The Passion Flower of Bharananganam
St. Alphonsa, the first native woman saint of India, who lived as an unknown simple clarist nun within the four walls of the Franciscan Clarist convent at Bharananganam, in the state of Kerala, is now known all over the world. Her extraordinary power of intercession before her beloved Spouse Lord Jesus Christ, made her dear to everyone. Thousands of people from all walks of life irrespective of caste, creed, religion or country flow to the tomb of the saint to pray for their various needs and to pay homage and gratitude for the innumerable favours they received.
St. Alphonsa had a life span of only 36 years and she died on 28th July, 1946. At the funeral service, Rev. Fr. Romulus CMI, her spiritual director uttered these words of prophesy: "With the most profound conviction in my heart I affirm that we are attending the last rites of a saintly person. If the world had realized her intrinsic worth, unprecedented crowds from all over India would have assembled here. I assure you that as far as human judgment can be relied upon, this young nun was not much less saintly than the Little Flower of Lisieux…… Bharananganam where her mortal remains will be interred is hallowed. If it is God's Holy Will, this place will become the Lisieux of India. "The above prophetic sermon of the 29th July, 1946 was fully actualized on 12th October, 2008 when His Holiness Pope Benedict XVI declared Sr.Alphonsa 'A SAINT' in the St. Peter's Square, Rome in front of lakhs of people from all over the world. St. Peter's Square witnessed the presence of ten thousands of people from India including Cardinals, Bishops, Political Dignitaries, Priests, Religious men and women and thousands of laity including the Saint's family members.
As a symbol of the recognition of the first Indian Saint, the Government was pleased to send a delegation of 12 dignitaries to Rome to participate in the Canonization Ceremony of St. Alphonsa.
St. Alphonsa was born as the fourth child of Joseph Muttathupadathu and Mary Puthukari. Both families claim to be the respected progeny of the ancient Syrian Christians of Malabar.
Alphonsa belonged to the parish of Kudamalur, in the diocese of Changanacherry in the Travancore- Cochin State, the present Kerala State. Even her birth was shrouded in suffering. When her mother was eight months pregnant, because of the stifling heat, she was sleeping on the veranda . She was awakened by a snake that had entwined her waist. Instinctively she tore the serpent away from her. But she had the shock of her life which resulted in hastening the premature birth of the baby on 19th August, 1910. The mother died after 29 days. The child was baptized 'Anna' on the 27th August at St. Mary's church Kudamalur and was affectionately called 'Annakutty'. The father and his mother nursed the child for some time. Then her mother's sister, Annamma of Murickan family Muttuchira took her to bring her up along with her children.
Annakutty started her schooling at Govt. L. P. School, Thonnankuzhy Aarpookkara on 16th May, 1916. During this time the affectionate grandmother instilled in her devotion to Mary our Mother and to the Saints. She read her stories about saints especially of St. Theresa of Avila and St. Little Flower of Lisieux and taught her simple prayers. She learned the penitential practices from her father. Her First Holy Communion was on 27th November, 1917. Grandmother's advice and the example of her father inculcated in her the desire to become a saint.
She continued her studies at Muttuchira on 30th June, 1920. She received the Sacrament of Confirmation on 21st January, 1925. Her aunt Annamma Murickan was a strict disciplinarian, though very much affectionate. The training under Annamma, who was a strict disciplinarian left a lasting imprint on her character though she was excessively fond of and bestowed overflowing affection on the motherless ward. The aunt was keen as to train her up to be a decent housewife.
