of them embraced the catholic faith in the teeth of understandable opposition. Three of the Hindu boarders later became Oblate Priests. They are Fr.V.R.Tarcisius, S.Iyathurai and G.T.Balasundaram. The latter has the following tribute to make about his Guru and Mentor "… the overpowering and first impression that struck one regarding Fr.Thomas was that one stood before a man who had a dedicated mission to fulfill. For one coming from a Hindu upbringing the image of Fr.Thomas was that of a rishi or sanyasi…. . I distinctly remember an overpowering impression he made on me, a young non-chistian mind. I had to choose between two; either he was a fake or he was a man sent by God. Besides being a teacher and warden, Fr.Thomas served also as spiritual Director of several pious associations at the college as well as in the parish.
Call to found a contemplative Religious congregation
During the time of his ministry at St.Patrick's college Fr.Thomas had ample time to read and reflect. He read much about the history of Monasticism and its contributions to Church in the West, and reflected in the light of his own experience with non-Christian students, on the indispensable role the Contemplative Religious Life has in the Mission of the Church.
When in 1926 Pope Pius XI published his Encyclical " Rerum Ecclesiae", in which he emphasized the urgent need of Contemplatives in Mission lands and exhorted the Bishops to take steps to have them started, Bishop Guyomar,omi of Jaffna who, earlier as a co-worker with Fr.Thomas in St.Patrick's college, was well acquainted with his vision and aspirations, without hesitation asked Fr.Thomas to have the Holy Father's wish realized in his Diocese. An abandoned Presbytery in the village of Tholagatty not very far from Jaffna was allotted to him for this purpose. There, after months of preparation in prayer and mortification, on 2nd February 1928 together with six young men belonging to the working class Fr.Thomas started the Congregation of the Rosarians.
Early days of the Monastic Foundation
Fr.Thomas had no pre-conceived ideas about the form of the Congregation he was asked to found. It was indeed a journey into the unknown through darkness and uncertainties. At every step he relied on guidance and inspiration from above. Slowly matters began to take shape. He derived inspirations from the apparitions of Our Lady at Lourdes and especially at Fatima. Indeed the maternal guidance and protection of Our Blessed Mother have been felt all through the existence of this little Congregation." Prayer and Penance: the watchwords of Fr.Thomas was just an echo of the repeated injunction of Our Heavenly Mother in her repeated apparitions.
The doctrines of faith serving as the actuating principles of this new venture were summarized into two:
The supreme importance of prayer and penance for every man in the work of his sanctification and salvation.
The reality of vicarious satisfaction.
The continuous praying of the Holy Rosary before the Eucharistic Lord, daily fasting and strict vegetarian diet were introduced in the early days of the foundation. The life of the Holy Family of Nazareth was set forth as the ideal of the Congregation. The monks were to live by the fruit of their own labour. Any surplus they had was to be disposed of in favour of the poor of the locality. A life of total trust in God and dependence on Providence was the ideal set before them.
Growth and struggle
Like most religious Institutes, the nascent Congregation too had its own share of difficulties. Expected vocations did not come. Instead, some of the pioneers gave up Fr.Thomas and his few companions carried on their life of intense prayer and severe penance. Eventually candidates began to arrive from India foreboding hope for the future. On 7th February 1929 permission from Rome to begin the novitiate was received. The novitiate was canonically erected on 18th February 1929 with seven postulants commencing their novitiate. During his Ad Limina visit to Rome in 1934 Bishop Guyomar, communicated to the Holy Father information about the Rosarian Congregation. The Solemn Canonical Erection of the Congregation by the Bishop took place on 15th August 1934. By then the Congregation numbered thirty-two members: 14 professed, 8 novices and 10 Postulants. A second foundation at Madhu, a great Marian pilgrimage center was inaugurated on 22nd February,1935. Fr.S.Villavarasingham was appointed as its Director.
Critics, who looked at Fr.Thomas' venture with suspicion, were not wanting from the beginning. Some remarked that the ideals of Fr.Thomas impractical, the penitential life style he advocated too severe and even called the whole thing a mad venture. Besides, problems arising from the temporal needs and maintenance of the community threatened its very survival. Complaints went to Rome that the diocesan treasury was being depleted to meet the needs of the Congregation. In May 1936 Fr.S.Villavarasingham was appointed acting Superior and later as assistant superior to devise ways and means to secure and stabilize the financial condition of the monastery. He began his responsibility in full swing.
