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Fr. Benedict Onamkulam: The accused priest in Mariakkutty murder case

Fr. Benedict Onamkulam, was the accused in the Mariakutty murder case that hit the state during mid 1960s. He was sentenced to death by the district sections court. First time in Kerala, a priest was punished for a murder. Later he was set free by the high court and towards the end of Fr. Benedict's life, the truth was heard from the family of actual culprits. Ten years had been passed from his death and its all expected that the church will start the process for the canonization of this saintly priest.

Fr. Benedict Onamkulam, a diocesesan priest of Changanacherry was the accused in the famous madatharuvy or manthamaruthy murder case in which mariyakkutty,a widow and mother of 5 children was found dead in a tea garden near madatharvy. From the circumstantial evidences Fr. Benedict Onamkulam was arrested and Kollam district sections court ordered him a rigorous imprisonment of 5 years and to hang him till death. Later he was found innocent and let free by the high court while judging his appeal. But the designation of 'murder' was an inerasable misery for him. He suffered a lot for what is unaware of him. Later Fr. Benedict served remote Kanyakumary mission of the archdiocese. During his last years he was resting in the priest home in Kottayam. At that time, the widow of a doctor and her family visited and confessed that Mariakutty was dead while doing an abortion and the estate owner was the cause for the child. Yet Fr. Benedict kept it as a secret, until it was announced by the family members of the doctor after 11 months. Within a few days, on 2001 January 3, he was called for the eternal life and his body was buried in the cemetery chapel for priests in Athirampuzha forane church. Now the church is celebrating the decennial of his death and all are expected that the Archdiocese is moving on for the canonization of this saintly priest.

Birth and Early life of Fr. Benedict Onamkulam

Fr. Benedict was born in 1929 into a catholic family. He had his schoolings from St. Ephrems Mannanam. After completing the sixth forum, he joined the seminary in 1950. He became a priest in 1959 and served in different parishes of Archdiocese of Changanacherry. In 1962 he served in Kannampally church near manthamaruthy. From 1962-64 he served as a vicar in Alappuzha chakkarakkadavu church. It was this time mariakutty familiarized to Fr. Benedict. After this, he became the manager of St. Joseph's orphanage press Changanacherry. He continued in this position, until he was arrested for mariakkutty murder case.

Mariakkutty murder case and the consequences in Fr. Benedict's life

In 1966 June 16, the dead body of a 43 year old woman was found near madatharuvy in manthamaruthy. Later it was confirmed to be Mariakkutty, a widow and mother of 5 child. The case became famous and the news spread all over the nation when Fr. Benedict Onamkulam, an archdiocesan priest of Changanacherry was arrested on June 24. Fr Onamkulam was serving as the manager of archdiocese run St. Joseph's orphanage press. Mariakutty had knew Fr. Benedict since he was serving as the vicar in Alappuzha chakkarakkadavu church. There he was in charge of distributing wheat and milk powder to the poor. He knew the poverty in Mariakutty's family and used to help her at times. It was reported that mariakutty left her home on June 15. Before some days she had visited Fr Benedict in Changanacherry. Some years before he was the vicar of Kannampally church near manthamaruthy. The police related the both and concluded that Fr Benedict was the culprit. Stories were made like Some one had seen a priest with a lady in manthamaruthy on that day, Fr Benedict was the father of her youngest child, she used to blackmail him by this and so Fr Benedict decided to kill her!!!
From the circumstantial evidences, Fr Benedict was found guilty by the Kollam district sections court judge Kunjiraman Vaidyar and on 1966 November 19 he was sentenced to death and a rigorous imprisonment for 5 years. This was a shock to the common people who believed that the priest was innocent. It was the first incident in Kerala, in which a priest was punished for a murder case.
Later Archdiocese filed an appeal in the high court against the verdict. Judicial bench consisting of then acting chief justice P Raman Nair and Justice VP Gopalan nambiar heard the appeal. ASR Chari who was a famous advocate in supreme court and adv. KT Thomas was appeared for the Fr. Benedict. High court found that the arguments against Fr Benedict was unbelievable and he was set free due to the lack of evidences, on 1967 April 7. On the next day, he was relieved from the central prison Thiruvananthapuram and was welcomed by a huge crowed on the road sides, while he was returning to Changanacherry. He was given a warm welcome at Changanacherry by the natives and the faithful.

