By Robin Gomes
Archbishop Dominic Jala of Shillong of north-east India’s Meghalaya state and Father Mathew Vellankal, a 58-year old Indian-born priest of the Diocese of Oakland, died last week a road accident in California in the United States. Archbishop Jala was 68.
Fr. Vellankal was driving the archbishop and another Indian priest, Fr. Joseph Parekkatt, to Clearlake in California, when the tragedy took place. Their car was hit by a semi-truck in Colusa County.
Father Joseph Parekkatt, a pastor of St. Anne Parish also of Oakland Diocese, was seriously injured in the collision. He is in stable condition at Santa Rosa Hospital, the diocese said.
A statement by the California Highway Patrol said “the driver of a Toyota Prius travelling westbound on SR-16 failed to yield to traffic at SR-20". “The driver of the Prius pulled out from the stop sign directly in front of a tractor/trailer and as a result, the Prius was broadsided. The driver and right-front passenger of the Prius were killed and their rear passenger sustained major injuries.”
On September 17, Archbishop Jala left Shillong for Rome, where along with other Indian bishops he was on an “ad limina visit”, that heads of dioceses are required to make every 5 years or so to report on the state of their jurisdiction. He was among 44 Indian bishops who met Pope Francis as a group on September 26.
A Shillong Archdiocesan source said the archbishop arrived in Washington DC on September 30 to attend a meeting of the International Commission on English in the Liturgy (ICEL) in New York. He left for California on October 6 to meet some of his priest friends.
Archbishop Jala was born on July 12, 1951, in Mawlai, Shillong, the capital of Meghalaya state. He belongs to the Khasi people, the majority ethnic group in the state.
He was ordained a priest for the Salesians of Don Bosco on November 19, 1977. He was the Provincial of the Salesian Province of Guwahati. Pope Saint John Paul II appointed him Archbishop of Shillong on December 22, 1999 and he was consecrated bishop on April 2, 2000.
With the transfer of Bishop Victor Lyngdoh of Nongstoin to Jowai in October 2016, Pope Francis appointed Archbishop Jala to serve also as Apostolic Administrator of Nongstoin.
At the moment of his death, he was a member of the Vatican Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments, a member of the ICEL and chairman of the Commission for Liturgy of the Conference of Catholic Bishops of India (CCBI), which brings together the Latin-rite bishops of India. He was also chairman of the Liturgy Commission of the North East India Regional Bishops’ Council and was the author of the book “Liturgy and Mission.”
He was scheduled to return to Shillong on October 16, according to the archdiocese.
Archbishop Jala is the second Indian archbishop to die in a car accident abroad, after Archbishop Alan de Lastic of Delhi, who died on June 20, 2000, in a car crash in Poland.
Father Vellankal was a native of Kerala, South India. The 50-year old priest was the pastor of St. Isidore Parish in Danville, California, since 2016. After completing high school, he joined the Salesians and was ordained a priest in January 1987.
As a Salesian priest, he served in parishes and schools in India before joining the Diocese of Oakland in 2001.
Father Vellankal was also known for his skills as a magician, which he used in parish fundraising. He is the author of “From Humor to Inspiration: Jokes, Reflections, and Quotes to Enliven Your Day,” published in 2005.
“Father Vellankal’s joyous spirit and faith will be deeply missed,” Bishop Michael C. Barber of Oakland said. “May his soul and the soul of Archbishop Jala rest in the peace of Christ,” the Jesuit bishop said.
Cardinal Charles Bo of Yangon, Myanmar, the president of the Federation of Asian Bishops’ Conferences (FABC) has expressed the federation’s condolences to the Archdiocese of Shillong, the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of India (CBCI) and the CCBI for the loss of Archbishop Jala.
The Archdiocese of Bombay of CBCI president, Cardinal Oswald Gracias, also extended its condolences to the Archdiocese of Shillong and to the family of Bishop Dominic. “May his soul rest in peace and may perpetual light shine upon him,” the archdiocese wrote on its webpage.
Meghalaya Chief Minister Conrad Sangma described the death of the Archbishop a loss of not only the Catholic Church but also of the state as a whole. “We are all with you in this time of grief and it is a loss for all of us,” he said.