It was nothing but 'Divine Providence' that brought the Sisters of Mary Immaculate into being. In 1922, the Most Rev. Santino Teveggio, the Bishop of Krishnagar (West Bengal) first started to organize the Congregation of the "Catechist Sisters of Mary Immaculate, Help of Christians" in order to provide his diocese with effective means of catechetical instruction especially in remote rural reaches of the Diocese. In 1937 Msgr. Scuderi, Apostolic Administrator of the diocese of Krishnager issued the Decree of Canonical erection of the 'Catechist Sisters of Mary Immaculate'.
Subsequently His Excellency, Rt. Rev. Dr. Louis La Ravoire Morrow, SDB was appointed Bishop of Krishnagar. His Excellency renewed the Congregation in 1948, renamed it "Catechist Sisters of Mary Immaculate, Help of Christians" and in 1954, gave them a new constitution. The teachings of the Little Way of Spiritual Childhood of St. Therese of child Jesus and of the preventive system of St. John Bosco were the motive forces. This SMI spirit which influence their way of life and apostolic mission was given to them by their founding father. In June 1966, Pope Paul VI declared the Congregation an institution of Pontifical Right.
Bishop Louis R. Morrow was a charismatic spiritual leader. He had strong socio-political influence on the people. And his flock lacked sufficient pastors. It was his socio-spiritual compulsion that prompted Bishop Morrow to institute the SMI Congregation. Here His Excellency Bishop Joseph Kureethara sheds light on how the SMI was planted and its branch came to be grafted in the Diocese of Cochin.
His Excellency, Rt. Rev. Dr. Louis R. Morrow, SDB, was an American Salesian. He was appointed Bishop of the Diocese of Krishnagar in West Bengal. He was a great missionary who loved his people. His flock looked up to him for everything and they wanted him as their Municipal Chairman as well. Hence he was compelled to contest the Municipal election. No doubt he secured the popular mandate and finally became the Chairman. Drinking water for his people was one of his prime concerns. Indeed the 'living water' to all was his vocation in life and it was this missionary zeal that brought him to India in the first place.
With this in view His Excellency organised the Religious Congregation of Catechist Sisters. Finding the right candidates for a new Congregation is always trying. Bishop Morrow had a very good friend in Kerala - V. Rev. Fr. Bonaventure OCD. The Rev. Father's efforts bore fruit - eight candidates, all from the Diocese of Cochin, had the call for consecrated life. With these eight Bishop Morrow started imparting catechism to the Catholics as well as the catechumens. Soon their Congregation branched out into institutions with quite a few Sisters.
Demands on the Congregation of Catechetical Sisters were on the high. Time had ordained that the Congregation grow and branchify. From the barren environs eyes naturally turned to the fertile soil of Kerala. They had to open a House here and that is how the May Flower came to be set up at Kalamassery in the Archdiocese of Ernakulam.
Bishop Morrow and Rev. Dr. Alexander Edezhath, the Bishop of Cochin, were by no means strangers. While on a visit to May Flower Convent, His Excellency phoned Bishop Edezhath. The gist of the call was his inclination for a brief visit here. So, the bishop's driver, Mr. Peter was despatched to fetch Bishop Morrow from Kalamassery.
Bishop Morrow was not feeling quite well then and so two SMI Sisters had accompanied him. The Sisters knew that Bishop Morrow was invited to lunch. Well, His Excellency was the guest. What about them? The Sisters had plans to wait somewhere outside. With that mischievous manoeuvre for a modest exit from an uninvited lunch already set, they reached the Bishop's House here.
On arrival, Rev. Fr. Joseph Kureethara welcomed His Excellency and the Sisters. Fr. Joseph naturally extended the invitation to the Sisters as well to grace the table. But the Sisters politely declined saying they had some shopping to do. The kind and ever helpful priest could not overlook the need to help the new comers. So Fr. Joseph asked them: "What do you want to buy from Fort Cochin?" The poor Sisters were at a loss for words at this unexpected enquiry. They said they had to visit some Sister at a convent in Fort Cochin. It sounded like a lame excuse. Besides no specific name for the Sister! And no name of the Convent either!! This was the maiden encounter of the would be Bishop with the Sisters of Mary Immaculate. The Rev. Father had to accompany Bishop Morrow and the Sisters back to Kalamassery. The later Bishop of Cochin noted in his diary then that he had "a long talk with Bishop Morrow. … This gave me the impression that I was talking to a saintly person."
Having thus touched on the essentials in the background, we will now glance around our own compound. A Convent in the parish was a long cherished dream of the flock at Poonkavu. Bishop Alexander Edezhath had tried to get the Franciscan Missionaries of Mary to start one there. But before anything could be accomplished, His Excellency was called to his eternal reward. Subsequently, Rev. Dr. Joseph Kureethara was entrusted with the crosier of the Diocese. His Excellency also aspired to establish a convent at Poonkavu. The contiguous town, Alleppey, was the right place to look for help.
Already there was a well-established Canossian Convent in town but it was awfully congested. There were too many institutions within one compound! Naturally the Sisters were delighted at the prospect of having a place at a stone's throw in Poonkavu. They could then shift their Orphanage and a few Sisters to the new place. And Poonkavu, after all, is only about two miles north of the town proper, quite a comforting fact..
The news about a new convent came out in due course and simultaneously erupted an avalanche of false propaganda on the Episcopal authority over the convent. Reactions of the parishioners varied from indifference to stiff opposition. To make a long story short, thus ended the efforts at setting up a Canossian Convent in the parish of Poonkavu.
Then came the Congregation of Our Lady of Dolours (Serve de Maria, Pisa) from Italy. They wanted to set up their first House in India and the Congregation was looking for a suitable place. Rev. Mother Ubaldesca and Rev. Fr. Reginaldo Bernini O.P. of the Congregation approached the Diocese of Cochin. They were first taken to Poonkavu, which, to them was far away from Cochin. So they bought a plot at Perumpadappu and established their convent there.
