FRANCISCAN CLARIST CONVENT, BHARANANGANAM
BHARANANGANAM which is 33 kilometers from Kottayam, the district headquarters of Bharananganam and the nearest railway station, is a small town located in the central part of the state of Kerala, in India. From the old Stone Age, people inhabited this place. They were followed by the Dravidians. By A.D. 5, Arya culture prevailed here. Christians lived here from the very beginning of the 1st Century itself.
In the year 1004, a church was built at Bharananganam, which exists today as 'Parelpally'. A huge and beautiful church was built here in the early decades of the 20th Century.
The Franciscan Clarist Convent founded by Rev. Fr. Chandy Kattarath of Poonjar Parish at Maniamkunnu had to encounter many difficulties. So, Rev. Fr. Chandy, with the permission of Mar Mathew Makil, the Apostolic Vicar of Changanacherry at that time, transplanted the whole convent to Bharananganam. It was only Providential that the establishment of the convent and the birth of St. Alphonsa (19/8/1910) fell on the same time and in the same year. God so willed that the convent to mould Sr. Alphonsa into SAINT ALPHONSA was to be built in the same year. Thus the Franciscan Clarist Convent came into existence at Bharananganam on 27th October, 1910. The birth centenary of St. Alphonsa and the centenary year of the foundation of the convent were celebrated together in the same year. (2009-2010)
In the beginning, the Clarist Convent at Bharananganam had no proper housing for the sisters and the boarders, who were accommodated in a very small building generously provided by Sri. Chacko Joseph Velammarukudiyil. With the help of the local people, Rev. Fr. Chandy managed to put up a small building which was blessed on the 10th September, 1911 and the sisters and the boarders shifted their residence to this new building. The first superior of the convent was Rev. Mother Mariam Thresia Nadackavayalil, one of the founding members of the FCC at Changanacherry and the first chaplain, Rev. Fr. Chandy Kattarath.
With the establishment of the convent at Bharananganam, zealous young ladies from the locality and the neighbourhood came forward to join the convent. The first batch of five candidates received their religious habit on 21st February, 1911 at the Kannadiyurumpu convent chapel.
When Rev. Fr. Chandy Kattarath the founder and the first chaplain of the convent got trasnsferred, the mantle of chaplaincy fell on Rev. Fr. Abraham Kokkatt the presiding vicar of Bharananganam church.
The rapid growth of the convent was marked by the Vestition of the second batch of six candidates on 30th January, 1913. Bishop Mar Thomas Kurialasserry, officiated the ceremony at the Bharananganam St. Mary's church.
On 26th July, 1915, four among the first batch of sisters made their perpetual profession. The number of sisters gradually increased and so it was inevitable to construct a new building for the sisters. When the convent at Maniamkunnu was re established in 1916, five members went back to Maniamkunnu from Bharananganam. The first branch of Bharananganam convent was founded at Mattakkara in April 1919.
Till 1920, the sisters were leading a life style more or less similar to that of the cloistered nuns. They were not engaged in any apostolic activities outside the convent. A life of faith and the development of good character among children was of prime importance to the sisters. The sisters spent their time in prolonged prayer, meditation, penance, silence and manual labour. Their life style was very simple. Every day there was Holy Mass in the convent chapel. The sisters had no contact with the people outside. But in 1920, when Rev. Fr. Chacko Muricken became the vicar of the Bharananganam church, as per the directions of the new vicar and chaplain, the sisters started participating in the holy rites in the church.
On 23rd June 1924, a Malayalam Middle School was started under the management of the convent. Eventually the Government Lower Primary School , which was already functioning at Bharananganam was also amalgamated to this Middle School, by the goodwill of the government authorities. Eventually our sisters started teaching in the school.
It was a big task to put up a new building for the functioning of the school. By the grace of God and with the timely and wonderful financial assistance offered by generous people, Rev. Mother Mary Ursula and other sisters managed to construct a new building for the school. The teak wood needed for the construction of the school building was generously donated by Honorable princess Sethu Lakshmi Bhai, the Regent of Travancore, with the recommendation of Mr. Watts, the Divan of Travancore of that time. It was a wonderful coincidence that the princess Sethu Lakshmi Bhai had been the classmate of Rev. Mother Mary Ursula, the novice mistress of St. Alphonsa.
