The Congregation founded by Venerable Leo John Dehon in 1878, at St. Quentin, France, is dedicated to fostering the devotion to and the services in the name of the Sacred Heart of Jesus. Since then it has spread over to 38 countries supported by 2,400 Priests. From 1897 the Sacred Heart Fathers have been planning to start a House in India but only after 97 years, to be precise in 1994, that the first House of the Congregation could be set up in the sub-continent. This eventual establishment of the Congregation here came to pass as a result of a casual contact in the sixties which revived their earlier aspirations.
During the summer holidays in 1966, Rev. Fr. Joseph Kureethera had the opportunity to work in the parish of St. John's Rome, N.Y. where the Rev. Father had occasion to attend the funeral of the father of the Superior General of the Sacred Heart Fathers, V. Rev. Fr. Joseph D'Palma, S.C.J. This led to an invitation to their Generalate and the cementing of a firm friendship between the two. Quite so, the Rev. Fathers used to keep in touch with each other through regular correspondence. Years later, in the fullness of time, V. Rev. Fr. Joseph D' Palma was consecrated as the Bishop of De Aar Diocese in South Africa and Rev. Dr. Joseph Kureethara, the Bishop of Cochin. Still the flow of their correspondence continued uninterrupted.
In 1897 there was an attempt at starting a House in the Archdiocese of Bombay which did not bear fruit as apparently the Sacred Heart of Jesus had plans to tarry till His time would be right 97 long years thence in 1994. A few Fathers tried to get in touch with the Bishops in India and there was also a plan to bring to the Institutes of the Dehonians in Europe some diocesan priests or seminarists from India who would eventually join the Congregation in due course. One Rev. Fr. Muermans made some contacts with the Bishop of Palayamkottai, Dr. Iruthayaraj, the Vocation Promoter of Madras, Fr. Xavier George, Bishop Joseph Pallikaparambil of Palai, a priest from Goa and a Syrian (CMI) priest in Trivandrum. Later Fr. Van der Wilk visited India in 1990 and met a priest from Goa, Fr. Roque Barreto and yet a Dehonian House in India still remained but a dream. Well God has His plan too and that divine design could be delineated in due course.
On his way to Shillong to attend the C.B.C.I. meeting held in October 1989, the Bishop of Cochin lost his baggage. One Mr. Sydney Corrie, an architect from Thoppumpady, who was then a resident in Shillong happened to learn about this loss to the bishop of his native diocese. He called on the Bishop and presenting a thick blanket, invited His Excellency and Cardinal Antony Padiyara of Ernakulam to his house to dinner. This accidental mishap and the subsequent spontaneous invitation opened a channel for the Sacred Heart Fathers. Mr. Sydney, a great devotee to the Sacred Heart of Jesus, is also a member of a lay association that promotes the devotion. Thus a friend of Mr. Sydney who happened to learn about the incidents informed the Sacred Heart Fathers to get in touch with the prelates' generous host.
The next year Mr. Sydney Corrie visited the Bishop in Cochin with a large number of pictures of the Sacred Heart of Jesus. As per the ten year programme for the Evangelization 2000, the first year was dedicated to the consecration of all families, institutions and parishes to the Sacred Heart of Jesus in the very first year, 1990. It coincided, by chance, with the ten years' programme for the 500th year of the arrival of Portuguese Missionaries in India. No one need enlighten the students of history on the significance of the advent of Portuguese missionaries to the Church in the sub-continent starting from Cochin in 1500 A.D.
His Excellency too had thousands of large sized pictures printed for free distribution to the poor people for the enthronement of the Sacred Heart of Jesus in their homes. Mr. Corrie and a group of friends from U.S.A., all promoters of this devotion, were immensely happy. Their visit was while the Diocesan Senate of Priests was in session at the Bishop's Senate Hall and Mr. Corrie conveyed to His Excellency that the Dehonians were planning to start a Community in India. Jubilant over the happy tidings, the Bishop wrote to his old friend Bishop Joseph De Palma in Florida, U.S.A., Deo volunte, there would be a Monastery of the Sacred Heart Congregation in Cochin Diocese!
The General Administration took the decision on May 17, 1993 and on October 22, 1993, Fr. Adrian Borst, General Councillor and Fr. Patrick Houterman, Chairman of Missionary Animation, came to India for a three weeks' study tour. They kept themselves on the move, visiting the Bishops of Madras, Trivandrum, Cochin, Verapoly, Goa and a few priests like Fr. Xavier George of Madras, Fr. Thomas Felix CMI of Trivandrum and Fr. Roque Barreto of Goa, at the end of which they submitted a 14 page report to Rome.
Fr. Bressanelli, the Superior General, got the generous co-operation of a Dutch priest missionary in Indonesia, Fr. Martin van Ooij. On September 24, 1994, Fr. Martin van Ooij and Fr. Andrew Ryder joined the concelebrated Mass with the Holy Father and received his special blessing for the new mission in India. On October 5, 1994, Fr. Martin and Fr. Andrew set out for Cochin. The next day they were received by Fr. Josy Kandanattuthara, the Chancellor of the Diocese and were accommodated at the Bishop's House.
The blessing and inauguration of the House of the Sacred Heart Fathers took place at the Rectory of Our Lady of Life Parish, Mattancherry on October 25, 1994. There was a grand reception to the Rev. Fathers by the gate of the Mattancherry Church where the Bishop himself took them. The guests were led to the Church and after prayers, the procession reached the parochial house where Fr. Mark Antony, the Parish Priest, became the Superior of the Dehonian Priests.
