In 1852 Mrs. Eliswa Vareed Vakayil, mother of a girl child an year and a half old became a widow at the age of 19. The sudden demise of her husband Mr. Vareed Vakayil marked a severe turning point in her life. Strongly resisting all moves by relations for a remarriage, the young mother sought refuge in solitude, secured strength by prayer and found consolation and contentment in wiping the tears of the poor and needy around her. An unwavering and determined pursuit of life in this vein in no time matured into her mission in life - help and serve the least ones of His brethren for the rest of her life!
One forenoon in 1862, Eliswa entered her parish church, St. Philomina's, Koonammavu when it was virtually deserted. She knelt before the Blessed Sacrament and in silence poured out all her grievances to Our Lord in the Eucharist. Afterwards, with courage of conviction, Eliswa conveyed her craving to Rev. Fr. Leopold O.C.D. Consoling and advising the aspirant, Rev. Fr.Leopold sent her back but remained observant, waiting patiently for confirmation of her inspiration. The period of trial and tests for study lasted four years and in the mean time her sister Thresia and daughter Anna, influenced so much by her God-centered life-style, also joined Eliswa.
Fr. Leopold raised the matter of the three penitents eagerly longing to embrace religious life in a discussion he had with Bishop Baccinelli. The bishop, quite pleased with the information and quite happy to accept them, asked the Rev. Father to construct a small bamboo-mat hut with three rooms - prayer room, kitchen and refectory on Eliswa's property. His Excellency provided constitutional guidelines for their training which he himself acquired from the Carmelite Sisters in Genova and re-drafted to suit the needs of the time and clime.
Early February in 1866, the three women were officially received into the Carmelite Order by the Bishop and on Tuesday, February 13, 1866 Fr. Leopold was delegated to vest them with the Carmelite Scapular of the Religious and begin their canonical Novitiate in the bamboo-mat convent hut. Thus was the foundation of the present Community of Teresian Carmelites (C.T.C.) laid on the day under the Congregational name the Third Order of the Carmelite Discalced (T.O.C.D.). Since the bamboo-mat hut of a convent was quite insufficient to accommodate the growing Community, a spacious two storeyed convent building was constructed later at Thalachuva Parambu as per the Bishop´s direction.
When in 1877 Pope Leo XIII effected the division of Rites in Malabar, St. Thresia's Convent in Koonammavu was separated from the jurisdiction of the Archbishop of Verapoly and was placed from April 18, 1890 under the Bishop of Trichur, the newly formed Syrian diocese. However, it was especially instructed that no change should be made in the internal affairs of the convent or admission of candidates. But on Tuesday, 16th September 1890, Bishop Adolphin Medillikot came to the convent and deposed Mother Thresia from her office of Superiorship and appointed one Sr. Catherine of Syrian Rite in her place. All the Sisters of Latin Rite including the foundress, Mother Eliswa, were deposed from their offices, substituting Sisters of Syrian Rite in their places.
The Archbishop of Verapoly made arrangements for their temporary stay for nearly two months in a small house in the convent campus of the newly started St. Teresa's Congregation (C.S.S.T.) in Ernakulam where they were warmly received and sheltered by Rev. Mother Teresa, their foundress. A new convent building in Varapuzha was blessed on Tuesday, 11th November, 1890 and Mother Eliswa and her Community had their permanent residence in their second Mother House, St. Joseph's Convent, Varapuzha. From there the C.T.C. Congregation flourished and spread throughout India, Germany, Italy and Africa. The Congregation is divided into five provinces spread over 29 dioceses and 110 Houses and has a strength of 1100 Sisters, purely of Latin Rite. It was raised to the Pontifical Right in 1971 by His Holiness Pope Paul VI.
One of the oldest Congregations of the Diocese, the Sisters of Theresian Carmelites are originally trained by the Carmelite Missionaries and they imbibe the spirit of Carmel as received by Holy Mother St. Tresa of Jesus. Spread over five Houses in the Diocese, they aim at being intimately united with God, aspiring to contemplation.
Very Rev. Fr. George Herder Chakkalakal, an aged and retired priest had great desire to start a convent in his native place, Kumbalanghy. He intended to gift his inherited property and buy an additional two acres for the purpose. Then he approached V. Rev.Mother Margret, the General of C.T.C. Congregation at Varapuzha, to reveal his plans and intentions. Subsequently the Rev. Father bought a two acre plot at about the middle of his native place.
When the idea was conveyed to Rev. Dr. Jose Alvernaz, the Bishop of Cochin, His Excellency suggested that it be better located at Aroor. When Rev. Fr. George Herder informed the Bishop of his ardent yearning, His excellency conceded to his wish and consented that the convent be established at Kumbalanghy. Accordingly, the Bishop laid the foundation stone for the convent in 1945.