On the Solemnity of the day of Pentecost of 1927, on 24th May, Annakutty Muttathupadathu (Sr. Alphonsa) came to Bharananganam convent and joined the Vernacular Middle School in class VII. She passed the government examination held in 1929 and secured the certificate which is kept in the St. Alphonsa Museum in the convent at Bharananganam.
The sisters of the convent could contribute a great deal in educating the children at Bharananganam in good discipline and deep faith. With a view to extend preliminary education to the children of other localities, a convent was established at Vakakkad in the year 1927 with five members. Simultaneously a Lower Primary School (St. Paul's L. P. School), was started at Vakakkad. This is the only apostolic field where St. Alphonsa worked and served the Church. Sr. Alphonsa served as a teacher in this school in the year 1932-'33.
The Year 1930
The year 1930 is a historic one in the annals of the convent. On 19th May, 1930 Sr. Alphonsa received the religious habit of the Franciscan Clarist Congregation with seven other candidates in a solemn ceremony held at the St. Mary's Forane Church Bharananganam. The ceremony was officiated by Rev. Dr. James Kalacherry, bishop of Changanacherry. An English school for the girls was also started at Bharananganam on the same day the same year, under the management of the late Rev. Fr. Francis Vadakkel (Thudippara). Some sisters were appointed here as Teachers.
In the history of the Congregation, the election of a common Mother General for the convents under the diocese took place in 1930. Till then, the appointment of the superiors, transfer of the sisters etc. were done directly by the local bishop.
The convent chapel at Bharananganam which stands as a living monument of St. Alphonsa's prayer life and spiritual enrichment was constructed in the year 1931-'32. The financial assistance contributed by the Catholic Women's Association of America facilitated the construction of the chapel.
The practice of the Canonical Year of Novitiate in the Clarist Congregation started in the year 1934. Rev. Mother Ursula, a member of this convent and the General Secretary to the Mother General of that period was appointed as the first novice mistress by Mar James Kalacherry the bishop of Changanacherry. The first batch of novitiate started in the Clarist convent Changanacherry, the mother house of the Congregation. It was in the second batch of novitiate held at Changanacherry which began on 12th August, 1935 that Sr. Alphonsa joined the novitiate and had her rigorous formation. Rev. Fr. Louis Perumalil CMI was the Novice Master and Rev. Mother Ursula, the Novice Mistress. On 12th August, 1936 Sr. Alphonsa made her perpetual vows along with seven other nuns at Changanacherry. She returned to Bharananganam convent as a perpetually professed sister from Changanacherry on 14th August,1936 where she stayed till her death.
Mother Ursula was elected as Mother General in 1937. In 1938, the Malayalam Middle School was raised to a High School. Under the strenuous attempt of the manager Rev. Fr. Francis Vadakkel, a new building was put up for the school.
When the term of Mother Ursula as the Mother General came to an end in 1943, Mother Ursula was elected as the first Councilor and she was appointed as the Mother Superior of the Bharananganam convent. From 1943 onwards for a few years the Canonical Novitiate was conducted in the Bharananganam convent.
To her heavenly abode
On 28th July, 1946, the saintly nun Sr. Alphonsa was called to eternity to receive her heavenly reward. The burial took place the following day on the 29th, at the cemetery chapel of the Bharananganam church in a very simple manner. As Rev. Fr. Romulus CMI, the Spiritual Director and Confessor of Sr. Alphonsa had prophesied in the funeral speech of Sr. Alphonsa, Bharananganam became a pilgrim centre. Her fame spread far and wide and people from different walks of life irrespective of caste, creed or religion flock to the tomb of St. Alphonsa at Bharananganam and receive many favours like the cure of various incurable diseases and ailments and also the cure of many deformities like club foot.
The tremendous increase in the number of sisters in the convent coincided with the requests from various places for opening new convents. Hence new branches were opened in different places like Koottickal (1947), Kudamalur (1949), Amparanirappel (1949), Kothanalloor (1951) and Malayinchippara (1952).
The demise of Mar James Kalacherry on 27th October, 1949 who knew St. Alphonsa very personally during her novitiate and maintained close contact with her till her death, saddened the sisters. A good number of sisters from this convent attended the funeral ceremony at Changanacherry.
