Saturday, October 11, 2008

Nun so blessed

Tomorrow would be a great day for the Church in India, and for the Muttathupadam family of Kerala. A daughter of the family, Alphonsa, will become the first Indian saint of the Catholic Church. On the eve of canonisation, her nephew Kurian C. Muttathupadam recalls the remarkable life of his aunt, who died 62 years ago

A painting of Blessed Alphonsa
A painting of Blessed Alphonsa

Being the first Indian woman to be accorded the title and status of a saint by the Catholic Church, it is a matter of privilege and pride not only for the Muttathupadam family but also for the whole ecclesiastical community of our country. My aunt now belongs to a larger family and is going to be projected by the Church as the model and example of the heroic practice of Christian virtues of faith, hope and charity.

I was yet a four-year-old boy when aunt Annakutty left for her heavenly home. I never had the privilege of personally meeting this saintly aunt of mine. My knowledge about her has come to me from my grandparents and parents. Remembrance of Alphonsa became significant in the family only after her death. When schoolchildren visited her tomb at Bharananganam to seek her intercession with God for their success in examinations and when she interceded for them, they spoke about her closeness to God, which he had granted to her because of her faithfulness to him. Elders took up the practice of seeking her intercession in matters material and spiritual. Her name and fame had already crossed the boundaries of Kerala to reach other parts of India and even the whole world.

The boy whose club foot was cured through the intercession of Blessed Alphonsa
The boy whose club foot was cured through the intercession of Blessed Alphonsa

I was eight when I heard from my grandfather about the miracles that used to take place at Bharananganam due to the intercession of Alphonsa. On his return from his usual eye treatment itineraries in the Meenachil area, I vividly remember how he used to narrate to the family the devotion and gratitude with which people from far and near approached the tomb of aunt Annakutty to seek her help in obtaining favours from God.

Grandma Annamma, hailing from an Ayurvedic vaid’s family Chakala in Changanacherry, continued to narrate many things to us about our saintly aunt. She had witnessed Annakutty’s infancy; the charity with which Murical Peramma, Annakutty’s maternal aunt, had taken her home after the death of her mother, three months after her birth; her return to Arpookara as a smart little girl, ready to go to the local school. Grandma would tell us about the school-going Annakutty, treading the dusty road of Arpookara village.

Early signs

Our grandma would highlight for us the virtue of forgiveness that shined forth in aunt Annakutty when she forgave the boy, who had pushed her down from a ladder-fence that she used to cross on her way to the government school at Arpookara. She even desisted from reporting the matter to the teachers of the school. Grandma would attribute this mode of living to the influence, the two priests from the Muttathupadam family, had on the rest of the family members. They were Fr. Joseph Muttathupadam, Annakutty’s granduncle and Fr. Emmanuel Muttathupadam TOCD (popularly known as Kanimusa Manikattanar,) an uncle of Annakutty, a scripture scholar and the first priest to translate into Malayalam the New Testament portion of The Bible and parts of the Old Testament from the Syriac language.

She had completed her studies up to class III at the government school at Thonnamkuzhy, Arpookara. She was then 10 years old. She was privileged to spend the most impressionable years of her life in the Muttathupadam family itself.

After having absorbed many Christian values here, she moved out of this village to Murican family at Muttuchira through the process of an informal adoption. Her maternal aunt, who had nurtured her in her infancy, had no girl child and was in need of one. This need was presented to the father of Annakutty, who reluctantly consented to the idea.

Annakutty continued her studies at Muttuchira. When she completed her 13th year, she burnt her feet in the paddy-husk-incinerator at the Muricans. As the news of the burning of the feet of Annakutty reached her father, he, assisted by Pazhoor Autha, a neighbour and family friend, left for Muttuchira in a country boat to bring her home for treatment. It was my grandparents, who took over the situation and initiated the treatment by puncturing the swollen skin on her feet to let the puss ooze out and then to clean the wound with ayurvedic concoctions made at home. Annakutty had then told my grandma that this incident took place while she was playing hide and seek with her cousins at the Muricans. After this incident, people at Muttathupadam wondered how a marriage proposal could now come for a girl of 13. Annakutty had kept as a guarded secret the real reason for this daring act of burning her feet until she was 20.

Daring sacrifice

When she was 18, Annakutty joined the Franciscan Clarist Congregation at Bharananganam as an aspirant for religious life. At 20, she became a nun in the same congregation. It was then that she revealed to her spiritual director the real reason for burning her feet. She had done so to reject the marriage proposals that haunted her.

After her death in July 1946 at the Franciscan Clarist Convent, Bharananganam, when her cause was taken up for beatification in December 1953, the ‘devil’s advocate’ at the Vatican argued that the attempt by the servant of God Alphonsa to burn her feet at the age of 13 was un-Christian. Consequently, the whole case of her beatification was shelved for a couple of years. But, more research was done and new arguments were brought forward that her action could also be read as a heroic attempt to reject marriage for the sake of Kingdom of God and to accept another state of perfection, that is, the religious life.

