When Annaamma Thomas was born in 1902 in one of the typical Syrian Christian families close to Kumbanad, Kerala, nobody could have imagined the wonderful plans Lord had for her. Families used to be large, with a dozen children being the norm among the physically healthy Christian of Kerala. Each child helped the family affairs, especially after the next one was born. It was the older children who shared most of the work within the house, including looking after the younger ones and sharing with responsibilities in the kitchen. Electricity and running water was unheard of in most places that time.
Obviously, it was impossible for any child to spare much time for studies, more so the girls.
The family had plenty of cattle, and every evening a large cauldron full of milk was boiled for all children. At a certain age it fell to Annaamma to do this, and she would do this faithfully. Among all her siblings she was the one most interested in studies, but her share of work in the large family, and her being a female child made it almost impossible for her to get more than a minimal time for such purposes.
Thus while boiling milk she used to take a textbook (which itself was not common in those days of expensive books) and would try to read it in the light from the hearth while she watched the milk. Seeing her earnestness to read, her grandpa used to relieve her, he himself taking position besides the cauldron. This used to anger her grandmother, thinking that he was spoiling his granddaughter who ought to be spending time in kitchen which would prepare her for housekeeping, rather than spending time with books which would only make her hate physical labor when she grew up. However, the Lord had a definite plan for her and the grandpa kept encouraging her for studies.
Answer Through A Raven
Schools were few, and there was very little educational facility for girls at that time. Most people considered educated girls an aberration. But foreign Christian missionaries had opened few schools where girls were admitted and she eventually found herself in a school housed at the Royal Fort in Trivandrum, the capital city of present-day Kerala. The Royal Place was close by, and the King was dismayed by this school run by European missionaries. So one day he ordered the school closed. He even took away the keys to the buildings so that there was no delay in implementing his orders. Having no place to run the school, and having their cherished ministry being shut down, the missionary ladies had no option other than taking away many of the girls to their place of residence. And there all of them spent a period of time in fasting and praying for divine intervention.
Soon after that the King went to the temple because he was a very religious person. As he returned to the palace on his chariot, a raven flew past his face and hastily crossed his path. Considering this to be a bad omen and foreboding of possible evils to befall on him, he ordered the chariot stopped then and there. He reviewed to see that he had not missed any of his religious commitment, yet the gods seemed to be unhappy that day and thus this warning. But he could not discover any neglect and shortcoming on his part. Suddenly he was reminded of the Ladies Mission School that he had ordered shut, and felt that this might be the cause of this development, and ordered that the keys be returned and that the missionary school be reopened, and then only did he proceed to his palace from that place.
Overjoyed by the way the Lord answered their prayers, the students and missionary teachers quickly reoccupied the school. The story of the raven soon spread everywhere because the King narrated it to one and all, and this came as a great spiritual lesson to Annaamma, who was only a school student at that time. She realized that the God of Elijah is the sovereign God even today, and that He was willing to use the raven even now if His children depend upon Him for their answers. This incident was to have a life-long impact upon her trust in God's provisions.
A School Teacher
Annaamma studied up to 7th standard, which was an unusual achievement for anyone in Kerala during the first few decades of 1900s, and especially for a girl. Consequently she was immediately offered a teaching job, which she promptly joined much to the chagrin of many in the family. None of them had any inkling that for her the first years in teaching were going to be similar to the way Moses was trained in the best academies of Egypt.
She was married at the age of 22, and had three children who were later in life to follow the trail blazed by their unusual mother. However, hardly was she into the tenth year of her family life that her beloved husband was promoted to glory, consequent to a severe attack of pneumonia. She was left a widow at the age of 32 with three children (Ponnamma 9, T. Johnson 5, Thomas Rajan 2). It was an impossible task to manage the children, at Kumbanad, with her job at Thottakkad -- the final leg of which journey had to be undertaken in those days on bullock carts. No transfer was forthcoming. However, the late Mr. P. V. George (of Unique Christ and Mystic Gandhi fame) secured for her a transfer to Kumbanad, a provision of God that she enjoyed till her retirement. This once again made her faith firm in the sovereign control of God over human history and also over individual lives.
Woman Of Prayer
Annaamma was a woman of prayer right from her earliest days, influenced partly by her own mother. (Her mother used to spend so much time in semi-audible prayer at night that men at home used to mock-complain that they were unable to sleep peacefully because of all this noise). Her early widowhood and the company of praying friends also made her all the more committed to a life of prayer.