The diocese of Pala was established in 1950 by the bifurcation of the diocese of Changanacherry. Thereby the Clarist Convents coming under the jurisdiction of the Pala diocese became an independent unit under its first bishop, Mar Sebastian Vayalil. The first Mother General of this unit was Mother Ursula, the former Mother General of the Clarist sisters in the undivided Changanacherry diocese and the Novice Mistress of St. Alphonsa.
Formation House till 1959
The Convent at Bharananganam had the privilege of being the formation house for the newly joined candidates, for quite a number of years. This continued till 1959 when a separate novitiate house was built at Valakkattukunnu, Ramapuram for this purpose. The land for the Novitiate house was generously donated by the late Rev. Fr. Peter Kothampanani.
Two more convents
Among the eminent personalities and dignitaries who visited the room and the Shrine of St. Alphonsa were H. E. Cardinal Tisserant (2/12/1953) and His Grace Cardinal Valerian Gracius (28/5/19h3). The year 1956 was immortalized by the founding of two convents in the newly erected Thalasserry diocese, one in Kolencherry and the other in Venappara. Mother Ursula was the Mother General and Sr. Mary Thevadiyil of Bharananganam convent was appointed as the Superior of the new convent
Rev. Fr. Louis Perumalil CMI, the Novice Master of St. Alphonsa was called for eternal reward on 26th September, 1959. Many sisters participated in the funeral service held at St. Vincent Monastery Pala.
The golden jubilee of the birth of St. Alphonsa was duly celebrated on 19th August, 1960 together with the golden jubilee of the founding of the convent.
Unification of the Congregation
Acknowledging the exhortation of the Second Vatican Council, preliminary steps were taken for the unification of the various units of FCC in different dioceses in 1962, when Mother Reetha was the Mother General. Negotiations continued under the efficient leadership of Mother Mary Leo who had been the Mother General from 1964 to 1970. Further steps for the unification of the congregation proceeded uninterruptedly under the competent guidance of the Papal delegate Rev. Fr. Hippolitus Kunnumkal OFM Cap (later Bishop –Jammu Kashmir). Thus the Franciscan Clarist Congregation was raised to the status of a Pontifical Congregation on 1st March, 1973. The first Superior General was V. Rev. Mother Maurus of Changanacherry. By the elevation of the Congregation to the Pontifical status, the earlier units in different dioceses became provinces and the administration of the provinces came under the Provincial Superior and her team. At the time of unification of the congregation, there were only six provinces. Now the number has increased to 20 Provinces and 4 Regions.
At the time of the unification of the congregation, the convent at Bharananganam was under Alphonsa Province Pala. But in 1989 the same province was bifurcated into Alphonsa Province Pala and Alphonsa Jyothi Province Bharananganam and the convent at Bharananganam came under Alphonsa Jyothi Province.
Rev. Mother Ursula, into whose hands Annakutty Muttathupadath was entrusted by her father to shape her destiny in the convent and who directed Sr. Alphonsa on the path to sanctity, left her earthly abode on 14th December, 1981. The mortal remains was buried in a grave close to the tomb of her spiritual daughter, St. Alphonsa.
100 years have elapsed since the inception of the convent. The glory and prestige of the convent is St. Alphonsa who became the most favourite heavenly intercessor for lakhs of people all over the world. It cannot be ignored that many sisters who lived in this convent followed the same path as St. Alphonsa trod in their total surrender to the will of God. We can undoubtedly hope that they also enjoy eternal bliss with their intimate friend and model St. Alphonsa.
The various activities of the Sisters
The sisters in this convent are engaged in various apostolic activities like teaching (from Kindergarten to Higher Secondary level), medical service, house visiting, social service, care of the sick and the old in old age homes, nursing, palliative care to the terminal patients etc. Catechism teaching, decorating the church, sacristy service in the Alphonsa church, assisting the priests in the Alphonsa Pilgrim Centre Office are some other services the sisters render. Others look after the Alphonsa Museum and the room where the saint lived and died. Yet some other sisters guide and direct the pilgrims to the various sites related to the Saint. The elderly sisters spend most of their time in prayer and meditation before the Blessed Sacrament exposed in the convent chapel interceding for the manifold intentions of the pilgrims and others.
The Franciscan Clarist Convent at Bharananganam stands as the earthly abode of a very holy life that exhilarates the multitudes of pilgrims flowing to the place.