April 13, 1957, was one of the happiest days in the life of my father, Cherian Vaidyan. He was present in the vice-postulator’s office in Bharananganam when the tomb of his cousin Annakutty was opened for the first time for the medico-ecclesiastical examination of her mortal remains.

He was told by the then vice-postulator Fr. Moothedath that even 11 years after her death, her mortal remains were blessed with many miraculous signs that could be accepted as signs of her holiness: the part of her religious habit from neck to the knee was intact, possibly indicating the life of modesty and purity that she lived. Though the flesh had been disintegrated totally, the heart remained intact but in a dried up state. Day in and day out she had loved her Lord with her whole heart. The skeleton remained undamaged. The veil on the head and her trimmed hair underneath it seemed fresh; they protruded out on the skull-bone. A rose that was fixed on her clasped palms at the funeral was still there, though in a dried form. Her mortal remains were then encased in a steel coffin and were reburied in the same tomb.

Tomorrow, when one of their daughters is being raised to the honours of the altar, is a great day for members of the Muttathupadam family. The Church in India, with its multi-cultural and ritual traditions, rejoice together as a family when, for the first time, one of her members is being declared a Saint by the Head of the Universal Church, Pope Benedict XVI.

Alphonsa challenges the contemporary society on various counts. Those who contemplate suicide as a solution to their problems should turn to this saintly nun to learn from her the ways of facing suffering and sickness, failure and frustration. "Act with faith in God and in the fellow human beings" is the advice Alphonsa gives to the members of society, which is clogged up in purely material matters. The panacea she prescribes for the psychological and sociological deficiencies in contemporary society is to uphold the dignity of every human being.

Alphonsa was a person, who practised love in its most pure form, spending herself for others, in imitation of her guru and God-incarnate, Jesus Christ. Here was a person who challenged the wealthy and the greedy of the world with her total rejection of and complete detachment from material possessions and indicated to them the means to obtain peace and joy through a life of moderation and self-discipline.

Stories of aunt Annakutty’s life, suffering and death, told and retold time and again in the family, were a source of encouragement for those of us who looked forward to follow Jesus closely.

(The writer is a priest in the mission diocese of Jalandhar)

My aunt Annakutty

I need to prove my right to address Annakutty as my aunt. I remember reading through a manuscript that was in the possession of my father, Cherian Vaidyan. He had inherited this historical record from his grand uncle Fr. Joseph Muttathupadam. According to the facts in that parchment, the first Raja of Chembakassery, Mahipalarajendran, had brought from outside his kingdom four Christian families — Chakkumkal, Mukkumkal, Karimbali and Muttathupadam. These families were to conduct religious service in the newly constructed Catholic Church, which he had built in Kudamalloor village, within the jurisdiction of his kingdom, in the first half of 12th century.

These four families were permitted to settle down among the non-Christians in the Chembakassery kingdom. Avira Chacko headed the Muttathupadam family. He was given the duty of supervising the religious services in the church.

Aymanam village, a few kilometres from the palace and within the jurisdiction of the Chembakassery kingdom, was the place where Avira Chacko initially settled down with his family. Since members of the Muttathupadam family were accomplished in martial arts and expert in Ayurveda, the king frequently used their services. As the proximity of the physicians to the palace became a recurring need, in the first half of the 18th century, one of the descendants of Avira Chacko, Eppan Vaidyan, a physician proficient in the treatment of the eyes, was allowed to settle down on the northern bank of the tributary of the Meenachil river that flowed in front of the Chembakassery Palace. Eppan’s sons were Cherian (Kochukunju Vaidyan) and Joseph. Joseph became a priest, an ardent missionary of his time, an able administrator, a voracious reader and a prolific speaker among his contemporaries.

The other son, Kochukunju Vaidyan, had three sons — Kuttan Vaidyan, Kunjikuttan and Chacko Vaidyan. Kuttan Vaidyan or Joseph, married Mary of Puthukari in Muttuchira, had three daughters, Elizabeth, Thresia and Annakutty (Alphonsa) and a son, Eppachan. Eppachan died when he was 10.

Kunjikuttan, younger brother of Kuttan Vaidyan, died in his 30s. The youngest brother of Kuttan Vaidyan, Chako Vaidyan, had only one son, Cherian and one daughter, Elizabeth. If Annakutty were to call someone from her father’s line her brother that was only her cousin Cherian. He was one year younger to Annakutty. As one of the seven children of Cherian Vaidyan Muttathupadam, you can now guess my right to call Annakutty my aunt. She being one year senior to my father and in accordance with the prevalent custom in our place, I call her "Peramma"; so I am her nephew.

— K.C.M.