Died 26 April 2018
Jesuit Father Thomas Vallamattam was called to eternal life on April 26, 2018, and died at Campion Center in Weston, Massachusetts. He was born on April 19, 1936, in Thottakara, Kerala, India. He entered the Society of Jesus at Christ Hall, Kozhikode, Kerala, India on December 23, 1953, and was ordained on July 4, 1964, in the Gesu Nuovo in Naples, Italy. He pronounced his final vows on August 15, 1976 in St. Patrick’s Church, Kingston, Jamaica.
Fr. Vallamattam was born in the village of Thottakara, in the state of Kerala, Southwest India. His parents, Kurian and Mary (“he was all reason, she was all emotion,” he said), were relatively prosperous, as they grew a variety of crops on 100 acres of land, but village life was simple, without electricity or indoor plumbing. Fr. Vallamattam was one of eight children, two of whom became diocesan priests. The family were “Thomas Christians,” who traced the origins of their faith to the missionary journeys of the apostle Thomas shortly after the resurrection of Jesus.
Fr. Vallamattam learned the Malayalam alphabet (his native language) sitting on the ground around a village teacher, then went to a nearby parish primary school. For seven years thereafter he attended an English-medium high school four miles away, hiking to and fro on dirt paths. At the age of 16 he left India for Galle, Sri Lanka, where he entered a pre-seminary. Within a year he had found and joined the Jesuits on Dec. 23, 1953, doing his first four years of training back in Kerala before moving to Shembaganur, the large Jesuit center in Tamil Nadu, for philosophy studies. His Regency he spent in Sri Lanka at two different high schools, one diocesan and the other Jesuit, but both curiously named St. Aloysius. It was around this time that Fr. Vallamattam took as his own mantra Dag Hammarskjold’s famous expression, “For all that has been, Thanks! For all that is to come, Yes!”
Naples was next. In 1961, he undertook theology studies at Posillipo, where he could see across the Bay of Naples to Capri and Vesuvius. He was enchanted by Naples: the food, the music, the scenery, the sheer beauty of it all. On July 5, 1964, during the Second Vatican Council, and just over a decade since he entered the Jesuits, Fr. Vallamattam was ordained a priest by Cardinal Augustin Bea, SJ. Though he had dreamt for years about pastoral ministry among the exploited Tamil tea-pickers in Sri Lanka, the political situation there precluded his return. Instead, he came to Cleveland for his Tertianship in 1965 and then acquired an MA in sociology at Michigan State. Though he did well at MSU and even earned a Ford Fellowship for a research project in India, Fr. Vallamattam was not cut out to spend a life in academia. He hankered for hands-on pastoral work.
After a year or two in parishes in Chicago and New York City (and a trip around the world), a chance encounter with a Jamaican priest turned Fr. Vallamattam’s eyes toward the Caribbean. From September 1973, through the next three decades he ministered to parishioners in Jamaica, first briefly at St. Anne’s in Kingston and then as pastor at St. Patrick’s in West Kingston (1974-80) and later pastor at St. Helen’s, Linstead (1981-2001). While at St. Patrick’s, he made his final profession as a Jesuit on Aug. 15, 1976. Whatever Fr. Vallamattam’s language skills (Malayalam, Sinhala, Italian, or English), his heavy accent made his use of them challenging for his interlocutors. But that really didn’t matter in his pastoral ministry because his palpable affection for his flock endeared him to all to whom he ministered. One of his major principles for pastoral ministry was “Be happy and smile a lot.” He has told many a tale about the appreciation of his parishioners for his services.
In addition to the main parish church at Linstead, there were also five “missions” or outstations to tend to. At one of them, Ewarton, Fr. Vallamattam built a completely new church building. Later, at St. Helen’s, he built a community center and a pre-school, and all of these survived hurricane Gilbert in 1988. It was there at St. Helen’s in Linstead that he celebrated the silver jubilee of his priesthood in 1989. Indeed, gregarious Tom celebrated his birthday each year with many of his parishioners of all castes. These were genuine family affairs in which Jamaicans, Indians, Americans, rich and poor alike, partook. His Shashtipoorthi (60th birthday) outshone them all, lasting two days, replete with music, dance, speeches, prizes, presentations, and plenty of food and drink. Fr. Vallamattam had earned the affection and gratitude of a multitude of folk and deserved to be celebrated.
With the onset of complications from diabetes, however, something less demanding and hectic was in order. So, after a farewell celebration at St. Helen’s in August 2003, presided over by Archbishop Edgerton Clarke, and with many a tribute from parish and civic dignitaries, Fr. Vallamattam moved back to Jesuit community life at St. Patrick’s in Kingston. He continued pastoral ministry there at a lesser pace and, in April of 2003, celebrated his Golden Jubilee in the Society of Jesus. Two years later he moved back up north to Campion Center where he continued to bear his cross of diminishing health until his departure from us on the evening of April 26, 2018.