Sarah Chacko  

[The year 2005 marks the one hundredth birth year of the brave and eminent Indian Christian Lady Sarah Chacko who was the first Indian honored to be the President and first Lady president of the biggest ecumenical forum, The Word Council of Churches [WCC]. The short life of Sarah Chacko was eventful with very valuable contributions to the Indian Society and Churches of the world. At the time of her early death at the age of 49 years, she had grown up to be a renowned educationalist and ecumenist.

Sarah Chacko was born on February 13, 1905 to M.A. Chacko of Mazhuvancheril Parampathu family at Ayyampally [Near Alwaye] and Mary of Eralil family at Paravoor. Sarah had her primary education done at Syrian Girls Primary School and Govt. Jubilee Girls High School, Trissur. After the school education, she joined Queen Mary's Women's College in Madras. She passed BA at the age of 20 in 1925. After that, she started her teaching carrier at Bending School and later Christain Mahilalayam School in Trissuur. In 1928, She joined for MA in History and Economics at Queen Mary's College in Madras. After her MA, she joined as the Lecturer of Isabella Thoburn College Lucknow.

Though Sarah was belonging to an Orthodox Christian Family, she was forced to attend the Methodist service to volunteer her leadership in the monthly Christian Congregation and in Christian Student's movements, as there was no Orthodox Church in Lucknow. In the Conference of Christian Student's movement held in Java, she represented India. Sarah made a very epoch-making speech in the Java conference where students from many Asian countries participated. Further, Sarah continued her higher education in America in 1937 and took M.A in Education from Chicago University and studied Law and Colonialism from Michigan University with scholarship.

Her educational interest was to find the root cause for the international tension and participation of international law for its control. In 1938, she returned back to Lucknow, became Vice Principal and later Principal of Thoburn College. During this period, in a retreat session conducted by Allen E. Parker, 30 College girls dedicated themselves for the full time Christian service. Sarah was entrusted with the responsibility of conducting Bible studies for these girls. During the dawn of the twentieth century, Young Women's wing YWCA, World Women Prayer Day, Women Missionaries and Sisterhood got momentum to look forward in ecumenical ideas without any denominational segregation. During 1948, representatives of 147 churches assembled in Amsterdam and constituted the WCC officially. Several pioneering movements formed even from 1920, for the cause of church unity worldwide, had got merged with WCC.

After the Amsterdam Assembly, many women's educational conferences were convened. Sarah had attended all these conferences of the designated women all over the world. In the inauguration meeting of WCC, Sarah had addressed the audience on the theme 'The Participation of women in Christian Mission'. Her speech was highly appraised by all the Church leaders participated in the Assembly. As she was belonging to Orthodox Church and was doing fellowship in the Methodist Church in Lucknow, she was invited to the Council out of her own charisma and caliber and not as representative of any Church. After submitting her report, she was invited as the President of WCC Commission established for Life and acts of the women in Church. Further, she was nominated as the Planning Committee Chairperson of the World Christian Youth Conference held at Kottayam and she gave a very impressive speech in conference held in Madison Square Garden in America. In 1951, she completed the commission period and returned to Lucknow. As per the recommendation of Sarah Chacko, the Central committee of the WCC was conducted at the Thoburn College Campus during Dec.31, 1953 - Jan 8, 1954. As a paradox of history, in 1954, Sarah expired with a heart attack while playing Basket Ball at the age of 49.]


Sarah Chakko: A Voice of Women in the Ecumenical Movement”, by M. Kurian
Published 1998, Christhava Sahithya Samithy, Thiruvella, Kerala, 689 101

170 pages, US $ 6 (Rs.80)

The perennial complaint of women everywhere including in the West is that their accomplishments in the public arenas of arts, literature, science, politics, religion etc are seldom recognized by male-dominated societies. And, there is a great deal of truth to it. Among Christian communities, it appears to me that the worst offenders are those who adhere to the orthodox denominations of Christianity. In this reviewer’s opinion, M. Kurian’s impressive biography of Sarah Chakko’s accomplishments merely reinforces such grievances. The only recorded recognition of Sarah Chakko’s contributions took place overseas in 1954 when the United Church Women of Pittsburgh gave $ 10,000 to the World Council of Churches (WCC) in recognition of her work. The book deals with the life and works of Sarah Chakko who became both a stellar educator of university women in India as well as a great Christian ecumenist of our times. She was the first to reap in 1951 a double honor from the WCC, by becoming its first elected Indian President as well as the first woman President of that world organization. Sarah Chakko accomplished that feat, about three decades before another illustrious Bishop of our Church (Paulos Mar Gregorios) became the President of WCC in 1983.

