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.

The Star Malaysia - Star2 - - People - By SHAILA KOSHY koshy@thes­

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.

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