Our Patroness Saint
St Alphonsa ‘an angel of suffering’ is the first Indian woman elevated to the status of sainthood. Today her tomb at Bharananganam remains a very popular pilgrimage site and numerous miracles are attributed through her intercession. St John Paul II during her beatification ceremony at Kottayam revealed to us “Heavenly Father gave her an ever-fuller share in the Passion of His beloved Son. We recall how she experienced not only the physical pain of intensity but also the spiritual suffering of being misunderstood and misguided by others”. Jesus wished to lead her spouse to perfection through a life of suffering.
St. Alphonsa was born on 19th August 1910 in Kudamalur in the Archdiocese of Changanacherry, Kerala, India in the ancient and noble family of Muttathupadathu. She was baptized on 27th August 1910 in St Mary’s Church, Kudamalur as per the Syro-Malabar rite by Rev. Fr. Joseph Chackalayil, and received the name Annakutty (Anna). Since her mother died 3 months after she was born, Annakutty spent her early infancy in the home of her grandparents. During this time her affectionate grandmother and father instilled in her devotion to Mother Mary and the saints especially to St. Teresa of Avila and St. Therese of Lisieux. She had a happy childhood and very good catholic Christian formation under her grandmother, a pious and charitable woman. In a letter to her spiritual father on November 30th, 1943, she confided, “Already from the age of seven I was no longer mine; I was totally dedicated to my divine spouse.”
After elementary education, she was taken to her maternal aunt Annamma Murikan who was entrusted to bring up Annakutty by her dying mother. Her aunt was a very stern disciplinarian in matters of Anna’s education and character formation.
It was an Indian tradition in those days that girls would be married around the age of twelve. She strongly believed that her call was to become a religious sister and lead a life of holiness. But her aunt discouraged Annakutty’s early desire of religious vocation and set a wedding date for her to marry a young man from a reputed family. Despite Annakutty’s strong objection, they proceeded with her marriage proposal. She even decided to destroy her physical beauty and went to a nearby fire pit. She closed her eyes in prayer and put her right leg into that burning fire. But she accidentally slipped into the pit burning her feet and legs. Anna was in excruciating pain.
In these circumstances, her aunt gave her consent half-heartedly to enter religious life. Thus she joined the Franciscan Clarist congregation and got enrolled in their college at Bharananganam in the Diocese of Palai to continue her studies from grade 7 in 1927. The following year on May 2nd, 1928, she began her postulancy taking the name Alphonsa of the Immaculate conception.
Alphonsa underwent grave illness and moral suffering during the period 1930-1935. Though in constant pain she worked as a temporary teacher in the primary school at Vakakkad in 1932. She loved the children very much and became more a mother than a teacher to her students. Because of her frequent illness, her entrance into novitiate was delayed. About one week after the beginning of her novitiate she fell sick again. She was miraculously healed during a novena to the servant of God, Fr. Kuriakose Elias Chavara, a Carmelite who is a saint now. With much difficulty and struggle on August 12th, 1936, Alphonsa made her perpetual vows with the Clarist sisters. For her, that was a day of inexpressible spiritual joy.
As time went on her suffering grew worse and worse each day. Sister Alphonsa always maintained a great reservation and charitable attitude towards her fellow sisters. She wrote the following in her spiritual diary,” No matter what my sufferings may be. I will seek refuge in the Sacred Heart of Jesus.”
In all her sufferings Sister Alphonsa found shelter in the lap of Mother Mary and experienced her maternal love and affection. Holy Rosary was the sole consolation during her sleepless nights of suffering. The immense love for Mother Mary inspired her to utter at the time of her death “Mary! My Mother!”
In 1945 she had a violent outbreak of illness. A tumor that had spread throughout her organs took her life. With a smile of innocence on her lips, Sister Alphonsa breathed her last at the age of 36 in the convent of Franciscan Clarist at Bharananganam on July 28th, 1946. Her holy body was laid in the cemetery of Bharananganam Forane Church. At the funeral service, her spiritual director uttered these words of prophecy. “If the world had realized her intrinsic worth, unprecedented crowds from all over India would have assembled here…. If it is God’s holy will this place will become the Lisieux of India”
From the very next day after the funeral, the school children went to her tomb to put flowers and light candles on her grave. They found that their prayer requests were granted. Considering the numerous miraculous cures that happened through her intercession Mar Sebastian Vayalil, the then Bishop of Palai initiated the preliminary steps for her beatification on December 2nd, 1953. After a long process of investigation Sister Alphonsa was beatified on February 8th, 1986, by Pope John Paul II at Kottayam, Kerala. The Canonization took place on October 12th, 2008, by Pope Benedict XVI.
The words of St. John Paul II reveal to us the secret of her love for suffering. He testifies, “She came to love suffering because she loved the suffering Christ. She learned to love the cross through her love for the crucified Lord”. Yes! she experienced in all her physical and spiritual pains a loving caress of God’s merciful hands.
“Very truly, I tell you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit.” John 12:24