On the southern banks of the Meenachil River is perched the fabled and renowned Holy Cross Forane Church of Cherpunkal. The church premises sprawl along the river side and include the old and new churches, the presbytery, the old and new parish halls and the swanky buildings housing the High School, the Higher Secondary School and the Bishop Vayalil Memorial Holy Cross College with the terraced church cemetery in the background right across the Kezhuvankulam road. The open yard in front of the church can accommodate thousands of people during festivals. The church is visited by thousands of people from far and wide during festivals and on first Fridays.
Tradition has it that the stone laid by St.Thomas ultimately led to the founding of the Holy Cross Church at Cherpunkal. In the course of his Gospel preaching he landed at the Moonnupeedikayil ferry and interacted with the people there. As a result of this contact members of five families received the Christian Faith and were baptized. A cross was believed to have been set up at a place chosen by the apostle for these people to assemble and pray. The place where the cross stood, with the passage of time, came to be called Cherpunkal. It is believed that this cross had been instrumental in working numerous miracles. In response to several requests sent abroad a crucifix embossed on a single piece of wood arrived.
In accordance with an order issued by the king of Poonjar the church built on the northern bank of the Meenachil River was shifted to the southern bank. The foundation stone for the new church was laid on 14th September 1096 and the construction work started forthwith. The land for the construction of the church was donated by Kallampally Namboothiri, a landlord of great social standing. The old church, which is still preserved, was built in the 15th century to accommodate the increasing number of believers. The routine of offering the Holy Mass on the main altar for the Kallampally family on the 14th of September every year still continues. The old church and the presbytery were constructed under the supervision of Rev.Philipose Vattamattathil. The new church was blessed in 1911 by the vicar general Mgr. Cyriac Kannamkary during the tenure of the then Vicar Apostolic Mar Thomas Kurialassery.
Cherpunkal Holy Cross Forane Church is one of the big churches in the Pala Diocese. The church was built in the Gothic fashion. The façade of the church has three arches with a tall belfry behind them; the altar is decorated with gold-coloured patterns; the chancel is beautified with unfading pictures. The church instigates an indescribable spiritual obsession. In 1958 during the vicariate of Rev.Fr.Thomas Plakkat the ceiling work for the roof of the church was done. The portico of the church was built during the time of office of Rev.Fr. Francis Mailadoor.
Every year there is a celebration in commemoration of the stone-laying of the church on the southern bank of the Meenachil River on 14th September, which happens to be the feast of the glorification of the holy cross.
The most important celebration of the Holy Cross Church is in commemoration of the circumcision of Infant Jesus. The long celebrations commence with the hoisting of the flag and the subsequent nativity celebrations on the 25th of December. During the eight days that follow there will be devotional services, processions with due ceremonials from all the four corners of the parish, pyrotechnics and numerous artistic performances which make the occasion spectacular. The church and its premises are filled to capacity by devotees during the prayers that ring out the old year and ring in the New Year as well as during the ceremonial Holy Mass.
A beautiful memorial was erected, though after many centuries, in commemoration of the place where the apostle marked the site of the church with a sandal. A plot of land which was in the possession of Mathew Kurian Valepeedikayil was handed over to the church in 1927 on the conditionality of an yearly High Holy Mass for the members of his family and on this land Rev.Dr.Augustine Kachiramattam built the memorial in 1988. It was blessed by the then bishop of Pala Mar Joseph Pallickaparampil.
The Holy Cross Church at Cherpunkal is now a renowned pilgrim centre. This church, which was started by St.Thomas by erecting a cross, is a church of the cross. The ‘Mar Sleeva Muthappan’ of the Holy Cross Church of Cherpunkal is veritably Christ Himself. For the devotees the Jesus of this church is the Infant Jesus, the ‘Kudathelunni’, as the they lovingly call him, reigning supreme on the throne that is the earth, with his golden frock, golden crown, golden flag, wearing golden bangles and showering his blessings on all. The devotion to Infant Jesus, the Novena associated with it and the offering of gingelly oil and gold made this church a famous pilgrim destination. The long tradition of offering oil at the Holy Cross Church is based on a bible-centered Jewish observance.
