Souvenir

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“Unknown Saint” in Express Magazine, May 14, 2000 by SHASHI THAROOR

She died 70 years before Mother Teresa, in the unremarkable Kerala Village of Puthenchira, far from the flashbulbs of a conscience stricken press. Another Servant of God who found her calling in ministering to the sick and dying another unforgettable heroine to the forgotten. But there was no state funeral for her, no Nobel Peace Prize, not even a profile in the big-city papers. Mother Mariam Thresia Chiramel Mankidiayn died aged 50, of a banal wound that would not heal because of her untreated diabetes.
Seventy-four years later, she was beatified in St. Peter’s Square by Pope John Paul II, the penultimate step towards sainthood. I sat shivering under grey Roman sky in the Vatican, amongst tens of thousands thronging the square for the outdoor ceremony. The atmosphere was a cross between a baptism and an Oscar Awards presentation. Five venerable servants of the Church were to be beatified, and as their names were called out, raucous cheers rose form their supporters in the crowd, many of whom were draped in scarves bearing the colours of their would-be saint. There was a particularly noisy Latin American contingent and a surprisingly voluble Swedish group bearing the blue and white large number of Indian nuns wearing Swedish colours). When Mariam Thresia’s name was announced, a ragged little round of applause emerged from the handful of desis sporting the orange-and yellow scarves of her party. Then the Pople shuffled in, and the magnificence of the Vatican took over, as the organ music swelled and sonorous Latin chants melded with raised voices of the Congregation singing the praises of their Lord. And then the curtains parted to unveil five immense tapestries hanging from the Vatican balconies, the last of a stern Mariam Thresia in her nun’s robes, clutching a crucifix and regarding the worshipers with an ascetic eye.
How did this woman transcend the obscurity of her geography and genealogy to receive beatification at the hands of the Pope in the Jubilee Year 2000, only the fourth Indian ever to have been beatified? The story of Mariam Thresia is a remarkable one. Born in 1876 into a family in straitened, circumstances – the result of a grandfather having had to sell off all his property to get seven daughters married – Mariam Thresia was one of three daughters. Her father and a brother reacted to adversity by turning to drink, Mariam Thresia turned instead to faith. Moved at an early age by instance visions of the Virgin Mary, she took to prayer and night vigils, scourging herself in penitence, donning a barbed wire belt to mortify her own flesh, forsaking meat and “mixing bitter stuff in my curry” (as she later confessed in a brief spiritual autobiography). She took to standing in a crucified position, and blood appeared on her hands and feet – the stigmata of Christian lore. Like Saint Teresa of Avila centuries earlier, she suffered seizures during which she levitated: neighbours would come to her family home on Fridays to see her suspended high against the wall in a crucified pose. The Catholic Church was initially suspicious; the local bishop wondered if she was a “plaything of the devil”, and in her late 20s she was repeatedly exorcised to rid her of demons. But nothing shook her faith, and soon enough her exorcist, the parish priest of Puthenchira, became her spiritual mentor and ally. Before she turned 40 she was allowed to found her own order – the Congregation of the Holy Family. By the time she died in 1926 the 3 had grown to 55; today there are 1,584 Sisters in the order, serving not only in Kerala but in north India, Germany, Italy and Ghana.
Mariam Thresia was driven not only by her intense visions of the other world but by an equally strong sense of responsibility for the present one. She made it a point to seek out the sick, the deformed, the dying, and tend to them. She bravely nursed victims of small pox and leprosy at a time when they were shunned even by their own families, caring for people whose illnesses were hideously disfiguring and dangerously contagious. In a caste ridden society she insisted on going to the homes of the lowest of the low, the poorest of the poor, and sharing her food with them. When these outcastes died, she buried them and took charge of the care of their orphaned children. Her devotion to good works won her a devoted following: it was said she emanated an aura of light and a sweet odour, and that her touch could heal. But she could not heal herself of a wound caused by a falling object. She died just as her tireless work was achieving visible results in the growth of her congregation.

A struggle against odds by T. Ramavarman

The life of Mother Mariam Thresia, who was elevated to the rare spiritual status of ‘Blessed’ by Pope John Paul – II at a special function at St. Peter’s Basilica in Vatican City on Sunday, was a struggle against many odds in the service of the God and His Children, the people of the world. Bells of joy and thanks giving chimed in all the churches when this heroic daughter of Christ was being raised to the Reverence of the Altar.
Mariam Thresia, who was born to the poor family of Mr. Thomas and Mrs. Thanda, at a remote village of Puthenchira in Thrissur district on April 26, 1876 had her primary education in her ancestral village itself. Even during her early childhood itself the little Mariam had shown remarkable thirst for prayer life surpassing the levels of other children of her age group. As she reached adolescence, the young Mariam shocked her family members and relative through her declaration that she was going to lead the life of virgin in service God and His Men and Women. Some of her relatives even threatened her then.
Even the Church found the idea to be too revolutionary then, because women taking up the spiritual vocation was not very frequent in those days. But nothing could deter her, and with the sheer strength derived from the spiritual conviction, the young woman left home along with her three companions and started living in a hut which she called a convent. The villagers looked down on this group and spread rumours about the moral side of these four women. But they remained unperturbed and went ahead with the life of prayers and service of the needy.
Luckily, the parish priest of the village, Fr. Joseph Vithayathil, took a positive view of the life and activities of the inmates of the ‘convent’ after making a detailed assessment of them, especially of the spirutality of Mariam Thresia. He then reported the developments to the then Bishop of Thrissur, John Menachery.
Mariam Thresia had started her apostolic and social works in 1909 itself when the village was affected with Small Pox. Even when the relatives fled, leaving the infected ones, Mariam Thresia and her little team attended the sick. The group of four was finally recognized by the Diocese of Thrissur on May 14, 1914 by Bishop Menachery, who visited the ‘convent’ and gave the name of ‘Holy Family’. The Bishop appointed Thresia as the first Mother Superior of the Holy Family Congregation.
The Congregation started a primary school in 1915 at Puthenchira and another at Kuzhikattussery in 1918. The third convent was blessed by Francis Vazhappilly in 1926. By this time a few more religious women had joined the congregation, and people of the area started recognizing the spiritual qualities of the Mother Mariam Thresia.
Unfortunately, she breathed her last on June 26, 1928 due to poor health. But her fame started spreading far and wide after her death. On August 15, 1963 the Bishop of Thrissur late George Alappatt gave imprimaturs for a prayer for the Canonisation of Mariam Thresia. In 1963, the then Bishop of Thrissur Mar Joseph Kundukulam appointed a committee of learned priests to evaluate the spiritual life of the Mother. On June 28, 1999 she was declared ‘Venerable’, and on January 28, the Pope announced that Mother Mariam Thresia would be elevated to the status of ‘Blessed’ on April, 9, at Vatican.
According to the Director of the Jubilee Mission Hospital, Fr. Francis Alappat, the most important aspect of the Mother’s work was that she concentrated in the spiritual and social services in the families. She probably had the prophetic vision that unless families become a ‘triad of love’ with the father, mother and children the society will not be healthy, he told The Hindu here.
At a time when nuns cannot even dream of going out of the enclosures of the convents to serve the people the Mother broke the traditions and declared that the ‘charism of the ‘Congregation’ would be for family. She gave training to her disciples so that they could serve as nurses in hospitals and in homes