A Daring Act
Annakutty had a vision of St. Little Therese of Lisieux who inspired her to become a religious. But contrary to her desire to become a religious, she was brought up by her aunt with a view to give her in marriage into a respectable family, as was the custom of the day. But Annakutty aspired to become a nun, as she was chosen by God for a religious vocation. Her aunt and other relatives strongly opposed her plan. Her aunt tried to fix up a respectable alliance for her. She implored her uncle not to force her into marriage and she fainted. Still Annamma was adamant. Nothing would induce her to surrender her niece to a convent. The proposal for marriage disturbed Annakutty deeply. But Annakutty had chosen the Crucified Jesus Christ as her beloved Spouse. Hence she reacted in her own manner in the ultimate decision regarding her life, refusing point blank the proposals of her aunt on marriage which she wanted to impose on her. She hatched a plan to burn her feet in the pit for burning the chaff and the husk of grain after the rice harvest. In her attempt to burn her foot a little, she slipped and fell into the fire which resulted in very severe burns on both legs. The toes of her feet were so badly burned that they became one whole single mass. The doctor had to separate her toes and to bandage each of them. It took almost one year to get it healed. God Almighty bestowed abundance of grace and blessings on this His chosen beloved who offered herself as a holocaust of love for Him. As a reward for this great sacrifice, a lot of miraculous healings continue to take place through her intercession, especially the cure of the deformity of the legs. The miracles approved by the Holy See for her beatification and canonization were also regarding the cure of deformity of the legs.
The burning of her feet and the subsequent suffering had the desired effect when Annakutty's aunt dropped all her ideas about marriage and permitted her to join a convent. She preferred the poor Clarist convent to the prosperous ones. When Annakutty persisted in her absolute refusal to tie the knot, her aunt had to give in to the steely resolve of her niece to join a convent.
Entry into Convent
On 24th May, 1927, on the Solemnity of the day of Pentecost, escorted by her father, Annakutty reached the Clarist convent at Bharananganam. She joined the Vernacular Middle School at Bharananganam in Class VII. She passed the government examination held in 1929. Later she joined the Vernacular High School at Vazhappally, Changanacherry and studied there for two years. On passing the State examination, one was licensed to teach at Primary school level. Her Certificate is kept in the St. Alphonsa Museum in the convent at Bharananganam. Annakutty received the veil of the Postulant on 2nd August, 1928 and she took the name 'Alphonsa' (to be precise 'Sister Alphonsa of the Immaculate Conception' ), after the Saint of the day St. Alphonsus Liguori. The Vestition was on 19th May, 1930 in a solemn occasion when she received the Franciscan religious habit from Mar James Kalacherry, the bishop of Changanacherry of that time. On that day, Sr. Alphonsa made a firm declaration: " I joined the convent to become a saint and having survived many obstacles, what have I to live for, if I don't become a saint?"
Sr. Alphonsa offered herself to Jesus as a victim of love. Her life was not one of roses, but that of sufferings – both physical and mental. A few months after her Vestition, she had an attack of haemorrhage for which she had to undergo an operation at Ernakulam. When her health improved a little, she spent one year at Vakakad as a teacher in the year 1932-'33.
Decade of Suffering
She entered Novitiate on 12th August, 1935. After one week of rigorous routine of Novitiate, Sr. Alphonsa developed a serious haemorrhage and a large ulcer on her leg which prevented her free movement. The superiors even thought of sending her back to Bharananganam. The bishop was consulted and after visiting her he decided that she should not be sent back. He preferred her death there, if it happens, rather than her being sent back.
Her condition remained crucial for a few months. At the suggestion of her Novice Master Rev. Fr. Louis CMI, a novena was started by the novices in common in honour of Bl. Kuriakose Elias Chavara. On the last day of the novena, Sr. Alphonsa had a vision of Bl. Kuriakose Elias Chavara who blessed her, touched her and said to her: "You are cured of this illness. And you won't be affected by it again. But you will always have to bear up other sufferings." Thus she was completely cured of her illness miraculously.
On completing her Canonical Novitiate, Sr. Alphonsa sealed her union with Jesus Christ by professing her Perpetual Vows to Him on 12th August, 1936. Sr. Alphonsa returned to Bharananganam and joyfully followed the Community life. But a few weeks later she had a severe attack of fever which lasted for six months. Tuberculosis was suspected. The whole community made novenas to Saint Little Flower and Bl. Kuriakose Elias Chavara. She was cured miraculously. When questioned insistently by the superiors, she confessed that a Carmelite nun came to her side, touched and healed her. She had a vision of Rev. Fr. Kuriakose Elias Chavara also.