The worshipful novena done before the Holy Sacrament immediately after the Holy Mass on every Friday is one of the pious observances that bring special favours to the devotees. The services on the first Friday of every month is very famous. The most important offering at the Holy Cross Church Cherpunkal is the participation in the Holy Mass and the special novena on nine consecutive first Fridays and the offering of oil for the ever burning unfading lamp. On the first Friday of the month the services at the church commence at 4.15 in the morning. On first Fridays the queue for offering oil continues from midnight to midnight. There will be Holy Masses and novena till seven in the evening. The number of people coming to the church on other Fridays also is on the increase. The novena prayers, which give solace and hope to many, were prepared by the assistant vicar Rev. Fr. Jose Eanthanal in 1977. It is customary for devotees to offer gold chains, gold rings, gold bangles and gold crown to Infant Jesus for special favours received. The statue of Infant Jesus at Cherpunkal has miraculous powers. On 31st December, the day commemorating the purification of our lady, the devotees themselves can put gold ornaments on the statue of Infant Jesus after the vesper. The evening prayers on Sundays are another observance that offers the fullness of spiritual celebration.
It was Rev.Fr.Jacob Mannalal serving as vicar during 1969-70 who divided the parish into 30 wards. The representatives from these 30 wards who assemble once every month with the vicar in the chair take decisions about the administration of the church. In order to overcome the difficulties caused by the bifurcation of the parish into two parts by the Meenachil River a bridge was built under the leadership of Rev.Fr.Francis Mailadoor with the help of contributions from the church and the parishioners. A three storied building was constructed in 1988 for the High School that started functioning with the 8th standard in 1982. In 1984 the church was elevated to the status of a Forane church. In 1991 Bishop Mar Joseph Pallickaparampil blessed the chapel built by Rev.F.Cyriac Kunnel in the Cherpunkal town. When the number of devotees offering oil increased the present portico was built and the statueof Infant Jesus was placed in the portico in front of the main door of the church and a new lamp was erected for devotees to pour oil. The Bishop Vayalil memorial Holy Cross College was started in 1995 with the concurrence of the government and the Mahatma Gandhi University.
In 2002 the St Sebastian church was completed at Kidangoor on a plot of one acre and eight cents of land donated by Rev.Fr.Sebastian Chempakassery who belonged to the Cherpunkal parish. A new block was built in 1998 to house the newly introduced higher secondary course. The blessing of the Mar Sleeva Parish Hall took place in 2001. As an extension of the old presbytery a two-storied block was constructed under the leadership of Rev.Fr.Abraham Kaniyampadikal to house the vicar’s office on the first floor and the Infant Jesus stall on the ground floor for the sale of religious books and other articles. Though the stall was started in 2005 the administrative block had been completed in 2002.In 2006 the nursery school which had been functioning in the old parish hall was shifted to the new school building. In 2006 a new three storied building was constructed for the BVM Holy Cross College under the able guidance of Rev.Fr Abraham Kaniyampadikal. Its inauguration took place in April 2006
Though the feast of the purification of our lady on the first of January is the chief celebration, there are other celebrations also including the feast commemorating the foundation day of the church on 14th September, the feast of St.Alphonsa in July and the feast of St.Joseph in March. In addition to these celebrations the feasts of St.Sebastian, St.George and Our Lady of Dolors are also observed.
The relics of St.Sebastian, St.George, St.Alphonsa, the blessed Kunjachen and of the Holy Cross are kept in the church and are taken out in a procession on feast days to help the devotees in their worship. The Holy Cross Church has four chapels at Cherpunkal town, the western junction of the town, Kezhuvankulam and Neyyoor in addition to a Grotto of the Blessed Virgin Mary at Chempilavu.
The Holy Cross Forane Church Cherpunkal has 13 parishes under its jurisdiction. It has become a renowned pilgrim centre not only because of its association with St.Thomas but also because of the deep faith of the devotees in Infant Jesus’ divine presence. In the spiritual map of the Syro Malabar Church this church occupies a pride of place showering all blessings on the devotees that throng to the church in their thousands.