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Catholic Heroes… St. Alphonsa Of The Immaculate Conception

August 8, 2017 saints No Comments

By CAROLE BRESLIN

There are many different churches that are in full communion with Rome. One of these is in India: the Syro-Malabar Catholic Church in Kerala, India — once called the St. Thomas (the Apostle) Christians. From this tiny group of Catholics have come a growing number of holy men and women recognized by Rome. So far, there are ten servants of God, three venerables, three blesseds, and four saints. St. Alphonsa of the Immaculate Conception was the first Indian to be canonized.
The noble family of Muttathupadathu of Kudamalar, Changanacherry in India had a terrible shock in 1910. When Maria Puthukari was pregnant she fell asleep only to be wakened when a deadly snake had wrapped itself around Maria’s waist. Screaming with fright, she went into labor and gave birth to Annakutty, the last of her five children, on August 28, 1910. Four weeks premature, little Anna’s life began with the cross. Three months later, her second cross came when her mother died. Then her grandparents took her to Elumparambil, a lovely village overlooking Lake Vembanad in southwest India. Anna’s grandparents were devout Catholics, instilling a deep piety in the child by their teaching and example of service to the poor.
The home in Elumparambil had a special room set aside for prayer, as was customary among both Hindus and Christians in the area. In the evenings the family would gather in it and recite their evening prayers. By the time Anna was five years old, she could lead the prayers with all the joy of the “little ones” of Jesus.
The year that Anna turned seven was full of new experiences for her. The greatest one was that she received her first Holy Communion on November 11, 1917. She was so happy that she exclaimed to her friends, “Do you know why I am so particularly happy today? It is because I have Jesus in my heart!” Furthermore, the precocious child wrote to her spiritual father 26 years later, “Already from the age of seven, I was no longer mine. I was totally dedicated to my divine Spouse.”
For the next three years Anna went to a nearby school where she became close friends with some Hindu children. In 1920 with the completion of the first phase of her education, she was sent to live with her Aunt Anna in Muttuchira, about 15 miles northeast of her hometown. She was sent to her aunt her mother on her deathbed had asked Aunt Anna to take care of little Anna after she died.
Anna suffered under her aunt’s heavy demands for perfection in everything, no matter how trivial. Although her aunt carried out the minimum obligations of a Catholic, she did not possess the deep fervor that her niece had, and she found the girl’s long hours of prayer before Jesus tiresome and weary.
Anna’s aunt lived near the Carmelite monastery and so Anna was able to spend much time there. Despite little Anna’s example of holy living that indicated her desire to become a religious, her aunt worked to arrange a marriage for the girl from the time Anna was ten years old.
Anna endured the rigid and grueling education with the help of the graces earned in her prayer time. This also helped her endure the difficulty of holding steadfast to her refusal to marry.
The pressure to marry became so strong that Anna searched for a way to discourage potential suitors. Thus, she willfully disfigured herself by burning her foot in a heap of red hot embers. She later wrote of this incident, “My marriage was arranged when I was thirteen years old. What had I to do to avoid it? I prayed all that night…then an idea came to me. If I were a little disfigured, no one would want me!…O how I suffered! I offered all for my great intention.”
Her sacrifice did not put an end to the attempts of her aunt to arrange the marriage. Even the mistress of formation at the Carmelites tried to arrange a marriage, although Anna had entered the novitiate and was in her year of probation.
As Anna explained in her journal, she remained fiercely dedicated to her vocation, resisting by the grace of God who “distanced the difficulties and established me in this religious state.”
At this point her confessor, Fr. James Muricken, connected her with the Congregation of the Franciscan Clarists. Thus she entered their house in Bharananganam, about 20 miles east of Muttuchira. She entered on May 24, 1927 and began her postulancy on August 2, 1928.
Since that was the Feast of St. Alphonsus Liguori, for whom she had a great devotion, she took the name Alphonsa of the Immaculate Conception. Two years later, when Bishop James Kalacherry made a pastoral visit to Bharananganam on May 19, 1930, she was clothed in the Franciscan habit.
For the next five years she suffered a chronic illness which prevented her from teaching the children except for a brief period in 1932. Instead, she worked as an assistant catechist and served as secretary — she had beautiful handwriting.
Although she could have entered the novitiate in 1934, her ill health delayed the event until 1935. Within the week of her entering, her health rapidly declined with blood flowing from her nose and eyes and wasting wounds on her legs.
Her life seemed at an end. As we know, God’s ways are mysterious and she received a miraculous and instantaneous recovery after a novena prayed to Fr. Kuriakose Elia Chavara (canonized on November 23, 2014). According to Sr. Alphonsa, the saint appeared to her twice.
Sr. Alphonsa then restarted her novitiate writing a set of proposals in her diary ending with, “I will seek refuge in the Sacred Heart of Jesus.” She made her perpetual vows on August 12, 1936, and then God led her through a series of sufferings, providing her the opportunity to carry through on her proposals.
As she hoped to do penance and not complain in the midst of suffering, she contracted serious illnesses, one after the other: typhoid fever, double pneumonia, and a nervous shock after a terrible fright that left her incapacitated for more than a year.
Then in 1945 her final tribulation began — one that she endured with a cheerful disposition despite the most agonizing effects of the illness. A large tumor invaded her vital organs, causing digestive and liver problems. These led to vomiting and seizures which occurred about 40 times per day.
She willingly embraced being a victim for Jesus, explaining, “I feel that the Lord has destined me to be an oblation, a sacrifice of suffering….I consider a day in which I have not suffered as a day lost to me.” Sr. Alphonsa died in pain, but also joy, on July 28, 1946. Her feast is celebrated by the Syro-Malabar Catholic Church on July 28.
On a pastoral visit to Kottayam, India, Pope St. John Paul II beatified her on February 8, 1986, and Pope Benedict XVI canonized her October 12, 2008 at the Vatican.

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(Carole Breslin home-schooled her four daughters and served as treasurer of the Michigan Catholic Home Educators for eight years. For over ten years, she was national coordinator for the Marian Catechists, founded by Fr. John A. Hardon, SJ.)

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