Life of service
The late Reverend George Vergis, who arrived in Malaya in 1938 as a young teen, became a citizen that his country and church would be proud of.
LIKE many others before him, a young George Vergis left his home in Kerala, India, in 1938 and boarded a ship for the shores of Singapore and Malaya.
Born on Jan 25, 1921, he was just 17 when he left the little village of Edathua near Thiruvalla and arrived in Singapore in June, and then crossed over to Malaya.
The personable young man who arrived just before World War II, lived through the trials of the Japanese occupation, the independence of Malaya, the creation of Malaysia, to the new millennium.
He passed away peacefully at home at about 9am on Sunday, Oct 15, surrounded by his wife Rachel, son George, daughter Mary, daughter-in-law Elizabeth and granchildren Joel, Rehanna and Sherise. He was 96.
Rev George Vergis was a walking Rukunegara. “Belief in God” came first in his life. Everything else he did followed from that first principle; regardless of whether he was in the public service, serving as a priest with the Mar Thoma Churches, or after his retirement.
In his eulogy, Rev Thomas Philips said the measure of a life was “not in its duration but in its investment”.
The senior vicar of the Mar Thoma Church noted that Rev Vergis was “energised by a power greater than this natural world understands”.
Close family friend Philip Mathews described Rev Vergis as a true blue Mar Thomite who put God first in everything he did.
But Rev Vergis didn’t restrict himself to Christian activities. He was also involved in the scouts movement, Rotary Club and Malaysian Association of the Blind.
“Apacha (Malayalam for father) was a Christian without being religious,” said his son George in a recent interview.
“He was genuinely interested in people, was very approachable and always engaging with the young and old.”
Rev Vergis met and engaged with young minds throughout his career as a teacher and also as a trainer of teachers at the various Day Training Centres after his own training at Brinsford College in England. Several of them contacted his family after his passing to share their recollections of him.
Mary said that Datuk Dr Alex Mathews, a sibling of Philip, had shared that her father had “worked in the church the same way he had worked in the civil service – approaching everything he did with integrity”.
When I met Rev Vergis in the early 1970s he was not yet a priest but he was already an Inspector of Schools. I was impressed on discovering that he was multilingual.
Rev Vergis picked up most of the languages after arriving here. Coming from Kerala, he spoke his mother tongue – Malayalam – and English. During the Japanese occupation of Malaya, he learnt Japanese so he could continue teaching. And along the way, he picked up Bahasa Malaysia and Tamil.
According to Mary, her father “applied himself to the language of the ruling government”.
“When he spoke Malay over the phone, people would not know that he was a non-Malay because he had mastered the language. He told us that he would get up early each day to study the language.”
Rev Vergis retired in 1977 as Federal Inspector of Schools. While in the civil service, he received a PJK (Meritorious Service Medal) from Kedah and the AMN (Order of the Defender of the Realm), a federal award, for his contributions. Among them was his input for the Tun Abdul Razak Report on Education in 1956 to reform the education system in Malaya.
In 1977, Rev Vergis bucked the trend of fellow retirees. In those days, most retirees took it easy. It was only much later that people began accepting contracts to stay on at their old jobs or looking for work elsewhere.
But Rev Vergis, then plain Mr Vergis, who was married with two children, did not just get re-employed. He took on a job that would have him on call 24/7 and take him away from his family.
George and Mary explained that their father was fulfilling a vow his grandmother had made.
“Apacha had difficulty moving and walking as a child,” said George.
“His mother died soon after he was born so his valiamachy (or grandmother) looked after him. She prayed constantly for his recovery, promising to consecrate apacha to the service of God,” said Mary.
“He did not know about her promise until much later when she wrote him from India.”
After his training at the Mar Thoma Theological Seminary in Kerala, Rev Vergis was ordained a priest in November 1977 here. The first time an ordination was conducted in Malaysia, and not India.
It’s interesting that even though he didn’t know his grandmother had consecrated him to God’s service, his choice of profession led him to one of service. Rev Vergis became responsible for the education of the future generation of the country, as well as those who would be teaching these young minds.
“I think apacha was easing into it ... The only difference was he didn’t wear the cassock then,” said George.
Mar Thoma Church services in Malaysia are conducted in Malayalam or English. But Rev Vergis encouraged the use of the national language, saying that was the lingua franca of the new generation of Malaysians. Apart from translating parts of the Bible into Malay, Rev Vergis also translated the Mar Thoma liturgy into Malay.
Bible Society of Malaysia (BSM) general secretary Rev Mathew K Punnose said Rev Vergis had worked hard with others to bring the different Christians in Malaysia together.
He served on and/or helped set up the Council of Churches Malaysia, National Evangelical Christian Fellowship, Christian Federation of Malaysia and BSM.
“He was also a founding member of the Malaysian Consultative Council of Buddhism, Christianity, Hinduism, Sikhism, and Taoism (MCCBCHST),” said Rev Mathews.
MCCBCHST members meet for dialogue and consultation to make representations to the government on various issues and problems.
Even after Rev Vergis retired at 65, he continued a life of service.
Retired teacher Jacob Mathews of Banting shared how when he opened his eyes after an eight-hour-long operation in 1998, Rev Vergis was the first to greet him and pray for him.
“His prayers have carried me through the past 19 years,” said the most senior cancer volunteer in Malaysia with Makna.
When Rev Vergis was ordained, he loved serving in the smaller parishes of the Mar Thoma Churches outside the Klang Valley. He not only conducted services, but made it a point to visit homes so he knew each parish member by name.
He was an inspiration to many a young person.
“Rev Vergis was my model of devoted service. Whether it was when he was serving with the Education Ministry or when serving his members,” said Dinoj Samuel, a youth leader at the Mar Thoma Church in Kuala Lumpur.
“He developed a deep love for the people of Malaysia. And they loved him back,” said the former member of the Kluang parish who first met Rev Vergis at the age of six.
Oftentimes, Rev Vergis, dressed in his white cassock in a queue to get his train ticket, would find that when his turn came the cashier would say that someone had already paid for it.
Rest in peace, sir.