On 6th January 1937 Fr.Thomas celebrated the Silver Jubilee of his priestly Ordination with his monks in his own characteristic simplicity. In March 1937 Fr.Theodore Loboure omi, the recently elected superior General of the Oblates of Mary Immaculate paid a visit to Tholagatty Ashram. He was all praise for the Rosarian ideals and encouraged Fr.Thomas not to be disturbed by out side criticism."The most worthwhile undertaking of an Oblate in the Island O Ceylon", was the remark he later made about the Rosarian Congregation. At the suggestion of Fr.Laboure, the Superior General, on 9th April 1937 the House at Madhu was closed so that all the monks could be trained under Fr.Thomas at Tholagatty. Fr.Laboure also invited Fr.Thomas as a special Delegate to the General Chapter of the Oblates held at Rome in 1938. During his sojourn in Europe Fr.Thomas had the opportunity to visit a few Trappist and Benedictine Monasteries in France and Belgium and get aquainted with the monastic way of life.
Not long after his return to India in December 1938, Fr.Thomas fell ill and had to undergo treatment first in Jaffna and then in Colombo. On 1st February 1939, the Congregation of the Rosarians was officially approved by the Church and on the same day eight monks made their perpetual profession in the presence of the Bishop of Jaffna. Fr.Thomas, who had been recuperating in Colombo, returned to the Monastery on 21st February. Fr.Villavarasingham left Tholagatty in March 1939 after rendering yeoman service there for three years.
Wider vision; Expansion of the Congregation
Fr.Thomas was a man of vast ambitions and farsighted vision for Gods glory and the advancement of his kingdom. He knew well, as seen from the history, that besides being source of grace for all humanity through prayer and penance, monasticism adapted to the native culture and needs, could be an effective means not only for evangelization, but also for eradicating many a spiritual, social and economic disorder that bothers mankind at all times. For this he advocated and utilized the "solvitur ambudlando" method. The Rosarian Ashrams are to be centers of spiritual renewal and retreats for all classes of people. Their Eucharistic Marian centered life of love rooted in humility will radiate far, rays of peace and unity. They will welcome and accommodate all strenuously opposing all distinctions based on caste and class. Special care and concern are to be shown to the poor and downtrodden, providing them with opportunities for work with just remuneration.
Meanwhile, invitation from several Bishops requesting to start Rosarian houses in their dioceses began to come in. Fr.Thomas had the happiness to see three Rosarian houses started in India, during his life: Fatimagiri Ashram in the diocese of Tuticorin, S.India in 1943; Pushpavanam Ashram in the Diocese of Tiruchirapalli, S.India in 1952 and Nishkalanka Ashram in Ambikapur, North India in 1955. Two monks trained and taught by Fr.Thomas himself were ordained priests in 1944. Fr.Antony Soosainathar, a diocesan priest from Tuticorin had joined the Congregation of the Rosarians in 1939.
The Rosarian Sisters
Already in 1928 Fr.Thomas had attempted to start a Congregation for women to live the Rosarian way of life. Seven girls from Vasavilan, a village not far from Tholagatty volunteered to join the new Foundation. Fr.Thomas gave them regular instructions for over one year. But by the beginning of 1930 the majority of them gave up mostly due to sickness, and the whole project was abandoned. Later, two unsuccessful attempts were made in 1935 and 1936. Even after repeated failures Fr.Thomas didn't give up. Finally a fourth attempt initiated in 1946 bore fruit, and the first community of the Rosarian Sisters was inaugurated at Vasavilan on 8th September 1948 with 9 aspirants and Sr.Jean Marie of the Holy Family Congregation as Superior and Directress. The community was accommodated for the time being in the old presbytery of the Carmel Church, till the new convent Building would be completed. The new Building was ready for use by 1950, and on 22,August 1950 St.Joseph's Convent, Vasavilan was blessed and the Sisters, 35 in number by then were installed there on the same day. Fr.Thomas continued to care for their spiritual and temporal needs. During his lifetime two more convents of the Rosarian Sisters were founded; One in 1954 in the Diocese of Tuticorin, S.India, and the other at Thewatha in the ArchDiocese of Colombo.
The Way of the Cross
Fr.Thomas continued almost single-handed his hard work for the two Congregations with unremitting zeal. Besides the care of the two Religious families he founded, he had to attend to the spiritual needs of many who approached him for spiritual guidance and retreats. The temporal needs of the poor and the sick around also claimed his time, energy and resources. He had been sickly and weak throughout his life. By the time he was seventy, he was worn out physically though his spiritual ardour never subsided.
