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Legendary Italian Jesuit missioner dies in Kerala

Kozhikode, India, 8 January 2014: An Italian Jesuit priest, who became a legend in Kerala’s Malabar region by working among low caste groups for more than half a century, died on Monday night.
Linus Maria Zucol, a naturalized Indian, was 97 when breathing problem ended a long missionary inning at a private hospital in Kozhikode, the region’s main town.
His funeral is scheduled at 4 pm on Wednesday at Our Lady of Perpetual Help at Mariyapuram near Pariyaram in Kannur district, where the Jesuit was the parish priest for 39 years.
Fr Zucol, who is popularly known as “Zucolachan” (Fr Zucol), had collapsed in church during prayers in December, and had been in hospital since then.
He was born in 1916 at Sarnico in northern Italy’s Alps region. He joined the seminary at 12 and was ordained a priest in 1940. Three years later he joined the Jesuits. He worked in Jesuit missions in Africa and Japan before coming to India in 1948.
The same year he was sent to Chundel in Wayanad. Six years later, he came to Madai, which was part of the Chirackal Mission the Jesuits launched in 1937. In 1963, he was posted at Pattuvam in Kannur district where he encouraged a German nun to start a religious congregation to cater to the poor families of Malabar. The Deena Sevana Sabha (DSS, society to serve the downtrodden) was founded in 1968.
In 1972, he came to Pariyaram, some 20 km east of Kannur town, and started the Mariyapuram parish, where he stayed for the next 39 years.
In 1980 he took Indian citizenship.
During his work in Kerala, Fr Zucol was best known for building houses for the homeless. Jesuit sources say the priest had built nearly 10,000 houses for those in abject poverty. He also helped people find livelihoods by providing them with sewing machines, cattle, auto rickshaws and others.
He also built more than 30 church buildings, most of them in Kannur district. The Jesuit priest rarely visited Italy since arriving in Kerala.
Fr Zucol was the spiritual director of Sister Maria Celine of the Ursulines of Mary Immaculate, who in 2008 was proclaimed a “servant of God,” the first formal step on the road to possibly being canonized a saint. . The nun died in 1957 aged 26.
Several people who benefited from the priest’s service regarded him as their messiah.
Mohanan Athilatt, who had suffered spinal injury 14 years ago, said Zucolachan was “God to me.” The priest built a house for him in 2008. “Without Zucolachan, my life would have been miserable,” the 52-year-old Hindu said.
Jesuit Father Joseph Kottukappilly, who has worked in Mariyapuram, says the Church is “greatly indebted” to Father Zucol for its growth the Malabar region. The Indian Jesuit says the Italian missioner had built churches, schools and roads, and helped many young people find self-employment.
Father Kottukappilly said his elderly confrere had brought thousands of people to Catholicism, but there was no objection even from rightwing Hindu groups, who accuse missionaries of using social service as a façade for converting gullible low caste Hindus.
Pascal Kommileri of Mariyapuram whose parents had converted decades ago says Father Zucol had given his family “not only a home, but also heaven.”
DSS Sister Sudhaya, who works in the region, says Father Zucol stressed people´s material and spiritual development. The priest set up several convents in the diocese and supported “our congregation´s charitable works among the poor.”
Jose Thankappan, 40, a convert from Hinduism who assisted the Italian in his home-building mission, said Father Zucol helped anyone who came to him. The priest supplied sewing machines to poor women to help them become self-reliant, he said.
In an interview six years ago, Father Zucol recalled that when he arrived, Malabar region had no roads, schools or churches. People lived in small huts along with cows or goats in “really pathetic” conditions. “I began to help them better their living conditions. Later, they … expressed their desire to become Christians and I happily received them into the Church.”
The missioner was critical of the Kerala Church. He found the Church vibrant in faith and devotion, but least interested in evangelization. He used to say that the Kerala Church was not interested in receiving people from other religions.
Kookkanam Rehman, a retired headmaster and a social worker, said Father Zucol preached through his deeds instead of words.” The Muslim leader said he was impressed by the Italian missioner who lived in a small and very old home with a leaking roof and without any modern comforts.
Even Communist leader K. Manoharan Kalleri conceded that the Jesuit missioner was “equal to God” for the local people. He said when he was the vice president of local village council he had sent several people to the priest for help.
According to Rajan Marari, who manages a fabric store in Thaliparamba, Mariyapuram´s nearest town, Father Zucol had done what the government was supposed to do.