After returning from the school she would efficiently finish all her household jobs (which were in plenty in that agricultural society), feed children, have family prayer, and then put them to bed. Once the children were asleep around 8 at night, she would lock the house from outside and rush join her friends for night prayer. Only her daughter knew abut this movement of her mother as the younger ones would already be deep in sleep when her mother ventured out. There were no street-lights, and no torch there in those days, and each house was surrounded by a large field with dense trees around. Snakes were in plenty everywhere. So she would light some coconut-palm leaves for light, and with that venture out in pitch dark. Once she reached Achamma Teacher's house they both would move to Mariamma Teacher's house or to a common place and spend time in prayer.
The prayer session would finish about midnight, when these women would make their way home -- through thick vegetation, oppressive darkness, and with all possibilities of a snakebite. Two of Them had to walk the periphery of a church to reach home, but to reach home faster they used to cross through the church compound, and particularly through the church cemetery, an unbelievable feat at midnight even for many men. Such was their courage and trust in the Lord that they did not even pause to think that one needed unusual courage to walk through a cemetery at midnight in a place thickly covered with tall trees.
Once at home she would spend time up to 4 in the morning reading the Scripture and handling correspondence. Then around 4 she used to take a brief nap, only to be awakened to the unending chores of a rural household in the undeveloped Kerala of 1930s. Once the children were fed and sent to school she would rush to her own school and take her first break of the day during noon.
During lunch time she and Mariamma Teacher would go to her uncle's house nearby, and sneak behind the large piles of coconut-palm leaves and pray in this hideout. Thereafter they would go back to school, and then home, do evening chores, and once again go for night prayer. She kept up this routine untiringly for decades, and on being questioned, would often confess to her daughter that it was these prayers that kept her going.
Meanwhile a Young Women's Christian Association started functioning at Kumbanad, and Annaamma Teacher became actively involved in it. She used to partake in all their programs, often traveling widely, and this gave her a good insight into the organization and management of Christian ministries. As her daughter grew older, she was sent to a hostel (Nicholson Syrian High School) presumably to give greater safety to the girl child when the mother traveled widely. Time passed fast and eventually her daughter was married and her sons went away for jobs, one to Africa (Rajan Thomas) and one to the Gulf (T. Johnson). She was now left alone, but at the right time the Lord sent a missionary lady (Miss PM Shirtcliff), originally from New Zealand, to stay with her.
This missionary lady became a great companion to these women in their prayer sessions and also in the travels and ministries of Mrs. Annaamma. Often she used to exclaim that the Lord had graciously provided her with a "driver" from as far away as New Zealand as the Missie (as she was affectionately addressed by all) had access to a car even during those times when owning even a bicycle used to be a luxury in India -- a reminder to God's sovereign provision.
Ministries For Women
Finally Annaamma Teacher realized that time had come for more systematic outreach to women, and she immediately launched out Bible camps for girls and women at Kumbanad. Such a ministry by women and for women was unheard of during those days, and many of the prominent men like Lonappan Upadeshi disapproved of it. She had to face such a disapproval from many others for decades before they realized that they were reacting emotionally and not biblically.
Messers PV George, KG Thomas (Kottayam), and ME Cherian, however, encouraged her continually. MEC even used to visit Sodari Bhavan (see below) at least once every year to minister and also to encourage her. This encouragement, coupled with her strong determination and trust in the Lord kept her going.
Once when she was unable to conduct camp at Kumbanad assembly due to the then prevailing IGM problem, she organized the camp in her own home -- and did not allow the girls to suffer spiritual loss from lack of such training. As her ministry to women increased, the Lord kept sending other sisters to take care of different areas of ministry.
Mariamma Teacher used to take care of kitchen and leave Annaamma Teacher free to teach and guide girls who came to attend camps -- things done best by her. Achamma Teacher also used to share teaching responsibilities in camps. Missie, was a good organizer and she used to take care of that aspect of things.
A Permanent Facility For Training Women
Gradually Annaamma Teacher felt that sisters needed to have a permanent place where the ones dedicated to evangelistic activities could stay together and work among women. This was easy said than done, particularly because none had even dreamed of such a ministry. However, she kept sharing this vision with her daughter Ponnamma then based in Quilon, and finally decided to give it a try.
So with the help of her daughter and family (Ponnamma George and T. L. George) she took a house in Quilon, Kerala, on rent for a month, and launched out a month-long program of sharing gospel to women. They also invited these women to attend a bible class. (The assembly in Quilon was still in infancy, and used to gather in her daughter's house).