The General Chapter held in May 1945 decided to open a new convent at Kumbalanghy. As the members of the new Community, Rev. Mother Isabel as Superior and Rev. Sr. Josephine and Rev. Sr. Ransom reached Kumbalanghy. Since it was difficult to construct a convenient building, they decided to build a house instead and bought a plot of 20 cents near the said property. On the 18th July 1945 all these matters were reported to the Bishop and he was well pleased. Giving the Sisters a beautiful frame of Our Lady of Fatima, he asked them to name the new institution as 'Our Lady of Fatima Convent'. He also gave them a gift of Rs.150/- then quite a substantial sum. He particularly advised them to set apart a special room as chapel for the Most Blessed Sacrament.
When the last Portuguese Bishop Dom Jose Vieira Alvernaz left the Diocese in 1951 putting an end to the Portuguese Padroado administration, the parish priest of St. Mary's Church, Thankey, Rev. Fr. George Karott, approached the Mother General of the Congregation of the Teresian Carmelite Sisters, Very Rev. Mother Tresa, at Verapoly in May 1950. He expressed his desire to have a convent at Thankey and subsequently the foundation stone for St. Rita's Convent was laid on February 11, 1951. Meanwhile Very Rev. Mother Christina was elected as the Mother General in May that year and the new Mother General reached Thankey to examine the site.
The building was completed and the blessing and inauguration of the convent took place in June 1951. The Apostolic Administrator of the Diocese, Rt. Rev. Msgr. Francis Figueiredo, officiated at the ceremoney. Rev. Sr. Martina (Superior) and three other Sisters were appointed at the parish school. Rev. Fr. George Karott celebrated the first Mass in the newly built Chapel of the convent. Slowly the Rev. Sisters started teaching catechism and participating in the various pastoral activities of the parish.
In 1958 a small dispensary was set up to treat the mentally sick and later on it was converted to a general clinic. In 1959 they started St. Rita's Hospital and St. Rita's Girls' Home simultaneouly and His Excellency, Dr. Alexander Edezhath blessed both the institutions that year on November 9. A new block was added to take care of the mentally ill patients and this started functioning from October 15, 1980. They started a Kindergarten School in May 1991 and on 22nd May 1996 a larger hospital building was erected.
Rev. Fr.Thomas Puthenveettil, the Parish Priest of Our Lady of Life Church, Mattancherry requested Mother Isabel, the Mother General of the Teresian Carmelites, to establish a convent at Mattancherry. Rt. Rev. Dr. Alexander Edezhath, the Bishop of Cochin was abroad during that time. So the Vicar General, Msgr. Francis Figueiredo, sent a detailed letter to the Bishop on the move and His Excellency gave his consent. On 15th May, 1960, the Mother General and Councillors took specific decision on the issue of a new convent in the Mattancherry Parish. But as the newly built structure had not enough convenience as a residence, they had to wait for some more time.
At the beginning of the academic year two Sisters, Rev. Sr. Bibiana and Rev. Sr. Leena, who had been assigned to Our Lady of Life High School had to come from the Sacred Heart Convent, Vaduthala. When Bishop Alexander came back in December 1960, the Mother General sent a petition about starting a convent in the diocese of Cochin. His Excellency pleased with the request, readily gave permission and also expressed his willingness to provide the property at the premises of the building as a free gift.
Rt. Rev. Msgr. Francis Figueiredo, the Vicar General of the Diocese of Cochin, set about the project regarding the erection of the new convent of C.T.C. Sisters at Mattancherry but stepped into a hailstorm of parochial protests. Allotment of the property of the parish and construction of a convent building for the Community met with objections from the parishioners. The decision to keep the property and the building in the name of the parish itself finally solved the problem. Thus in 1957 Rev. Fr. George Kollachery, the Parish Priest, finally laid the foundation stone for the convent building. On 17th December 1960, on the occasion of the Silver Jubilee of Dr. Alexander Edezhath, the new convent was blessed, thus bringing to reality the long cherished dreams of Rev. Fr. Francis D'Cruz, Rev. Fr. Augustine Menezes, Msgr. Francis Figueiredo, former parish priests of Mattancherry.
In 1962 an orphanage for girls was started and in 1963 a boarding house was begun for the working girls. On 8th September 1965 Jeeva Matha Press was started for which a new cylinder press was purchased in 1967 and in due course a new building for the press was blessed. In 1968 they started a Typewriting Institute and on December 22, 1975, the convent chapel was blessed.