This great lady lived a bare 49 years, in the nature of a shooting star perhaps, yet blazed a trail of tremendous achievements on behalf of women, not only in India but worldwide. It is rather strange that though she was born in the Orthodox Syrian Christian faith, she lived “actively in fellowship with the Methodist communion” as M. Kurian states in his book. Its 170 pages are filled with poignant recollections of Ms. Chakko’s early life, her college years, stewardship of the Isabella Thoburn College as its Principal and her many other leadership roles in the Young Women’s Christian Association (YWCA), Student Christian Movement (SCM) and finally at the WCC. Reading this book will be an inspiring experience to any one who can spare two hours to learn and meditate about the spirit and philosophy of this Christian woman who truly practiced unconditional love towards one’s fellow humans just as Jesus commanded us to do.

From her early years, it appears to this reviewer that Sarah Chakko was aware of a lack of fairness extended to women by the society in which she was raised. Though her biographer avers “Sarah’s call to teach was the outcome of a craving for the fullness of life for the women of India”; it appears that her first love was to become a physician. After her early schooling in her home community of Trichur, her father, M. A. Chakko (Commissioner of Excise, Cochin) and her mother Mary Eralil of Parur in Travancore allowed her to go and seek her first degree in arts from the Queen Mary’s College in Madras. Subsequently she worked for two years as a teacher at the Bentinck Girls School High School, Madras. She was then summoned back by her parents to Trichur to teach at the Christava Mahilalayam in Alwaye. She spent a year there and then re-enrolled for a Master of Arts in Economics and History at the Madras Presidency College. The return to Madras for her further education seems to have been made easier because of her brother George’s admission to the Madras Medical College.

Sarah was not only brilliant in her academic achievements at the Presidency College but she also excelled in swimming as well as playing competitive tennis, basketball and volleyball. Soon after her graduation from the Presidency College, she was given an appointment as Lecturer at the Isabella Thoburn College in Lucknow in 1930 from where she rose to become its Vice Principal in 1939. Even before Sarah became the Vice Principal of that institution, she represented the SCM Conference in Java (1933), went to the United States in 1936 as a representative of the Burma and Ceylon delegation to participate in the World Student Christian Federation Conference in San Francisco. On a furlough from her college duties, Sarah also used that opportunity to get a Master’s Degree in Education from the University of Chicago. After six years of demonstrated excellence as Vice Principal, Sarah was chosen as the Isabella Thoburn College’s Principal in 1945, an accomplishment she wished her father had been alive to celebrate with her. Sarah’s father, M.A. Chakko died in 1941.

Sarah was the second Indian Principal of the Isabella Thoburn College. Her immediate predecessor, Mrs. P.N.Dass was the first Indian woman to reach such a position. But, Mrs. P. N. Dass was connected to a Royal household of that region and she was the sister-in-law of Rajkumari Amrit Kaur who later became the first woman Cabinet Minister (Health) of independent India. Sarah had only her proven performance for the bestowal of such an honor. As Principal, she undertook again numerous short-term assignments on behalf of several Christian organizations. She visited China, Canada, Greece, England, Switzerland, Holland, USA etc. In 1947, she was elected first to become the Vice President of the World YWCA and subsequently in 1951 as the first woman and Indian President of the WCC. She was indeed a shining star of Indian womanhood whose scholarship and leadership styles brought much credit to both Indian women in general and to Indian Christianity in particular. It is indeed tragic that she met with an untimely demise in 1954, while playing in a basketball match along with her students. Apparently, she died of a previously undiagnosed cardiac anomaly, not uncommon among some athletes. The famous evangelist Stanley Jones who happened to be visiting Lucknow at that time participated in her funeral service. Sarah was buried in the same cemetery (Lucknow’s Gomati Cemetery) where Isabella Thoburn, the founder of the College was interred. Owing to both communication complexities and travel difficulties prevalent in India at that time, none of her immediate family members was able to attend Sarah Chakko’s funeral. Sarah’s mother passed away three years later in 1957.