Here also the Lord gave her like-minded companions, each contributing a unique part in the teamwork. Sister Annaamma, the Matron in the hospital and Sister Kunjamma a nurse in the same hospital were one of the first to help her. And when the month-long ministry came to an end, Sister Annamma requested Annaamma Teacher to make this an ongoing ministry. At her persuasion they rented out a house, and she also came to stay with them. In the initial days of this ministry she invested a lot of money from her personal income for this ongoing work, and that became the financial backbone of the ministry for quite some time. And in this way started the initial ministry now known as Sodari Bhavan (Abode for Sisters).
Once a systematic work began, Sodari Bhavan started attracting a lot of women and girls for spiritual nurture. And the Lord sent more people to take care, one of which was the late Chinamma. She had a knack to handle groups of women, and would take care of groups during camps, conferences, and other training programs. (Though in advancing age and feeble, she was still part of Sodari Bhavan when I began teaching there in 1997). Over the years they ministered to hundreds of girls and women who were put on fire for the Lord due to the spiritual nurture received here.
Finally time was ripe for them to think of a building of their own. Thus they acquired a plot of land from Mr. George (who had married Annaamma Teachers daughter), and a house named Sodari Bhavan (Abode for Sisters) was built. Since Sodari Bhavan was going to house only women, outside help would be needed for many activities. The sisters were all convinced that for this purpose they needed to be in the vicinity of Mr. T. L. George's house, and they were right. Over the decades this family has ministered to Sodari Bhavan in many unique ways.
Most of the initial gifts for the building came in from women who had benefited from this ministry, and their solidarity with Sodari Bhavan once again convinced everyone that the Lord has definitely used this ministry to spiritually touch hundreds of women. Gradually Sodari Bhvavan became a larger building complex and it continues to give a new vision and commitment to scores of women every year.
With the establishing of Sodari Bhavan (Abode for Sisters), a long-standing dream of Mrs. Annaamma Thomas took concrete form, and once they had their own building it was time to move on to the next phase. Gradually a dining hall and a second floor was added to the facilities. The number of camps and conferences increased. And the opposition to such a ministry almost died out. Meanwhile the number of women able to teach also increased, and now hundreds of lives are touched every year.
Many brethren committed to women's ministry also come and help. And the house of her daughter (Mr. George and wife) situated in the same campus became a great help. Her daughter set apart the guest-room attached to the car-porch as the ‘Upper room’, and for decades male teachers who visit Sodari Bhavan are housed here. (This essay is being produced from the same room. Needless to say that the Ammachi here has given me a good amount of information about her mother that I have set forth in this article, along with supplementary information that people worldwide sent via mail in response to my request for information. She also double-checked for accuracy of all factual information).
It was her vision that a number of unmarried women, free from the encumbrances of a family, having a definite call for the Lord should stay here and minister. And precisely that kind of people has the Lord brought here for ministry. The day-to-day activities are coordinated by Miss Joyce Mathew, trained first at Hindusthan Bible Institute and then with Operation Mobilization. She has made a firm commitment to this ministry and has become a worthy successor to the vision.
Mrs. Annaamma Thomas is now in the presence of her beloved Lord with whom she used to spend so much time when alive. The trail opened by her has now become a maze of paths well crisscrossed by others. There are women's fellowships, prayer meetings, Bible classes, outreaches, and other activities almost all over Kerala today. Sodari Bhavan has become home to number of ministries including a 6-month Bible School for women.
Annamma Thomas’ three children play a prominent place today in spiritual ministry. For decades her daughter Ponnamma has been hosting male teachers ministering in Sodari Bhavan in her house, making them comfortable. The next is T. Johnson, the person who for a long time looked after the great missionary-support ministry known as Indian Evangelical Trust (Ernakulam). Her youngest son Thomas Rajan was the long-time secretary of Steward Association, and was instrumental in reviving a number of declining ministries in India. In five years of his chairmanship of Tiruvalla Medical Mission the hospital changed from a sinking ship to a financially self-supporting institution that attracts so many that one can say that now all roads lead to TMM. Among her grandchildren, John George (Raju) of Quilon and Thomas George (Ranji) are also widely known among young people in the spiritual sphere.
Annaamma Thomas, Died 19 January 1989 at the age of 87. Her Husband was late P. J. Thomas