Until the 19th century there was no organized from of charitable services in Kerala to care for the poor and the destitute, aged and infirm, unwanted and downtrodden fellow men abandoned in the streets or uncared for at home. Deeply moved by Jesus words "as you did it to one of the least of these my brethren, you did it tome" ( Mt.25:40) Rev. Fr. Varghese Payyappilly a zealous and devoted priest from Ernakulam diocese came forward with the idea of founding a congregation to continue Christ's redemptive mission among the poor. Through a providential coincidence, five ladies from Kizhakkambalam approached His Grace Mar Augustine Kandathil, the late Archbishop of Ernakulam, with the desire of leading religious life in a new congregation serving the poor and the destitute. With these young ladies as pioneers the congregation was founded on St. Joseph's Mount at Chunangamvely, Aluva, Kerala, India on 19th March 1927. It was originally named "Little Sisters of the Poor". But in 1933, it was changed into 'Sisters of the Destitute', since there was another congregation having the same title.
Fr. Varghese Payapilly was a diocesan priest of the Archdiocese of Ernakulam. In order to serve the poor, the destitute and the aged often forsaken by their dear ones or driven out into the street, he started a religious congregation in 1927, later called as the Sisters of the Destitute. Years after his rather premature death, his memory lives on as a priest who led an ascetic, charitable and exemplary life of apostolate.
Varghese was born on 8th August 1876 in a noble, rather rich and ancient Syrian Christian family of Payapilly-Palakkappillil at Perumanoor in the Archdiocese of Ernakulam. After attending the parish school at Perumanoor and St. Alberts School, Ernakulam, he joined the seminary at Puthenpally near Alangad. After two years of studies there, he was sent to the Papal Seminary at Kandy (Sri Lanka) for his priestly formation. He was noted for punctuality, discipline, piety and fraternal charity. He was ordained priest in 1907.
For his priestly ministry His Grace Mar Louis Pazheparambil, Archbishop of Ernakulam, entrusted him with the parish of Kadamakudy (1909-1911) and then of Alangad (1911-1913). In 1913 he was appointed Manager of St. Mary's School, Alwaye, the most important high school of the Archdiocese of Ernakulam, which at that time was in a critical condition. With meekness, firmness and strong determination he faced the problems and resolved them successfully.
In 1920 Fr. Varghese Payapilly was transferred to Arakkuzha as parish priest, where he started a primary school and organized retreats, which were effective in the reconciliation of families. In 1922 he was reappointed as the Manager of St. Mary's, Alwaye. A former student of his, later Cardinal Joseph Parecattil, expressed in his autobiography his admiration for Fr. Varghese as an impressive personality with a strong will power. "The teachings he imparted on spiritual life deeply impressed us and influenced our lives . I am saying nothing but the truth that my boarding life is the main factor in my now being a bishop and a cardinal."
During the infamous flood of 1924, which caused vast destruction of lives and property, Fr. Varghese turned St. Mary's High School into an asylum for the people who had lost their houses and everything else. He organized relief bringing rice and tapioca in a hired boat. He served as a member of the Diocesan Council, as Director of Apostolic union as well as Priests' Provident Fund. When he was thinking of the need for a religious congregation to serve the poor and the destitute, five pious and zealous young women approached the new Archbishop of Ernakulam Mar Augustine Kandathil seeking guidance. The archbishop directed them to Fr. Varghese, who gave shape to the congregation of the 'Little Sisters of the Poor' in 1927. Since another congregation already bore this name, a new name "Sisters of the Destitute" was adopted in 1933.
Fr.Varghese enlisted the cooperation of eminent persons like members of the Legislative Council and advocates, who begged for alms along with the sisters in the market place. Fr. Varghese taught them to accept joyfully anything they happened to receive. He picked up those found lying abandoned on the wayside or in the market, brought them to the shelter of the Home for the Aged and nursed them personally.
The holistic training he imparted to the pioneer sisters was exemplary. He taught them to be human and holy. The people of the locality gradually started appreciating the life style and spirit of service, in the new ashram. The dedicated and inspiring lives of the early members drew many educated young ladies to the newly founded congregation. Fr. Varghese transmitted to the pioneers his mystical experience of contemplating the face of Jesus in the destitute and offer loving service to them.
On 9th September 1929 Fr. Varghese was laid up with typhoid and was admitted in the hospital. His last words to the pioneer sisters were " whatever happens we have to submit to the will of God. Do not pray for anything else. Pray that the will of God be done". These words of unconditional surrender, still ring in the heart of the congregation he founded and is a source of great inspiration and strength for its members. His ardent love for the poor and the suffering was revealed even in his death-bed. He heard a patient lying close to his bed desperately crying in pain. Fr. Varghese expressed his desire to be taken to that person. He laid hands upon him and prayed. The patient was comforted and remained quiet. The very same day he had a peaceful death. On the next day, 5th October 1929 Fr. Varghese was also called to his heavenly abode.
Fr. Varghese was buried in his own parish, St. John Nepumsian Church at Konthuruthy. The funeral rite was administered by His Grace Mar Augustine Kandanthil as the main celebrant in the presence of numerous priests and a huge gathering of people. The eulogy was delivered by the Prior General V. Rev. Fr. Berchumans T.O.C.D. The holy mortal remains are kept in the parish church.
The theological virtues faith, hope and charity were resplendent in him. He attuned himself to listening to the inner voice of God's spirit from his child hood onwards. This resulted in his challenging response to God's call of priesthood at an early age itself. His great trust and hope is visible all through his life and specifically seen at the time of founding the congregation and the opening of the 'Home for the Aged' . He was humble enough to beg alms for the maintenance of the destitute with the pioneer sisters and leading men of the locality.
He was a man of prayer. He used to be awake at dawn to be with Christ in deep prayer and communion. The Holy Eucharist was the fountain which provided him the courage to submit to the will of God and face the challenging situations in his life. He strongly believed that service to the poor is service to Jesus Christ. He was remarkably humble and seriously committed to the poor, and worked hard to improve their situation.
He had a profound sense of justice and peace. He was a good mediator and people approached him seeking solution for their problems. His role in solving political rivalry regarding the Municipal Chairmanship is worth mentioning. His Eminence Cardinal Parekkattil had admired the strong will power of Fr. Varghese which was a blend of foresight and unenduring trust in God.
Fr. Varghese was a dynamic person to discover new spheres , reading the signs and needs of the time with great prudence and to respond promptly to the new challenges with fortitude. The powerful inspiration received from the founder, Fr. Varghese: "our devotion shall be devotion to the poor, our service to the destitute shall be constant God-experience" strongly urges the members to serve the poor with great zeal contemplating Jesus in the poor.
Fr. Varghese Payapilly is undoubtedly a beacon of compassion and love which will remain as an eternal source of inspiration for everyone.