Joseph Thamby, Servant of God (1883-1945)
The Servant of God Joseph Thamby was a Franciscan tertiary layman who spent the last years of his life (from 1939 onwards) in Peddavutapally, in the federal State of Andhra Pradesh in South India, where he died on 15 January 1945. He had previously worked in the federal States of Puducherry, Kerala and Tamil Nadu, leaving behind him a reputation for austerity, prayer and charity. His works of evangelisation, like his mystical experiences, were well known. Meanwhile, his family had been scattered within India and beyond; he himself, on account of his humility, always avoided talking about himself, and he meticulously burned or made sure to destroy documents which today might have provided a more accurate reconstruction of his life, which cannot be documented in all its stages.
He was born in September 1883 to Savarymuthu and Annamalle Thamby. His was a well-to-do family of the Vellala community in Sirone. He was brought up in Puducherry (Pondicherry), then a French colony in India. He had a younger brother, Dhayirian; his mother died when the two were seven and two years old respectively. His father remarried, and Maria was born of the second marriage. At the age of twelve Joseph, together with other companions, was preparing for first communion and confirmation; despite the opposition of his step-mother, he received the sacraments. On account of the adverse circumstances created by his step-mother, the boy left his family and went to Kerala, where he was taken in and educated by a pious lady. As for his brother, he went to Saigon in Vietnam, which remained a French colony until 1956, where he married Mary Therese. They had three boys and one girl, who became a Carmelite nun in Puducherry. Dhayirian Thamby died in 1935. In Kerala, Joseph received a good religious education. Already well disposed by nature to the things of the spirit, from time to time he would visit his birthplace, where he begged for alms unrecognised by anybody; once, even his father gave him some coins without recognising him. But in 1928 he was recognised by his grandmother at the funeral of a relative. In the course of these visits, Joseph wore a hair-shirt and lived as a beggar, already enjoying a reputation for holiness. On 14 October 1932, dressed in the Franciscan habit, he turned up at the religious profession of his niece Gabrielle Therese OCD in Puducherry (she died in 1985). When he was repeatedly asked where he lived, he replied that he had to go back to his friary at Kollam, in Kerala. He was then fifty years old.
Since 1931 the French Capuchin Symphorian of Paris had been in Kollam, supervising the building of St Antony’s Friary, the student house, which was opened the following year. Joseph tried to join the Capuchin Order. However, because of elephantiasis in his right leg and on account of his “excessive piety”, he was not accepted. His experiences of ecstasy were judged to be the fruit of epileptic fits. It used to be customary among the Capuchins for postulants of the Order to be first received into the Franciscan Third Order and clothed in the habit (without a hood, with a cord and rosary), then into the novitiate and finally as professed members, before subsequently entering the novitiate of the friars. For sure, his being aged fifty was not in his favour. Nevertheless, after leaving the Capuchins the tertiary Brother Joseph Thamby continued to wear the habit, as confirmed by a few photographs and a number of testimonies. He used to pray the breviary in Latin and knew Tamil, French, Malayalam, English and Telugu.
Faithful to his religious vocation, he lived an ascetical, itinerant life of prayer and penance, begging alms for the needy, devoting himself totally to spreading the Gospel, doing works of reconciliation and promoting peace. He established the Third Order in the diocese of Kumbakonam in Tamil Nadu; for four years he worked in Manathidal, and then moved to Tanjavur. In 1939 Thamby found himself in the archdiocese of Verapuzha, in Kerala, where Archbishop Joseph Attipetty asked him to help with the training of the “Theresian Brothers”, founded by him for evangelisation. One of the things he was asked to do was to train the two brothers to spearhead their “Puthur Mission” (Ponnukara) in the District of Thrissur, but they considered him insane and refused to accept his instruction. Except for a few short periods, from 1939 until his death (1945) he worked in Peddavutapally, in the diocese of Vijayawada, Andhra Pradesh, seeking to spread the Good News in the surrounding villages: he lived in a hut and visited the families, attracting many to Jesus Christ not so much by his eloquent words but by his life of simplicity and austerity, in the footsteps of Christ crucified. Thanks to his efforts, more than thirty families in Peddavutapally became Catholic.
He continued to visit the villages, in particular Kesarapally, Uppaluru, Manikonda and Vatluru, right up to the week before his death. After Christmas in 1944 he went to Manikonda; from there he returned to Peddavutapally, struck by a fever, on 6 January 1945. His works in the villages, his frequent fasts and many austerities had irreparably undermined his health. On 15 January his condition worsened. Surrounded by the Boyapati family, whom he himself had converted, and by various friends and devotees, he died on that same day at the age of 63. The anniversary of his death is celebrated with great solemnity, with the participation of tens of thousands of devotees on 13-15 January every year.
1). Fr. Avito Pottukulam, Biography of Brother Joseph Thamby, Pedavutapally 1973.
2). Fr. Oswald Pratap, My beloved son Joseph Thamby: The Holy Franciscan of Avutapally, Enikepadu 2009.
Italian original: Fr. Benedict Vadakkekara, OFM Cap, Rome, Italy
Englsih Translation: Fr. Charles Sérignant, Rome, Italy