St. Alphonsa - The Saint of the Century

We are passing through an era, which witnesses the benevolence of Jesus poured on us though the intersession of a little nun, St. Alphonsa. As all spiritual roads are heading towards Bharananganam today, it is worth recalling the words of St. Alphonsa’s spiritualfather Fr. Romulus of happy memory at her funeral ceremony, “With the most profound conviction in my heart and as one who has known this religious very intimately, I affirm that we are now participating in the last rites of a saintly person. If the world had realized her intrinsic worth, unprecedented crowds including hundreds of priests and bishops from all over India would have assembled here…”. Yes, the words of that great visionary were true.

Sixty four years later, the first woman President of India Shrimati Pratibha Patil said “I am honoured to be participating in the grand finale of the Birth Centenary celebrations of Saint Alphonsa, the first Indian saint of the Catholic Church, who is a woman. She showed deep spiritual strength and an immense capacity to go through suffering uncomplainingly, with an unshakeable faith in the Divine. Living a life of simplicity, in a short life span of 36 years, Saint Alphonsa achieved great spiritual heights. Saint Alphonsa was a rare person who showed tremendous piety, patience and forgiveness as she lived within the confines of her convent. She was often afflicted with physical disease and illness, but she accepted it cheerfully, not showing pain on her face, or in her emotio”. The President was addressing the gathering at the concluding function of the birth centenary celebration of St. Alphonsa at Bharananganam on August 12, 2010.

The early life of St. Alphonsa

Alphonsa, who was lovingly called as ‘Annakkutty’ in Malayalam (little Anna), was born to the pious parents Joseph and Mary Muttathupadathu at Kudamaloor, a rural village in Kottayam district, in the Archdiocese of Changanacherry, Kerala on August 19, 1910. She was the last of five children. Annakkutty was baptised according to the Syro-Malabar rite by Fr Joseph Chackalayil at St. Mary's Church, Kudamaloor under the patronage of St. Anna on August 27, 2010. Annakktty’s mother died when she was very young. Little Anna was looked after by her maternal aunt Anna Murickal, to whom her mother, before she died, had entrusted her as her adoptive mother. Annakkutty was struck with eczema at the age of three and suffered from it more than a year.

Annakkutty started her schooling in Arpookara In 1916. She received First Holy Communion on November 27, 1917. She was transferred to the school in Muttuchira in 1918.

The aunt brought her up extremely affectionately, but equally strictly at the same time. Her great desire was to see Annakkutty married and settled in life. But God had other plans for the little Anna and she began to spread the aroma of divine call from her early childhood onwards. Annakutty, in order to get out from a marriage proposal, reached the point of voluntarily causing herself a grave burn by putting her foot into a heap of burning embers in 1923. This accident left her permanently disabled.

Fr. James Muricken, her confessor, introduced her to the Congregation of the Franciscan Clarists. She received the postulant's veil on August 2, 1928 and took the name Alphonsa. She was clothed in the religious habit on May 19, 1930, during the first pastoral visit made to Bharananganam by Bishop James Kalacherry. Three days later she resumed her studies at Changanacherry, while working as a temporary teacher at the school at Vakakkad. She joined the novitiate on August 11, 1931and took her permanent Vows on August 12, 1936. Two days later she returned to Bharananganam from Changanacherry. She taught in elementary school, but was often sick and unable to teach.

The Last Years of St. Alphonsa

It is said that she was cured from her ailments through the intervention of Saint Therese of Lisieux and Blessed Kuriakose Elias Chavara in 1936. But she was struck by a severe attack of pneumonia, which left her weakened, on June 14, 1939. Again, a thief broke into her room in the middle of the night on October 18, 1940. This traumatic event caused her to suffer amnesia, and weakened her further. Her health continued to deteriorate over some months. She received extreme unction on September 29, 1941. The next day she regained her memory, though not complete health. Her health improved over the next few years, until in July 1945 she developed a stomach problem that caused vomiting.

Sr. Alphonsa died at the age of 36, after a prolonged illness on July 28, 1946. She was buried at Bharananganam in Kottayam district, Kerala.

Beatification and Canonization of St. Alphonsa

Claims of her intervention began almost immediately upon her death, and often involved the children in the convent school where she had taught. The cause of Sr. Alphonsa began on December 2, 1953 in the Syro-Malabar Catholic Diocese of Palai and she was declared a Servant of God. She was declared Venerable by Pope John Paul II on 9 July 1985. Her beatification was declared by Pope John Paul II at Kottayam on February 8, 1986.

The miracle attributed to her intercession and approved by the Vatican for the canonization was the healing of the club foot of an infant in 1999. She was elevated to sainthood on 12 October 2008 by Pope Benedict XVI. The final ceremony for the canonisation began on 12 October 2008 with the holy relics of Alphonsa being presented to the Pope by Sister Celia, Mother General of the Franciscan Clarist Congregation, the congregation to which Sister Alphonsa belonged. The Pope declared Sister Alphonsa a saint, after reading excerpts from the Holy Bible. The Pope himself read out the biography of Alphonsa after the ceremony.

In the homily, Pope Benedict XVI recalled Saint Alphonsa's life as one of "extreme physical and spiritual suffering."

We, the members of Syro Malabar Church, in which St. Alphonsa lived and intercedes for us now in heaven, can be proud of being part of this church. Let us invoke the blessing and intersession of the saint of this century, St. Alphonsa, to be faithful to the values of Christ as St. Alphonsa lived.

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