Fr. Martin van Ooij began to study the vernacular and then started saying Mass in Malayalam from November 10, 1994. When Fr. Ryder went back to Rome and Fr. Martin was left by himself, he spent hours before the Blessed Sacrament seeking God's light. Then with courage he began to go out visiting the families though he did not speak Malayalam. But his enchanting smile and endearing way of meeting people with the typically Indian gesture of joined hands attracted the people and they really loved him. Much later, on completion of his tour of service in the new mission when he had to return to Italy, the people of Mattancherry accompanied him to the Cochin Airport. It was really a touching scene of leave-taking; for, almost every one was in tears!
It did not take long for Fr. Martin to start gathering seedlings from what he had sown. Five boys joined and they were accommodated at the Diocesan Minor Seminary on 23rd June 1995. Later in the year when the Scolopi Fathers left the Rectory at Chandiroor, the Dehonians occupied it in October. As the candidates increased in number and the Rectory became full, they had to shift a group of candidates to the Rectory of St. Lawrence, Edacochin, that December. The Community then had the ungainly situation of having to keep the hopefuls in groups at three different locations - at the Diocesan seminary in Fort Cochin, at the Rectory in Chandiroor and at the Rectory at Edacochin. Thus having had to keep their vocations in groups and in different places, it was deemed imperative the Congregation had an abode convenient enough to accommodate the growing Community under one roof.
The Velikakath Family Association, Kumbalangy, had a property, the St. Antony's Chapel and a small Elementary School at Pazhangad. They had conveyed to His Excellency their willingness to donate all these to the Diocese so that some Religious House could be set up. The Bishop suggested that they donate it to the Sacred Heart Fathers. Thus the property was handed over to them in June, 1995 and the following September on 25th, the foundation stone for the Dehon House was laid. This ceremonial function was officiated by the trio, Rev. Fr. Sarochi, the General Procurator, Fr. Martin van Ooij and Fr. Carlos Suares. The architect, Mr. Sydney Corrie, had already prepared a plan for a monastery building that could accommodate nearly thirty seminarists.
Fr. Adrian Borst sought permission for the canonical erection of the monastery in Cochin Diocese on December 12, 1996. Official request from the V. Rev. Fr. General Virginio D. Bressanelli was presented to the Diocese and His Excellency Rt. Rev. Dr. Joseph Kureethara granted his permission on January 18, 1997. Meanwhile the new, spacious building for the Community, their new abode named the Dehon Bhavan at Pazhangad, Kumbalangy, had already been completed and ready for occupation.
The solemn blessing and inauguration of the Dehon Bhavan took place on March 18, 1997 amidst a little bit of initial confusion. The guests to be given a solemn reception were stopped by some discontented before the St. Anne's Convent, about 500 metres to the north while all the invited guests, Sisters and Priests were waiting for the reception before the new building. The Bishop and the Dehonians overheard some clamour by the Convent gate. It later came to light that the ruckus was regarding a word inscribed on the marble slab - the family name of the donors - fixed in front of the St. Antony's Chapel. The people of the locality objected to it while the family and relatives stuck to their ground insisting the inscription be left there untouched. Many tried their best to pacify the parties concerned but the efforts amounted to nothing but loss of time and resultant delay. Finally, Fr. Josy Kandanattuthara, the Chancellor, solved the problem with a bit of white paper and some glue! On the disputed inscription the Rev. Father pasted a strip and the obnoxious hullabaloo subsided!
The procession from the Convent resumed and thus Bishop Joseph Kureethara, V. Rev. Fr. Virginio Bressanelli, the Superior General, Rev. Fathers, Fr. Adrian Borst, Fr. Rein van Langen (Provincial from Netherlands), Fr. Warjito (representing Indonesia), Fr. H. Westen Dorf (Provincial from Germany), all reached the gate of the Dehon Bhavan. The dignitaries having been garlanded, the ceremonies proceeded with the blessing of the building, cutting of the ribbon, lighting of the traditional bronze oil lamp and blessing of the kitchen fire by the three Superiors. After these ceremonies Rev. Fr. Martin van Ooij delivered a long speech in Malayalam! Then followed a sumptuous meal for all.
In order to keep the philosophy and theology students at the major seminary, Alwaye, it was found advisable to have a convenient abode at Alwaye itself. The seminarians until then had been accommodated at a rented house near Carmelgiri, paying a huge monthly rental for a small house. Seeing the situation His Excellency offered a property and a house of the Diocese close to the Seminary to the Sacred Heart Fathers for their temporary use. The students could stay and play there and go swimming in the River Periyar, the ripples of which lap the diocesan property and everything on the Diocese!
This, after all, was a temporary arrangement and the Congregation could see it would supplement its growth to have something of its own close to the major Pontifical Seminary at Alwaye. With this in view, a plot of land was purchased and on that property the Fr. General, Rev. Fr. Brasinelli laid the foundation stone for a Study House on the feast day of St. Joseph in 1997. Subsequently, a huge seminary building was constructed for the Congregation and all the expenses for the property, the construction of the building and purchase of accessories were paid through the diocesan Procurator, Rev. Fr. Joppy Koottumkal.
When the Dehon House at Pazhangad was completed, the people of Chandiroor gave a solemn send off to the Sacred Heart Fathers on March 30, 1997. A big crowd accompanied the garlanded Fathers up to the new house at Pazhangad. Fr. Martin van Ooij who visited Andhra Pradesh could find many vocations there but as they speak a different language, he made arrangements to have them retained at the Minor Seminary in Guntur. Thank God ! A long cherished dream - the presence of the monastery of the Sacred Heart Fathers in India - in the Diocese of Cochin has come to a reality! Hail the Sacred Heart of Jesus !!
Written by His Excellency, (Late) Rt. Rev. Dr. Joseph Kureethara