“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
A Gem Unveiled to Christendom by Mr. V.P. Varghese M.A., Retd. Municipal Commissionaire, Chittur.
The outstanding quality in Mariam Thresia was her purifying element manifested throughout her life. It is the law of Nature that when society is tainted and contaminated and polluted with unwanted residues the purifying element will appear vigorously to set things right. To establish “Human right Bill” for the emancipation of Negroes there was a John Kennedy. To free India from the yoke of foreign rule there was a Mahatma Gandhi. To liberate Russia from the clutches of communism there was a Michael Gorbacfhevu. Similarly history assigned such a purifying task to Mother Mariam Thresia. During her time it was the unwritten law that teenage girls of aristocratic family were not supposed to go outside their compound wall under any circumstance. Even when they went to Church for Holy Mass they were to be accompanied by parents or elder sisters. But here Mother Mariam Thresia in her prime of youth was visiting the downtrodden people of the lowest strata of society, consoling the sick, mitigating the pain of the suffering, and administering grace of repentance to the hard hearted sinners. Thus she created a revolution among the sick, the suffering, the needy, the poor and the sinners. The sick saw their doctor in Mariam Thresia. The suffering realized their solace in Mariam Thresia. The poor noticed their redeemer in Mariam Thresia. The obstinate sinners perceived their confessor and retreat preacher in Mariam Thresia. At that time there was no charitable hospital, asylum or orphanage, so for the poor, the sick and the downtrodden. Mariam Thresia was the hospital, asylum and orphanage for them. Though she did not orally preach Gospel in flippant style of rhetoric, she preached the sweetness of the Gospel through her zealous and earnest actions among the poor and the needy. Consequently many hard hearted sinners gave up their routine life of sin and embraced Christianity.
The modern world of computer science and rapid progress may not understand the limitations prescribed for a young nun during that period. Yet Mother Mariam Thresia nursed the persons who were victims of contagious diseases like Cholera, Plague, Small pox etc. The Govt. also did not take any action to eradicate these diseases. Such patients did not get even an atom of compassion either from Govt. or from society. There were instances also of persons affected with small pox who were buried alive. In all these cases Mariam Thresia came forward to administer to their spiritual as well as temporal needs with utmost personal care and sacrifice in a life style of self denial. She had an inborn thirst to save souls for Jesus Christ who shed his last drop of blood for sinners. Through her silent prayer, severe penance and never failing service she saved many persons from death. She led many dying persons to repentance, thus to a peaceful death. Her edifying service caused many non-Christians to come to Church. Though she did not deliver sermons with verbosity her behavior and look and smile was more eloquent than any speech of Ciceronian style. This declared Christian simplicity.
Of course even for spiritual work and social activities money is an inevitable factor. She never had enough money for the charitable works and social activities she did in various fields. So she herself took the role of a beggar to raise funds for the afflicted and the sick with no regard for caste or creed. Many people appreciated this and they generously contributed for this noble cause. Therefore even the dead received an honourable funeral on account of this challenging task undertaken by Mother Mariam Thresia.
Looking at the life of Mother Mariam Thresia, three things mainly impress us. First, how bravely and heroically she took up forsaken cases in the field of sickness and suffering, secondly, her penance and self denial, and thirdly her untiring efforts to serve society through activities in various fields. But as a nun burning with love of God, two fold are her virtues. Firstly, she was not merely satisfied with reciting prayers and singing hymns. She personally undertook all possible tortures to mortify her body. Secondly she placed her cent percent trust in God surrendering herself completely and emptied herself with unswerving faith in providence.
In India, just as Blessed Alphonsa of Palai Diocese is renounced for her silent suffering and prayer, Mother Mariam Thresia of Trichur Diocese is famous for her relentless quest after serving the sick and the downtrodden at the risk of her own life in Mariam Thresia the words of Jesus Christ “Wheat must be crushed down and powdered to produce hundredfold fruit” is materialized. From her sacrifice and self-denial “Holy Family Congregation” imbibed its vitality and dynamism to serve the nation and to win the nation for Jesus Christ.