Life of Fr. Benedict after Manthamaruthy case

Even though he was set free from the case, the designation of 'murderer' remained on him. This gave him a lot mental sufferings. But Fr. Benedict accepted and suffered all of these, without complaining to any one. Later he served the Kanyakumary mission and other remote centers of the Archdiocese. Towards the end, he was resting in the priest home at Mudiyoorkara near Kottayam.

Confession by the family members of the doctor

On 2000 January 14, a 94 year old widow of a doctor and her family visited Fr. Benedict in the Mudiyoorkara priest home. She confessed to Fr. Benedict that her husband was the cause for Mariyakkutty's death. Mariyakkutty was dead during an attempt to abort her child. The estate owner was the father of the child. When mariakkutty became pregnant from estate owner, she asked for her share on his property. So the estate owner forced her for abortion and during that, she was dead. Marks were made on her body in order to seem it like a murder. The body was placed near madatharuvy and the witnesses were made to point the cause on Fr. Benedict. Estate owner was utilizing the circumstantial connections of Fr. Benedict. Postmortem was not conducted efficiently and the whole case was moving on the cash thrown by the estate owner. Thus Fr. Benedict Onamkulam was arrested for a crime, which was totally unaware by him.
What made the family to confess was the continuing problems in the family. Before and after the death of the doctor, many problems aroused in the family. Doctor was dead, They lose all the wealth made by the doctor, different diseases followed the family members and children were born with mental and physical disabilities. When they attended a retreat, the councilors pointed out all these as the result of the sufferings and sorrow of a priest. They advised to confess him and so the family decided to visit Fr. Benedict.
Fr. Benedict heard all these silently. Even though the confession happened, the story remained as a secret within his hearts. He said the story only to the Archbishop of Changanacherry, Mar Joseph Powathil. Later, after 11 months, this was officially announced by the family to the medias. The world realized that Fr. Benedict was innocent and the crime was actually 'foisted' on him.

Death and burial of Fr. Benedict

After a few days, on 2001 January 3rd, Fr. Benedict Onamkulam was called for his eternal life in heaven. He had suffered a lot and his name was a curse for the church and all the priests. Yet the church stood besides Fr. Benedict because of his saintly life. He was leading a saintly life without complaining to any one. Even though, he was aware of the truth, he kept silence. But his death was like an extended period to see the world hearing the truth. On January 4th , Fr. Benedict Onamkulam was buried in the cemetery chapel at St. Mary's forane church Athirampuzha near Kottayam, Kerala. A huge mass of people including Archbishops, Bishops, Priests, Nuns and the faithful attended the ceremonies. According to them, it seemed like the death ceremonies of a saint.

Developments after the death of Fr. Benedict

Now ten years had been passed after the death of Fr. Benedict. Recently his grave was reconstructed in concern with the priest year celebrations in the catholic church and facilities were provided for the faithful to offer prayers. It had been attracting the faithful. Hundreds of people are visiting and offering the prayers every day. According to Dr. Mani Puthiyidom, PRO of the archdiocese of Changanacherry and the vicar of Athirampuzha church, some miracles were also reported by the people and if St. Alphonsa was called as 'sahanadasi', Fr. Benedict is being called as the 'sahanadasan'.
The archdiocese had started the decennial celebrations of the entry of Fr. Benedict to his heavenly life. Normally the process of canonization begins in the catholic church, ten years after the death. Now it is the time and many believe that the moves of the Archdiocese reflects the beginning of the lengthy process of canonization. Hope this great priest be declared as the saint in the near future.

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