Though Sr. Alphonsa got cured of the serious sickness, she was always tormented by minor ailments. The physical and mental agony were unbearable, but she showed great patience, perseverance and fortitude. She wanted to become a saint at any cost. So she accepted and utilized suffering as a means of self-purification. "To suffer out of love and to rejoice in it, that is all that I desire on earth"- wrote Alphonsa in one of her letters. She considered everyone who had caused her any grief or suffering as 'special divine instruments' sent by God to sanctify her. She appeared quite well during daytime but suffered greatly at night. Those were sleepless nights for her. When asked 'what she was doing during such time of the night?' her response was that she loved. Having been miraculously healed Sr. Alphonsa got back to her regular life with others subjugating herself to all types of trials and hardships and emerging always victorious.
In spite of all her ordeals she loved God and her brethren. This was the secret of the success of her life. She enriched her life, living for others. She radiated the divine splendor around her with her cherubic smile that revealed the inner core of her spirit.Further afflictions began to appear one by one. She became seriously ill due to an attack of fever. Doctor diagnosed it as double pneumonia. Careful nursing and prayer by the community brought her back to health. During this period a thief entered her room and she was seized with panic.
As a result of this encounter with the thief, she suffered a serious mental breakdown and started behaving like a child. She lost her memory and even the capacity to read or write. But even in this abnormal state of her mind, she was in deep communion with the Lord either praying earnestly for others or seeking pardon for the sins of others. It took almost one year to get back to the normal stage after the great shock.
No sooner had she recovered from her nervous breakdown than she was assailed with another affliction. There appeared a boil on her groin which slowly became an abscess causing unbearable pain. She was unable even to eat and her health deteriorated. Thinking that she has come to her last moments, the Last Rites were administered to her. But as foretold by Sr. Alphonsa, the crisis passed and on 30th September, the Death anniversary of St. Little Flower, she recouped her health.
Though Sr. Alphonsa had been a victim of suffering throughout her life, she never voiced any complaint. People enjoy the flowers and its fragrance, but nobody is bothered about the leaves at the bottom of these plants that decay to become the manure for its growth. St. Alphonsa was a mysterious saint who through her life of prayer and sufferings, wanted to be such leaves and lived like the leaf to decay and become the manure to produce flowers.
She appeared like a beautiful Rose where only the beautiful flower is visible to the onlookers. But it grows on branches with thorns which are unnoticed by others. She was always found with a serene smile even though the thorns of agony were hidden inside, since she knew that God Almighty wanted her to endure this excruciating agony to make in her a grandeur of virtues. She never regretted her sufferings. She even prayed for more sufferings and God was pleased to grant her lofty enthusiasm.
The Final Victory
In July 1945 Sr. Alphonsa had an attack of spasmodic pain which threw her into fits of violent convulsions. It began with prolonged vomiting and her body became quite cold as if frozen to the marrow. This leads to complete exhaustion and helplessness which lasts for three to seven hours. She was seen bathed in perspiration and seemed to grapple with death. This type of violent convulsions occurred frequently till her death. She was ready to suffer anything for the love of Jesus Christ. She prayed to God to transfer to her the Malaria of Sr. Thresia and the Bishop so that it may not affect their busy and important schedule. God was pleased to grant the prayer of His beloved. Very soon the Bishop and Sr. Thresia were found to be completely cured and Sr. Alphonsa had contracted Malaria!!
The final phase of her agonies had persisted for over a year. She felt that it was time for her to join her beloved Spouse. She sought permission from Rev. Fr. Romulus and Mother Ursula to pray for her death. On 16th July, 1946 Sr. Alphonsa wrote to the Mother General Rev. Sr. Bernerditta like this: 'Even as the kite snatches off the chicken, so will the Lord snatch me away'. On Sunday, 28th July, 1946 her saintly soul flew silently to her Divine Maker, without any one standing around her deathbed being aware of it.