The Apostle of Families by Rev. Sr. BIANCA chf.
Jesus Christ, the Saviour makes the announcement of his mission in St. Luke’s Gospel. “He has sent me to proclaim liberty to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind; to set free the oppressed and announce that the time has come when the Lord will save his people.” (Lk. 4: 16-19). During his public life Jesus was quite busy going around doing good to others. He healed the sick, comforted the afflicted, fed the starving and raised the dead to life. Jesus was a good friend of the oppressed, the marginalized and the out-castes. He preached about the Kingdom of God and it brought about complete transformation in the lives of people. Innumerable persons through-out the ages were attracted by Jesus and followed him. The servant of God, Mother Mariam Thresia, foundress of the Congregation of the Holy Family (CHF) was an ardent follower of Jesus, the crucified. Her ambition in life was to get identified with Him. Inspired by Jesus, the contemplative Mother Mariam Thresia led a life of contemplation and penance. Still she was open to the world and the realities around and her God – experience was translated into action. Impelled by the deep love of God, Mother loved people regardless of caste or creed or any discrimination. People are children of God and hence brothers and sisters for her. She realized that welfare of society and individual depends on the quality of family and so the focus of her attention was family. Mother Mariam Thresia’s conviction of her mission was so strong that nothing could prevent her from moving forward. She succeeded in overlooking oppositions which arose from various quarters. It was unthinkable at that time, even now, that a girl of marriageable age was going around visiting families. But mother was courageous enough to go against the existing customs and traditions in order to carry out her mission. She had a very clear vision of it in her mind. Ardent love towards Jesus crucified filled the heart of Mother Mariam Thresia with compassionate love. She could not remain passive in front of the suffering persons and families. At a time when scientific methods of treatment were unheard of people were quite frightened of contagious diseases like leprosy, small pox etc. Those who were afflicted by these were even abandoned by their own folks. With a deep spirit of love and service Mother visited such patients and families and rendered her service in all possible manner. The afflicted did feel the effect of her service, fervent prayers and healing ‘presence. Mother Mariam Thresia was especially concerned about the sinners, the morally and spiritually weak ones. Her words, prayers and penance touched their hearts and transformed their lives. She went out of her way in helping the needy. Her life history provides plenty of instances for the same. For example, a low caste woman named Thyree was abandoned by her folks fearing that she was attacked by leprosy. Mother gave her refuge in the convent campus and she herself washed her wounds and applied medicine daily and took care of her till her death. There are instances where Mother went around and begged for people who were in dire financial need. No one who approached her for help was turned down. Moreover she went around searching the needy. Mother Mariam Thresia was keen in visiting families especially those of the sick and the dying. In homes where the sick were not getting proper care she nursed them. She was invited to these homes where some one was seriously ill. She prepared the dying for a happy death. Her presence itself was stimulating at strengthening. There was a saying in her village that “Thresia is the support and friend of our families.” She helped to settle family quarrels by her meditation, prayer and penance. She promoted family prayer and helped to inculcate values in their life. Mother Mariam Thresia founded the congregation of Holy Family in order that her daughters continue her mission. She wants her sisters also feel in their lives the transforming power of the Gospel. Their service enable families and there by society at large to imbibe values of the Kingdom of God like justice, peace, compassion, freedom, equality, integrity and above all love. Let the gospel values which inspired Mother Mariam Thresia to lead a life of deep prayer and zealous service remain a source of inspiration for all those who come to know her.
