John S Shilshi
Even as the mourning over the demise of Archbishop Emeritus, Most Rev. Joseph Mittathany, had hardly settled down, the Archdiocese of Imphal is yet again bereaved by the passing away of another Catholic stalwart-Msgr. Joseph Kachiramattam - one of the Pioneer Catholic Missionaries, who made invaluable contributions to the people of Manipur, particularly in the districts of Chandel and Churachandpur. As one of the individuals, who grew up in a boarding school that Fr. Mattam (as he was fondly known) established, namely St. Joseph’s School, Sugnu, I cannot help but remember the Priest who placed service to people and God, ahead of everything else.
Fr. Joseph Mattam was the first Catholic Priest I came in contact with, even before I became a Christian. He visited my tiny village of Lamkang Khunthak, most likely in 1961. I say most likely, since my late father told me I was five years old at the time. Despite my young age, I still remember how awed we were to see someone like him–a priest in a white robe. His flowing beard was as much a fascination for us young kids, as his stainless white cassock. That visit of his is deeply imprinted in my mind as I can almost recall everything that happened–village elders creating a cubicle toilet for him with a bamboo mat wall, the welcome song the elders sang for him as he entered the village gate, the sweets that he distributed to us kids, and the Baptism he administered to some people inside our rickety village school-cum-Church. I even recall one of my inquisitive elder cousins asking Catechist Gregory Darsong what the name of the sweet was. We heard him respond ‘Moton’.
In our later years, we realised he had said “Morton Sweets”. Not long after his visit, I was baptized into the Catholic fold, and got the Christian name ‘John’. Few years after our first encounter with a Catholic priest, his successor, Fr. KC George paid a visit to our village. While the white cassock continued to fascinate us, we were disappointed by the absence of the beard on him because we thought all priests were supposed to have one !
When we landed in the boarding school that he established in Sugnu, he had already moved to Churachandpur, but kept visiting the Sugnu school every now and then. The Zou community there and also others who knew him well often narrated how he used to travel on an Enfield motorcycle, with bags hung on both sides. Kuki Catechists coming from far-flung areas, such as Wajang and Changpol, told us stories of how Fr. Joseph Mattam used to walk on foot from village to village, sometimes for days.
These stories were later substantiated by Fr. (Dr) Lazar Jayaseelan in his book ‘History of the Church in Manipur’. He wrote, “Due to his hard work and untiring tours, which was mostly on foot, Fr. Kachiramattam had health issues, and began to suffer from attacks of pleurisy”.
My interactions with this humble soul increased during my postings in Imphal West district when he was the Vicar General. This, in a way, was necessitated by the number of issues Catholic Schools encountered in the valley.
The most serious one was with St. George’s School, Wangkhei, where the administration was hampered from taking their own decisions on several school-related issues. Father Mattam consulted me on what steps they could take. After I studied the entire background, I suggested to him that the Archbishop should make an offer to the Government of Manipur to take over that school in the interest of the 2500-plus students, and that the Catholic Church would not lay claim over the investment on infrastructure.
After deep contemplation and seeking certain clarifications, he agreed to speak to the Archbishop, but requested my presence too. When the three of us sat together, I repeated my suggestion to Archbishop Mittathany. I told him that by doing so the Bishop would be sending a strong message that the Catholic Priests were not there to make money but just to impart education, and therefore, not bothered about the crores of rupees invested for developing the infrastructure. After deliberating the merits and demerits, Archbishop agreed and sought a meeting with then Chief Minister RK Dorendro Singh.
Since 2010, I have been visiting the Priest Home whenever I had a chance to visit Imphal. February 2022 was the last time I paid a visit to these retired Priests. During that visit, Fr. Mattam was not seen immediately and upon enquiring, his inmates told me he was having a bath. We waited, and sure enough, he emerged from his room - his white cassock mesmerizing me as much as it did when I first saw him as a child. We exchanged pleasantries, and his saintly and positive aura felt warm as usual, his mind so clear and candid. He even spoke about my book, which I had gifted to Fr. Sebastian Chelat. He told me he was now 96 years, and waiting for God’s call. I told him he would hit a century and he gave me a broad smile.
Fr. Mattam was clean-hearted personified. We felt blessed when we shook hands with him, and when he said “God Bless You”, we would feel grace entering into our inner self. We felt spiritually charged and invigorated. The purity in thoughts was perhaps what made him live so long without facing any major complication in health. I for one, seriously expected that he would actually hit a century.
The demise of Archbishop Emeritus perhaps had dawned on him too heavily, therefore traumatized him mentally, probably hastening his departure. But we know he went a very happy and contented man. We know he would surely sit on the right hand of the Father, intercede for us-his people, his children-that he loved and cared for so much. We will not shed tears for him, because we know where he is heading to–the Father’s home, the cherished dream for every Christian. We, however, thank him for changing the lives of so many people and empowering, caring and enriching them spiritually. So, for now it is farewell Fr. Joseph Mattam, but we hope to see you in Heaven someday. Good bye Father !
(The writer is a retired IPS officer, and he can be reached on [email protected]