The next day 29th July 1946, witnessed a funeral which was very simple. The coffin was carried in procession to the parish church by the sisters of the convent. At the Requiem Mass her special Spiritual Director gave the prophetic sermon. Her body was laid to rest in the tomb of the newly built cemetery chapel. It was providential that Alphonsa was buried at the very same spot where one finds her venerated tomb located today.
THE PROPHETIC FUNERAL SPEECH BY REV. FR. ROMULUS CMI
We all have gathered here to attend the funeral rites of a young religious. This gem of a virgin, who would have contributed meticulous service to the world or would have become very famous by becoming a good house wife, a graduate, a poetess, a novelist, or a film star seems to have wasted her whole life on her sickbed within the four corners of a convent doing nothing great before the eyes of the world. But the world was quite unaware of this simple sick sister. This is quite evident from the bare minimum number of people gathered here for her funeral rites.
But I, being one among the few who has known the deep interior life of this virgin very personally, declare with a conviction that comes from the depths of my heart, can ascertain that we are attending the funeral service of a virgin, who had gained greater glory before God among the great personalities who had been born within this 2000 years in Kerala nay, in India. Had we really known her inner merit and glory, there would have been a greater crowd that Kerala had ever witnessed not only of the Faithful, but a greater number of priests even the bishops of India also would have assembled here. This place would have witnessed a multitude of people who had come here to secure a glance of her venerable body or to acquire something this virgin had used or to get hold of something to keep as a relic and to be passed over to their posterity.
St. Little Flower of Lisieux , who had lived in a convent, was quite unknown to the world outside during her life time. Her funeral also was very simple and unceremonial. But now she has become world famous. Crores of people today are excited and enthralled by spiritual happiness at her sweet memory.
As far as human understanding can fathom and as a person who had intimately known this virgin, I can very well say that this young virgin whom we are going to be laid to rest now, had secured a place not much behind St. Little Flower of Lisieux with the sanctity of her life. Human terminology and vocalization are inadequate to express supernatural and divine subjects. Hence a divine messenger and a heavenly verbalization is necessary to express the glorious greatness of life this holy virgin had lived and the spiritual gifts and the deeds of grace that were inherent in her life.
(After this a short life history of Alphonsa - her spiritual sacrifice, her various ailments, her outstanding sufferings, her patient endurance, her marvelous love of God, some miraculous incidents of her life- was narrated. After that he turned towards her father, her elder sister and the sorrowful religious sisters and concluded his sermon like this.)
Hence nobody need lament or weep over the demise of this saintly soul. I do consider it a very lucky and providential chance in my life to have associated myself with this virgin. I had greatly revered and loved this saintly soul. Yet I do not feel the least sorrow over her departure. On the other hand, my heart overwhelms with immense and irrevocable happiness, not because the painful sufferings of this soul had come to an end with her death, but thinking of the fact that we have got an interceder in heaven who is very close to us. (To the father of Alphonsa ) So, do not be sorrowful , dear father of this virgin, but be happy over the fact that you secured the fatherhood of this saintly soul. (To the sister of Alphonsa ) Joy be yours, that you were born as her sister. Dear sisters of the convent, don't shed tears of sorrow. Rejoice in the Lord as you got the wonderful chance to live with her and to do service to her. Blessed is the convent she lived and fortunate is this Bharananganam village that has laid to rest her body. If God wills, this Bharananganam will become the Lisieux of India. Pilgrims, not only from Kerala but from all over India, will visit this holy place that has entombed her chaste body. If it is the will of God, not only the bishops of India, but even the cardinals as well, will come to pray at the mausoleum of this virgin who led an obscure life here on earth.
If it is so, you may ask the meaning of these rites for the repose of a soul. What I feel personally is not to pray for the repose of her soul, but to pray for her intercession who is in heaven. But the infallible trend of the Church is not that but….. if at all there were any minutest or trifle imperfections or shortcomings in her life…. as a human being can not completely live away from sin……to make reparation to God for those sins….. we shall pray during this funeral rites."