At Lourdes Matha, a fairly big Catholic church built on the side of a hillock in Kozhikode district’s Koodathayi village, hushed conversations among believers revolve around one family, the Thomases.
On October 3, the remains of three members of the family — patriarch Tom Thomas, his wife Annamma Thomas and her brother Manjadiyil Mathew — were exhumed from the church cemetery by the police, with the church’s permission, as part of a murder investigation that has transfixed Kerala. Two days later, the Thomas’ daughter-in-law, 47-year-old Jolly Amma Joseph, was arrested. She is suspected to have killed not just the three but also her husband Roy Thomas and two other members of his extended family between 2002 and 2016.
Joseph Idappadiyil, the parish priest at Lourdes Matha, seemed unfazed by the attention the case has brought the church in the past month. Speaking with HuffPost India, he said Jolly and the Thomases were all regular churchgoers and that he knew the “respected” family well. He also said the office of the Kozhikode Rural superintendent of police, which is heading the investigation, had questioned him and other church members in connection with the case.
“Jolly Amma Joseph did not confess to any crime in the confessional,” Idappadiyil said.
A confession is a sacrament or sacred ritual of the Catholic Church, and a confessional is a private space in a church in which a parishioner acknowledges their wrongdoings before a priest and receives absolution for their sins. While a confession is made in anonymity with a screen dividing the participants, the identity of the confessor may be known to the priest as he may be familiar with the members of his congregation. However, the rules of the Catholic Church forbid the priest from revealing the details of a confession.
Speaking without hesitation, Idappadiyil said he was “positive no such confession took place” in his church in Jolly’s case. “There is no reason for a criminal to confess in the confessional of their own church because they would reveal their crime to a known priest,” he explained. “In most cases, such confessions are made in the confessionals of other churches to prevent the priest from identifying the confessor.”
The priest added, “There is no rule that says confessions should be complete, even though those who are pure at heart will confess their sins before taking part in Holy Communion.” He was referring to a practice among some churchgoers of receiving the sacrament of Holy Communion only after making their confession.
Idappadiyil has been at the Lourdes Matha church since 2015. This is his second term as its parish priest, having served in the same post between 2005 and 2008.
At the time of Roy Thomas’ death in 2011, most of the 300-odd families in the parish believed the oldest son of Tom Thomas and Annamma Thomas had died of cardiac arrest, the parish priest said. However, he added, when he took charge of the parish four years ago, a few members of the congregation confided in him that Roy may have committed suicide.
In the past, churches denied burial rights to those who took their own lives. Idappadiyil, however, said that customs have changed and such deaths are not treated any differently now. “Only if the family members raise an issue does the Church refer the case to the police,” he said. “In this case, no family member raised a concern. Though it was known to a few members of the parish that Roy had committed suicide, they too did not raise any concern because they did not want the Thomas family to lose their good name.”
In 2011, the police had ruled that 40-year-old Roy had died of natural causes, though an autopsy report pointed to the presence of sodium cyanide in his body. When the case was re-opened in August this year on a complaint filed by Roy’s brother Rojo Thomas, the police initially suspected it to be a case of suicide. However, they now believe Jolly poisoned Roy. In fact, Jolly is suspected to have poisoned the other five family members as well.
According to Idappadiyil, none of the deceased in the Thomas family received last rites, or the administration of final prayers and communion to a person shortly before their death. “No last rites could be given because their deaths were sudden and the priests could not reach them before they passed away,” he said.
He said that since the Thomases “were staunch believers and came to church every Sunday for Holy Communion”, the last rites were not mandatory in their case.
Idappadiyil remembered the Thomases as a “family of school teachers” who were “well respected” in the church community. Jolly, too, came to church regularly, he said. However, he denied reports that she had taught catechism (religious teachings for children) at Sunday school.
A fellow parishioner confirmed that Jolly was an active member of the church. She was one of the “prayer leaders”, said Sanju, who is also a neighbour of the Thomases.
The parish is divided into wards and prayer meetings are held in each home. “Jolly used to come for prayer meetings in all the homes in our ward,” said Sanju. “She used to lead the prayer sometimes. Even three days before her arrest, Jolly came along with my family for a prayer meeting at a retreat centre of the church.”
Asked why the church and congregation had not tried to find out about the troubles that apparently ran deep in the Thomas family, Idappadiyil said, “We had no inkling anything was wrong in their home. They were one among many families in the church congregation. They were financially well-off and respected.”
Furthermore, Jolly had moved to a different church after she remarried two years ago, he pointed out.
Jolly married Shaju Skaria, Roy’s cousin, in 2017. The police say she killed Shaju’s daughter Alphine in 2014 and his wife Sily in 2016 in order to marry him. The remains of Sily and her daughter were also exhumed from another church cemetery on October 4.