Situated seven kilometres away from St. Antony's Parish, Arookutty, Panavally is a locality of dense population with diverse religions. Naturally people found it extremely difficult to attend to their spiritual and material needs. For their health and medical wants they had to rely solely on the Thaluk hospital, Cherthala and Medical College Hospital, Alleppey. The paternal perspective of the visionary in His Excellency Rt. Rev. Dr. Joseph Kureethara, therefore, was in search of a Community of Sisters that would satisfy the spiritual and social requirments of the laity. It was crystal clear to His Excellency that the Divine Providence had set aside the C.T.C. Sisters for just such a mission.
While on the way back from the Alwaye Seminary, His Excellency, Bishop Joseph Kureethara, accompanied by Rev. Fr. Mark Antony Puthenparambil paid a visit to the Carmelite Convent at Thottakkattukara. The Sisters there aired their grievances and said that more important sites in the Diocese were being allotted to foreign Congregations. They expressed their disappointment that the native Congregations had almost lost hope of getting new convents in Cochin for which they cited the Mercy Convent at Aroor junction as an example. Consoling and comforting the Sisters then and there, His Excellency revealed to them his intention of the trip - to call on their Mother General at Edappally.
His Excellency and the Rev. Father were at prayer during their journey and then met Very Rev. Mother Georgia, the Superior General of the C.T.C. Sisters at Edappally. His Excellency personally presented to the Mother General his request to start two convents in the Diocese of Cochin, hoping that at least one might be permitted. To their great surprise Mother Georgia readily agreed to start the two convents and the very next day it was published in the newspapers that two more convents of the C.T.C. Sisters would be established in the Diocese of Cochin, one at Paanaavally and the other at Perumbalam.
Correspondence continued to cruise between the Diocese and the Generalate and finally the foundation stone was laid on 4th October, 1974, on the property at Panavally donated by the Diocese of Cochin on the auspicious occasion of the 750th death anniversary of St. Francis of Assisi. Rev. Sr. Patienca C.T.C. took charge as the first Superior of the Community at Panavally on February 27, 1982. After completion of the construction of the convent building by Rev. Fr. Mathew Valiaparambil, H.E., Dr. Agostino Cacciavillan, the Apostolic Pro-Nuncio to India, blessed the new Convent.
Later, the Convent and their new hospital were inaugurated on 27th February 1982 with a concelebrated Holy Mass by His Excellency, the Bishop of Cochin together with some priests. There was a bit of excitement and commotion though by way protests from some of the non-Catholic communities in the vicinity. The antagonism assumed the attire of deliberate use of loud speakers at high volume from dawn to dusk on that auspicious day but as the faithful of the parish kept their cool, everything went well.
As luck would have it (or rather, something small to serve as source to sanity supplied by the Supreme Spirit ?), the new hospital had to be at emergency help and service to the same group the very next day when dozens of them were taken suddenly ill and had to be rushed to the hospital. Later on a two-storeyed building for the hospital was completed and blessed on the Assumption Day in August 1988. To make the medical mission more effective, an X-ray plant was installed in the hospital in January 1996 and the very same year the foundation stone was laid for a proper convent building.
Perumbalam, an Island on the Vembanat Lake within the Arookutty Panchayath of Cherthala Taluk in Alleppey District, was a God-forsaken land with no travel facilities except a few boats. There was no road, no water supply and little medical services. Years ago when Dom Jose Vieira Alvernaz, the Bishop of Cochin, was travelling once by boat, he passed by the island and asked whether there was any church on the island. On being enlightened in the negative, His Excellency suggested a small chapel be built there.
It happened that Perumbalam Island was within the territory of the parish of Aroor and later on when Arookutty was raised as a parish, Perumbalam came under Arookutty parish. There were only fewer than fifty catholic families in a population about 16,000. Sunday Masses were offered at the Little Flower Chapel if and when weather permitted the priest to cross the lake.
It was to this almost isolated island that the C.T.C. Sisters came in response to the call of His Excellency Rt. Rev. Dr. Joseph Kureethara. True to the deep conviction of His Excellency, when the time was ripe, there appeared Signor Papa Ildebrando, a benefactor from Gallarate, Italy, with open arms to help build land mark edifices on the island - a convent, a hospital, doctors´ quarters and a parochial house. The three storeyed Crespi Hospital blessed on 2nd May 1989 betokens a bountiful and benign benison to the islanders in general and the new Little Flower Chapel a still bigger one to the Catholic community there in particular.
Rev. Fr. Paul Punnakattuchery was appointed the first Chaplain on 9th of October 1989. The Caritas Italiana donated a motor boat "San Cristoforo" and it was blessed on March 1, 1990. The arrival and presence of the Sisters of the Third Order of Carmelite Discalced has unleashed an all-round bounce for better social existence of the islanders and the convent and the new chapel a fresh vigour to the spiritual life of the parishioners of Perumbalam.
Written by His Excellency, (Late) Rt. Rev. Dr. Joseph Kureethara