Rev Vadakethu Easaw (V.E.) Thomas, or Achen Thomas, was born in Kuriannoor, Kerala, India in 1907. Officially his birthday fell on February 12 but in the later part of his life, he claimed that on his baptism, his church in India had cited his birthday as January 12, a date which the family adopted after he turned 80.
Achen came to Singapore in 1935 as his older brother, V.E. Chacko, was already working as a teacher in Klang, Selangor. Achen had family obligations to help support his younger sister who was studying medicine and a brother who was pursuing his Bachelor’s degree.
He worked as a teacher/clerk and had every intention of returning to India and becoming a pastor there, after fulfilling his obligations. In Malaya, he worked closely with the local clergy and served in any capacity that he was called upon to do. However, World War II broke out and all his plans changed.
On December 21, 1946, Achen became a deacon after passing his B.A. and B.D. examinations. After his second son, George, was born, he went to India and was ordained on January 11, 1947 as a priest of the Mar Thoma Malankara Syrian Church (also known as Mar Thoma Syrian Church or St Thomas Syrian Church). Upon his return to Malaya, he officially became an “Achen” of the St Thomas Syrian Church in Malaya (all Mar Thoma priests are known as “Achen” which means “father”.) He later became the senior vicar for Malaysia and Singapore.
To meet the needs of the increasing number of Mar Thoma members, he worked in many parishes throughout Malaya – from Singapore and Johor Bahru in the south to Kluang, Labis, Layang Layang, Malacca, and to Kuantan on the east coast and Penang in the north. The late Alexander Mar Thoma Metropolitan (head of the Malankara church) once related how he and Achen used to drive along the roads at night or early morning after a service. During one of those drives along the Kuantan-Mersing trunk road, they spotted a Malayan tiger lying in the middle of the road. Carefully avoiding it, they continued on their journey. The roads were deserted and lonely but they travelled up and down, rain or shine, to conduct services for their parishioners and keep the fellowship going.
The Achens of the church primarily served the needs of fellow Mar Thoma members, most of whom were migrants from Kerala. Almost all the Achens were ecumenical and joined other churches in building up the Church in Malaya.
The Mar Thoma church, being a missions church, decided to start a Christian-based school and so the St Thomas Secondary School was set up in 1955 in Singapore. It was originally located at Mar Thoma Road (Whampoa) but relocated to Telok Blangah in 1983 when the government acquired its former site to build the Central Expressway (CTE).
The new school had a four-storey classroom block, a science block including an audio-visual aid room, a three-storey workshop block and a two-storey assembly hall and canteen block. Achen wrote to many foreign missionaries who might be interested in teaching and spreading the gospel in this part of the world, and a number of them came to help start and build the school. He served as its first principal and parish members took over in later years.
The school closed its doors in early 2000. Its notable alumni included a Singapore Member of Parliament.
Achen was compassionate and a man of principles who trusted God. His children remember him as a disciplinarian but also loving and full of grace. His wife Mary Thomas was a great partner and source of strength for him.
He loved playing cards especially in his early college days but after he became a priest, he never played card games again. When parishioners gathered during holidays to play cards and he was around, you could see the glint in his eyes as he watched them but never joined in!
Whenever the family had friends to stay over, Achen would say grace before every meal and all would have to attend the evening devotion – reading the Bible and praying on their knees regardless of their religious backgrounds. The result of this was that many would ask to be prayed for in difficult times.
He was not just a missionary and pastor but a good father and husband and more than just a friend to those near and dear to him as well as the community at large.
In fact, his eldest son Esaw recalled that he once asked his father why they frequently had so many guests in their home (“almost like a bus station”, recalls Achen’s children) with people always coming and going, partaking of meals with the family and staying over which meant that the children would have to give up their rooms. He replied that showing kindness was essential in the Christian walk. Today, the writer and her three siblings continue his practice of hospitality, thanks to his training.
The writer also recalls how as a tearful 14-year-old, she learnt the importance of humility in life when he gently told her that as a young person, she should not be proud or stubborn after she had been told not to attend a wedding as she was not able to sing in the wedding choir.
In reply to Esaw who once complained about Christians, he said it is not man in whom we put our trust and it is not for men to judge who is a Christian or not, but that we need to put our trust in God and be His imitators.
Achen passed away after a stroke in Singapore on January 20, 1996.