The effort of Bishop Emilianus to get Fr.Frasncis transferred to Tholagatty from India to take up the reins of administration did not succeed. Meanwhile the discipline in the Monastery further deteriorated. Later in May 1958 the apostolic Delegate Mgr. J.R.Knox, who visited Tholagatty asked Bishop Emilianus to appoint a special Visitor to the Monastery. In the same month on the 26.05.1958 Fr.S.Villavarasingham was appointed Visitor with special power from the Bishop. Fr.Thomas was not happy with this appointment. He had known earlier Fr.Villavarasingham in whom he found a taskmaster unfit to supervise a community of Contemplative Religious. The Monks too had unpleasant memories of his earlier dealings with them.
Last days and death
Fr. Thomas was 74 by 1960. Off and on he fell ill and had to be taken to Jaffna General Hospital for treatment. In July 1960, Fr.Chakko Bernard, CR. who had been ordained priest at Trichy in March 1960, arrived at Tholagatty. In April 1961 he was made Prior of the Monastery.
Fr.Thomas completed 50 years of priesthood on 6th January 1962. His spiritual children and well wishers organized great functions to celebrate the event. Unlike his usual ways he submitted to all these meekly. When one of the monks asked him how he who spoke always of humility could accede to such celebrations. He replied calmly with a smile “Brother, all the welcome the good people accorded are directed to Christ, the High Priest. When I am united in His Eternal Priesthood, all this welcome is not to me but is done to Christ Himself. Hence let the people give thanks more and more to the glory of Christ. It is indeed very fitting." The strain of all these was too much for him. On 1st February 1962, he fell ill and was taken to the Jaffna General Hospital. Before leaving for the hospital, he spent a long time in prayer in the church, as if he had a presentiment he would never again return to the monastery alive. After a couple of days in the hospital at the request of the Bishop he was taken to the Bishop's House where he spent the remaining two years of his life.
On 11th February he took a turn for the worse and was administered the Anointing of the sick. Though the Doctors had warned he might pass off at any time, he recovered the following day. During his stay in the Bishop's House the Rosarian monks attended on him by turn. Little by little he lost the use of his faculties especially his memory. He lived like a recluse extremely weak, completely forgetful and some time restless and uncontrollable. Even in the midst of unmitigated sufferings he was never heard to utter a word of complaint. The Rosary was his constant companion. In the midst of his suffering and pain he would make the Way of the Cross daily, sometimes even twice a day. About this, Fr.Balasundaram, omi narrates: the last months Fr.Thomas spent at the Bishop's House was a fitting compliment of his long life. It was a period of unmitigated suffering yet accepted with deep Christian fortitude. It was a sight for men and angels to see this venerable priest making his daily way of the Cross, sometimes even twice a day, literally ploughing his way from one station to the other. When I asked him one day why he undertook this rather exhausting exercise so often, he replied that this was his greatest consolation in his declining days."
By the beginning of the year, 1964 Fr.Thomas' condition of health began to decline steadily. On 19th January, his condition became serious and the Bishop administered him the Anointing of the sick. Though he recovered the following day he grew extremely weak by 24th January. On the night of 25th January Br.Amirthanathar, who was attending on Fr.Thomas kept on repeating the ejaculatory prayers, "Sacred Heart of Jesus, I place my trust in thee"; Immaculate Heart of Mary Refuge of sinners, pray for us." Fr.Thomas kept on moving his parched lips in a feeble attempt to murmur these prayers. By midnight the murmuring became inaudible and Father lay still and motionless except for the trembling of his lips. By 1 A.M. he gently breathed his last unnoticed even by the attending Brother. The following day his mortal remains were taken first to the Rosarian Convent at Vasavilan and thence to the Monastery at Tholagatty. People were seen placing rosaries and medals on the body of Fr.Thomas and taking them back as holy objects. On 27th January 1964 his mortal remains were laid to rest in the graveyard of the Monastery. Some of those who attended the funeral were heard commenting, " perhaps Fr.Thomas will be the First Saint to be canonized from Sri Lanka.
There were those who thought that the work of Fr.Thomas would end with his death. But the final sufferings of Fr.Thomas was like the birth pangs of a new beginning."Unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies it remains alone; but if it dies, it bears much fruit"(Jn.12: 24). Today there are nineteen Rosarian Ashrams of men and sixteen Convents of Rosarian Sisters spread over different Dioceses in Sri Lanka, India, Canada and USA.
The tomb of Fr.Thomas was transferred from Tholagatty to Jaffna on the 11th of March 2004, to Rosarian Arul Ashram, Jaffna since the area of Tholagatty is declared as a High Security Zone by the military rendering it unapproachable for people. At present the tomb is daily visited by people from near and far, and reports of countless favours received through the intercession of Servant of God Thomas are coming in.
The Diocesan process of Canonization of the Servant of God completed in the year 2019 and the Roman phase works are in process.