“Whatever you do, do it for the love of Jesus. Don’t only work to please your superiors.” —Saint Alphonsa
We do a lot of things in our life. But, how many of us do it in the name of Jesus? We may go through some difficult situations in life from time to time. How many of us seek the help of Jesus? When we greatly desire for something, up to what extend do we go to achieve it? Saint Alphonsa’s life teaches us what suffering is and how to accomplish our wishes. She is someone that all of us can imitate in our lives.
Anna Muttathupadathu was born on August 19, 1910 in Kudamalur, India. She was known by her nickname Annakutty. Annakutty was the fourth child of Joseph Muttathupadathu and his wife Mary. Mary died when Anna was three months old. She was born into a Roman Catholic family, from where she developed a strong devotion to her Catholic faith.1 After her mother’s death, young Annakutty was first sent to live with her grandparents in Elumparambil. Her mother’s absence affected her deeply, and the new family atmosphere and interactions with others disrupted her family life. Her grandmother often took her to the Holy Mass, even during the week, and taught her the basics of the Catholic faith. The young Annakutty learned many of the basic prayers of the Catholic Church and began to lead the family’s evening prayer by the time she was five. She received her First Communion on November 11, 1917. When her fourth grade elementary education ended in 1920, Annakutty was transferred to Muttachira, and then went to live with her aunt, Anna Murickal. Her aunt, who was her new guardian, was a very strict disciplinarian, who was very demanding and expected her to obey all matters great and small. Anna Murickal was a very religious person, and through her example, Annakutty became even more dedicated to her faith, and began to spend time with the Carmelite nuns.2
Impressed by the life story of Saint Thérèse of Lisieux, who also lost her mother at a young age, Annakutty resolved to model herself after her, and she sought to become a saint herself through prayer and penance.3 In the meantime, Annakutty grew beautiful, both inside and out. Many young men wanted to marry her, and she began to receive numerous marriage proposals. It was an Indian tradition in those days that girls would be married around the age of twelve. Annakutty’s aunt worked relentlessly to find her a suitable husband, but Annakutty showed no interest in marriage. She felt that her calling was to become a religious sister. Against her wishes, at the age of twelve, Annakutty’s aunt and uncle set a wedding date for her to marry a young man from a reputed family. Annakutty came to know about her marriage only when her aunt and uncle informed her of the date of the engagement. But marriage was not something that was on her mind. When she found out about her engagement, she went to her uncle and pleaded with him, and asked him not to go through with it. Her uncle was more understanding of his niece’s desires and wishes in life, that she wanted to be a religious nun. He tried to influence his wife to go along with their niece’s wish.4
In the beginning, his wife, Anna Murickal, did not agree with him in allowing Annakutty to become a nun. She said, “If we let Anna become a religious sister, society would think that we are doing it for financial gain in terms of saving wedding expenses.” Anna’s uncle gave into his wife’s pressure and despite Annakutty’s objection, they went forward with her marriage proposal. Their hope was that since Annakutty was such an obedient child, she would agree to the marriage proposal when the time came.5
Anna thought her physical beauty or attractiveness was the cause of her adopted parents’ push for her to get married. So she began to think of ways to destroy her physical beauty. According to her, one of the thoughts that came to her mind was disfiguring her body with fire in the kitchen so that she might become undesirable. Then, at the end, she changed her mind for fear that her aunt and uncle would misunderstand her action and would label her as a rebellious teenager who was expressing her disagreement in a foolish manner. So instead of burning herself in the kitchen, she thought of another way to convince her family that she did not want marriage, but wanted to lead a religious life.6
She thought about ancient saints who had experienced similar struggles in their lives, and how they managed to survive them. She went to a nearby fire pit, where people burned chaffs and husks. She decided to burn just one of her feet, so that she would not be able to walk to the church for the engagement. While sitting on the edge of the pit, thinking and praying, she accidentally slipped in, burning her feet and legs, as well as her skirt and the ends of her hair. She tried to get back home to change her clothes so that her aunt and uncle would not find out what had happened; but on her way, she fainted.7
The news of Anna’s terrible accident shocked everyone in her family as well as in the community. Anna was in excruciating pain, due to the burns, and the outer layer of skin on her legs was coming off when she touched it. A goldsmith had to be called to remove the metal leg bracelets from her burned ankles. Annakutty’s aunt and uncle called her father and informed him of the incident. When he saw his daughter’s suffering, he found it difficult to bear. So many people from the community, her teachers, friends, and relatives also came to see her and comfort her. Her father and her adopted parents then took her to an Ayurvedic hospital in Arpukara, India. It took several months of recovery before she regained her ability to walk. Even when she was able to walk, it was with much difficulty that she was able to do it. The scars of the burns, so evident all over her body, stayed with her for the rest of her life.8
Even though Annakutty became the victim of so much misfortune and disfigurement, her aunt still wanted her to get married. At this time, her uncle intervened and convinced her to allow Annakutty to enter into a religious life, which was what she always wanted. With much hesitation, her aunt allowed her to try the religious life. With their permission, Annakutty joined the Franciscan Clarist Congregation. On August 2, 1928, she began her postulancy, as a candidate seeking admission into a religious order; and she took the name of the saint of the day, Saint Alphonsus Liguori. Since then, she has become known as Sister Alphonsa. During her postulancy, Alphonsa was allowed to visit her home occasionally. Her aunt still had not given up the idea of marriage for her niece. When Alphonsa visited her home for the first time during her postulancy, she saw a goldsmith on the porch making ornaments for her marriage. Her aunt once again insisted that she was already promised in marriage, and that it would be practically impossible to back down. At this time, her uncle, who knew that Alphonsa absolutely did not want marry, and that she wanted to lead a religious life, stepped in and intervened in the matter and told his wife not to pursue marriage for their niece anymore.9 According to Alphonsa, her postulancy training at the convent was much easier than the struggles she had to deal with her aunt in convincing her to let her live a religious life.
