Metropolitan His Grace Mathews Mar Barnabas stood barely 5 feet tall, but his stature and influence among his followers in the Indian Orthodox Church on Long Island and elsewhere was enormous, leaders of the church said.
"He was a saintly man. He was a man of prayer, a man of simplicity," said the Rev. Paulose T. Peter, director for ecumenical relations of the Muttontown-based Northeast Diocese of the Malankara Orthodox Syrian Church, known as the Indian Orthodox Church.
Mar Barnabas, 88, who headed the church in the United States for nearly two decades, died in his native India on Sunday, Peter said. Mar Barnabas left Long Island in May 2011 after retiring as bishop amid declining health. His funeral was to take place Wednesday in India's Kerala state.
One of Mar Barnabas' major accomplishments was constructing a $3.5-million U.S. headquarters for the church, moving it from Queens to a 3-acre plot in Muttontown, Peter said. The center opened in 2008.
He also was known for his compassion, often visiting the sick and needy, Peter said.
Under Mar Barnabas' direction, the Indian Orthodox Church -- which is Christian and is reported to have been established by St. Thomas, a disciple of Jesus Christ, in the first century A.D. -- grew in the United States and Canada from about 40 parishes to 100, serving 12,000 people, Peter said.
Under Mar Barnabas, the diocese included all of the United States and Canada. The church was divided recently into two dioceses -- the Northeast, based in Muttontown, and the Southwest, based in Houston. The current Metropolitan of the Northeast Diocese is His Grace Zachariah Mar Nicholovos.
The church reports having more than 2 million followers worldwide in about 30 dioceses in Europe, Africa, the United Kingdom, the Middle East and India, where it was born and still has its international headquarters in Kerala state.
An uncle who was an Indian Orthodox priest had a large impact on Mar Barnabas, influencing his later decision to become a priest, Peter said. Mar Barnabas spent most of his life as a priest in India, where he also taught in a high school for several years.
He was sent to Long Island to head up the church in the United States because he was so respected for his prayerful life and dedication to putting others first, Peter said.
"He was known to preach simply on one concept: love. Loving people for who they are and the virtue of love so they can witness the values of the gospel," said Deacon Daniel Mathai of Muttontown.
When Mar Barnabas prepared to leave Long Island last year, crowds of well-wishers gathered at his residence to wish him farewell, Peter said.
He noted that packing was easy for the former bishop, because "a simple soul like him hardly had any personal possessions to take with him."