Mother Mariam Thresia by Ms. Ann Mary Charles, St. Joseph’s College Irinjalakuda
I could not help raising my eyes in curiosity when a sister friend of mine made a very causal remark to me one day, long ago that she wished she could cast off all the mundane work she was doing then and follow the path shown by ‘our mother.’ I immediately understood that Mother Mariam Thresia was the ‘mother’ she adored and ‘Family Apostolate’ was the work she loved to take up. Though I didn’t know much about Mother Mariam Thresia at that time, she very strongly, stole a corner of my mind. And it was just a coincidence that later another sister friend of mine asked me to write ‘something’ about the Mother for the ‘Charity Blossoms’. To tell the truth, that was the immediate inspiration for my reading the life story of the Blessed Mother.
Whenever I used to think of the saints and the Blessed, the association that used to flood my mind was that of the flickering stars and the earthly images of rosy – cheeked beautiful saints with radiant haloes and wreaths of roses, basking in divine splendor. But now, when I think of the Blessed, the image that immediately appears before my mind’s eyes is that of Mother Mariam Thresia, with glowing but gloomy eyes hanging on a wall like Christ in His passion. Bundles of thistles or a stone for a pillow, bruises by rolling on thorny bushes, sleepless nights for praying – the piece she had to pay for the present halo of glory was hard, and that too, not dreaming of any glory but only sharing the agony and passion of Christ on the Cross.
God manifests Himself in various ways, and I believe, Mariam Thresia, who, in the eyes of the world, a humble woman with meager education and scholarship was chosen by God to be his instrument to affirm the Divine truths. She was granted the invaluable gift of being invited to share his passion and with a whole – hearted free will she accepted this gift. She totally resigned herself to the acceptance of the Cross of Christ with a remarkable childlike faith, love and devotion.
Mother Mariam Thresia was born in a noble family at Puthenchira as the third child of Chirmal Mankydian Thoma and Thanda, on 26th April 1876. She was blessed with a deeply devoted Catholic mother, who brought her up with a spiritual fervour. As a very small child, Thresia expressed a deep desire to know the mysteries of Incarnation and Crucifixion of Jesus. The little girl felt Jesus calling her to suffer with him and unlike other children she accepted Jesus as her companion. Her innocent childhood was a re-enacting of the passion of Our Lord. Even at the tender age of nine, she seems to have taken a firm decision to renounce the world and to choose Christ as her eternal Bridegroom. Mariam Thresia, before long became the saintly woman, widely known, dearly loved and well esteemed in Puthenchira and the neighbourhood. Strange stories have been spread among the common people –she came to be known as a woman with extraordinary supernatural experiences like diabolical interventions and tortures. But this simple maiden was not left by God to fight these conditions on her own. In His infinite mercy Hew sent her a spiritual father who would understand her, guide her and finally help in sanctifying her. God’s ways are mysterious and wonderful and very often he interferes indirectly in the affairs of his beloved ones and Fr. Joseph Vithayathil was His instrument. Her association with her spiritual father perhaps helped her in realizing her vision and moulding herself into a ‘Saint’. The most touching part of her life story is the humble and innocent attempt of maiden Thresia to share the beats of her heart with her spiritual father.
The solemn message conveyed through the lives of great men and women help the posterity in manifold ways. Mother Mariam Thresia, with a divine vision, accepted the mission of strengthening the foundation of ruining families – perhaps realizing that happy families alone can bring peace and contentment in the world at large. Listening to the will of God at the crossroads of life, she offered unending services to her suffering brethren as a means of satisfying her love for Jesus. She was the living symbol of the Good Samaritan who stopped and took care of the dying man thus proving him to be a ‘Good Neighbour.’ She has been trying to practice in her own life the greatest teaching of Christ “You must love the Lord with all your soul, with all your strength and with all your mind. Also you must love your neighbour as yourself.” She has shown us our neighours the so many people in this fragile would helplessly seeking compassion, asking for justice, hoping for a helping hand. They are the refugees, the displaced people, the innocent victims of oppression and exploitation. They are scattered everywhere, just around us and as Christians we cannot ignore them. The humble village of Puthenchira was the arena which happened to be blessed by the fruits of her devotion. The task she had been given by God, she dutifully fulfilled.