After her postulancy, Alphonsa took her brown habit of her order as her religious clothing. Ever since her burn pit incident, she had been suffering from numerous bodily ailments. Though in constant pain, she taught in a Malayalam High School at Vazhappally in 1932, and developed a deep relationship of love and care with her students. When Alphonsa became further ill, her students visited and checked on her constantly, and offered her help when needed. They also requested Alphonsa’s prayers and advice in their lives as well. It was said that those who came to her for advice found her guidance uplifting and profound, and her prayers on their behalf were quickly answered. However, due to her constant illness, she was relieved of her teaching job. She was reassigned as an assistant teacher, catechist, and secretary for the school.10
Her religious superiors delayed Alphonsa’s entrance into the novitiate, the period or state of being a novice, until August 12, 1935, because of her frequent illnesses, though her novitiate should have begun in 1934. Only a week into her novitiate, she once again deteriorated into illness, hemorrhaging from her nose and eyes, and with open wounds on her legs. With much difficulty and struggle, on August 12, 1936, Alphonsa made her final (perpetual) vows with the Clarist Sisters of the Syro-Malabar Rite. While she continued to be ill, she believed that she was meant to suffer joyfully with Christ. According to one of her biographers, she declared, “No matter what my sufferings may be, I will never complain and if I have to undergo any humiliation, I will seek refuge in the Sacred Heart of Jesus.”11
It was said that Alphonsa had the gift of prophecy. In a reported vision of St. Therese, the Little Flower, Alphonsa was told that she would not suffer from contagious diseases, but that she would continue to suffer in some way throughout the remainder of her life. There is a story about Alphonsa that says that she asked God to remove the malaria from a Bishop and a teaching sister and put those symptoms on her as part of her suffering. The story is that God answered her prayers and she became the bearer of those illnesses.12
As time went on, her suffering and pain grew worse and worse each day. While enduring her pain, she would constantly whisper a prayer by saying “Jesus, Mary, and Joseph.” One of the prayers she composed while she was alive was: “O Jesus, hide me in the sacred wound of Your Heart. Deliver me from the disordered desire to want to be loved and esteemed. Save me from the pathetic pursuit of love and fame. Make me so humble as to become absolutely nothing, a tiny spark of the fire of love that sets Your Sacred Heart ablaze. Grant me the grace to completely forget both myself and other creatures.” A few days later, on July 28, 1946, at the age of 36, she lost her consciousness and died. Perhaps she was reciting in her heart, one last time, the prayer that she herself had composed. It was reported that during the funeral, a Sister who was suffering from intense and persistent back pain, was one of the pallbearers who carried the coffin from the convent to the parish church. According to the story reported, during this procession, she was instantly and completely healed.13
After her death, many of Alphonsa’s former students and others made visits to her grave, prayed and asked for her intercession. Many of these devotees reported that their requests were granted through the intercession of Alphonsa. Soon the news of her power of intercession began to spread everywhere and people began to flock to her grave and began to pray for her intercession. Even though there was no official confirmation of her divine powers from church leaders, people from all over the country began to come to her grave and asked for her help. It was reported that many of those requests were granted through her. For example, some people reported that their blindness, deafness, and clubfeet were healed through her intercession. There were no caste or class distinctions among the people who were healed.14 Because of all these miracles, her tomb in Bharananganam became a pilgrimage site.15
Pope John Paul ll declared her a Blessed or Venerable in 1985. The official miracle credited to Blessed Alphonsa and approved by the Vatican involves her intercession in the miraculous healing of an infant with a clubfoot in 1999. Because of these and other similar miracles, Blessed Alphonsa was generally regarded as a special intercessor for prayers regarding sickness, deformity, bodily ailments of infants, and the death of parents.16
Pope Benedict XVI approved Blessed Alphonsa for canonization on June 1, 2007. The fifty-five-year process of her canonization was completed just over a year later on October 12, 2008, when she was officially named a saint. St. Alphonsa was the second person of Indian origin to be canonized a saint and the first Indian woman to be elevated to the status of sainthood. Today her tomb at Bharananganam remains a very popular pilgrimage site, and numerous miracles are attributed through her intercession. Her remains are preserved in a chapel adjacent to St. Mary’s Forane Catholic Church in the Diocese of Palai.17