The book is replete with anecdotes of Sarah’s compassion for the poor and her grit in handling many stressful and often potentially violent or volatile situations. Unfortunately, there are a few typographical and syntactical errors in the book. But, they are more than compensated by the biographer’s precision for details. Mr. Kurian is a well-known journalist who retired from the position of Assistant Editor of Malayala Manorama in 1983. He provides vivid descriptions of events illustrating Sarah’s adroitness and leadership skills in all sorts of difficult situations. There are also poignant portrayals about her concerns for the poor as well as her subordinates whenever she thought that they were afflicted by sickness or job difficulties. A few instances of Sarah’s selfless devotion to her servants will bring tears to the eyes of any sensitive reader. There are also glimpses in this book about Sarah’s genuine support of Gandhiji’s freedom movement since she undertook projects, which channeled the energies of her students into village uplift programs. An incident illustrative of Sarah’s grit and leadership qualities is described in the book by her biographer using the quotes from a staff leader of the WCC who was taking a group of international Christian leaders in 1951 to visit the Palestinian refugees dislodged by Israel’s establishment. Sarah Chakko was a member of that group when it was confronted by a group of enraged Palestinian refugees who mistook the group to be part of the United Nations, which had authorized the establishment of Israel. Dr. Visse’rt Hooft of WCC who was present on the scene described the events thus: “when our party arrived, the people came rushing down the hills and shouted what seemed to be violent protest and threats. It looked as if we had a riot on hand. So, I asked our Indian colleague, Sarah Chakko to address the crowd. There she stood in her Indian Sari and began to speak in a firm, quiet voice about the refugees in her own country. When the speech was translated into Arabic, the crowd calmed down and a man spoke up saying, we are sorry, we thought you came from the United Nations. We did not know you were men of God”.

For this reviewer, the most ennobling character of Sarah Chakko was her relentless struggle for obtaining parity for all women and Christian women in particular. Sarah’s efforts led to the establishment of a Women’s Commission within the WCC. She subsequently became the Chairperson of that Commission, in addition to her duties as the President of WCC. Shortly before her death, in early 1954, a second assembly of WCC was announced to take place in Evanston, Indiana and she was surprised beyond belief that the Orthodox Syrian Church named her as the official delegate to that assembly. In her response to that appointment, she noted that it “establishes the principle that a woman can work in an official capacity in the Orthodox Syrian Church. There has never been any rule against it, but it has never been done”. From her writings and stated positions before the WCC’s Women’s Commission there is evidence that she along with many other Christian women did not see anything theologically impermissible for undertaking a consideration of the ordination of women, no doubt a heretical statement perhaps to many in the Christian orthodox communities even today.

The biographer states that Sarah Chakko never forgot her Indian traditions and its culture wherever she went. It reminded me of the statement of Osthathios Thirumeni (Deccan Herald, Feb 20, 2005) wherein he stated that he is an Indian by nationality, a Christian by faith and a Hindu by culture etc. It seems to me that Sarah Chakko embraced that same Indian traditions as a Christian which made her love all her fellow human-beings, rich or poor, Hindu, Christian or Muslim, all as children of the same God. To quote Mr. Kurian, the biographer, “Sarah Chakko lived the life of a devotee for the work of the Lord. She had dedicated her life to that purpose. The Blessed Lord has said in Srimad Bhagvad Gita (11-55), “He who does work for Me alone and has Me for his goal, is devoted to Me, is freed from attachment and fears, has enmity towards no creatures, and entereth unto Me”. Sarah Chakko’s life is a testimony to the tenacity of a Christian woman’s commitment to do her part in the struggle for ensuring equality for all women, starting with Christian women so that they can serve as role models for all women of all faiths everywhere.

At a minimum, this book belongs in the library of every Indian Orthodox Church, both in India and overseas where we are frequently hearing complaints from Indian Orthodox Christian women about their secondary roles in the affairs of their churches. If our prelates and male members of our communities do not address such festering grievances promptly, they ought to study the fate of Orthodox Jews who came to the United States four or five generations ago. Lenni Brenner’s, “The Demographics of American Jews” cites impressive data to show that only 9.7% of the descendants of the orthodox Jews are now “orthodox”. The reasons he cites for such exodus of Jews out of orthodoxy are: segregation of women, “hostess’ roles for women in the affairs of the synagogue, hostility towards induction of women into the Rabbinate etc. Sound familiar, don’t they? Most “orthodox” Jews who abandoned orthodoxy joined the reformed Jewish communities where equality between sexes has remained absolute and irrevocable. (See:

The great American writer George Santayana said, “those who forget the past are condemned to relive it”. I would love to see the Indian Orthodox Community both here and in India flourish and thrive by conferring on orthodox Christian women the same rights as those held by male members of our congregations as well as within the association which represents the views and wishes of all Indian Orthodox Christians to the Catholicos of the Apostolic Throne of the East in Kottayam, India. If that can be realized soon in our Church, it would indeed be a fitting recognition for the many contributions that Sarah Chakko made for World Christianity.

C. Alex Alexander, M.D.
Odenton, MD

** The author copyrights this review and those wishing to publish this in any print or e-format must obtain a written permission from the author.

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