The need for a convent at Poonkavu was great. Given the grant of a gift in the shape of a convent, the socio-spiritual uplift to the parish could only be visualized. Fervent prayers for the good of the less fortunate never go unanswered. Ardent efforts for a good cause never go waste. Firm faith in positive conclusion in the fullness of time never abated. And thus it came to pass before long.
Bishop Morrow reached Kalamassery again in February 1979. His Excellency was accompanied by Rev. Sr. Mary Chalissery, Superior General and Sr. Florette of the Order of the Sisters of Mary Immaculate. His Excellency, Rt. Rev. Dr. Joseph Kureethara himself made necessary arrangements and they were invited to Cochin. And thus Bishop Joseph Kureethara took Bishop Morrow and the Sisters to Poonkavu on February 26, 1979.
The Parish priest Rev. Fr. Louis Kattiparambil and the parishioners were quite surprised at the unexpected visit of the prelates and the Sisters. The children in their shabby dress hesitated a bit in the beginning but easily took to Bishop Morrow. Quite a friendly person, he was virtually surrounded by them as they would a loving grandpa. He was immensely pleased and so elated was he to have so many children around him that His Excellency was virtually beaming!
They were escorted to the large parish hall and led to the stage for a 'meeting'. Bishop Morrow addressed the people in English which Bishop Joseph Kureethara translated into the vernacular. Then Sr. Mary Chalisserry was asked to address the gathering in Malayalam. Though quite unprepared, she spoke a few words. After this meeting, they were led to the small house which the parishioners always called 'Matam' (convent). Without any further enquiry Bishop Morrow expressed his willingness to start the convent there and Sr. Mary Chalisserry, seeing the enthusiasm of Bishop Morrow could not but agree.
Rev. Sr. Pieta and Sr. Florette made their first visit to Poonkavu on 11th March 1978 and they were satisfied with the place. Official letter inviting the SMI Sisters to the Diocese was forwarded from the Bishop's House on 29th March 1978. Favourable reply from the Mother General, Sr. Mary Chalissery, in which everything was confirmed, reached a blissful bishop Joseph Kureethara on April 29, 1978.
The first group of the SMI - Sisters Josita, Mary Cicily and Gretta arrived on 20th June 1979. At the junction on the National High Way, they were accorded a warm reception. In a grand procession the Sisters were escorted to the parish church, Our Lady of Assumption, Poonkavu. A long cherished dream of the flock of Poonkavu was turning to reality that day. A solemn Concelebrated Mass was offered, followed by 'Te Deum'. Thereupon the jubilant gathering moved to the Parish Hall where a public meeting was arranged. The culminating event of the day was the solemn blessing of the new Convent - just a small house that once belonged to a poor family. The Decree on the erection of the Convent , 'Jyothi Bhavan', was issued on 20th June 1979 by His Excellency, Rt. Rev. Dr. Joseph Kureethara. Thus, at last, this grafted branch of the new Congregation was planted in the Diocesan soil.
The Sisters were in the small house which had no compound walls. Quite so, they had to face a lot of problems and there was even an attempted intrusion at which the Sisters were naturally frightened. A group of volunteers, seminarians, were assigned to keep an eye on matters of security to the abode. But when darkness descended the roles of the guards and the guarded inter-changed as the poor Sisters had to be on watch over the Seminarians who soulfully slipped into slumber!
The Sisters straight away set to work. They started visiting the families of the parish. The poor and miserable conditions of the people of Poonkavu shook them. The people had no education. Many were experts at making the local products - coir mats and carpets. That was their main means of survival. But all the native and European coir factories in Alleppey had their shutters down. Reason - continuous agitation, thanks to the promoters of proletarian 'class war'!
A Nursery School, a Tailoring Centre, a small Dispensary and a Typewriting Institute etc. were soon set up by the Sisters. These were accommodated in the parish hall of the Church but it was no permanent solution! What the people urgently needed, was education. There was a name-sake Upper Primary Government School in Poonkavu but the nearest High Schools were at Thumboly or in Alleppey Town which very few frequented. For more than 75 years the parishioners of Poonkavu were trying their best to get a school of their own, starting at the elementary level. While at Poonkavu the Bishop himself had gone to the District Education Office in Alleppey once with the request for a school.
There was no positive response from the Government. A High School at Poonkavu was almost a 'basic need' of the locality. One could be obtained if SMI Sisters requested the Kerala Government. To convince the Mother General and the Councellors about the urgent need for a High School, the Bishop deputed Rev. Fr. Antony Arackal, Rev. Fr. Thomas Manakkatt and Rev. Fr. Victor Maraparambil to Krishnagar. The arrival of the delegation made the Sisters realize the dire need of the people of Poonkavu and the Councellors agreed. But this tender sprout of a hope was nipped in the bud by an injudicious intervention of a neighbouring diocese.
Meanwhile the compound wall for the convent was completed. The foundation stone for the convent was laid on October 1, 1980. The structure was completed and the Convent was blessed on the Feast Day of St. Joseph in 1981. A new building for social activities was blessed on 6th July 1982. The Nursery School, Tailoring Centre and Type Writing Institute were shifted to the new annexe. But the aspirations for an institution of enlightenment, a high school, still remained but a dream.
Bishop Morrow had been unable to attend the inauguration of the Convent at Poonkavu. The Bishop of Cochin had given his word that he would visit Bishop Morrow at Krishnagar. His Excellency spent three days there. Bishop Baori took Bishop Joseph Kureethara to visit various institutions there. While bidding farewell to the Bishops and Sisters, the Superior General wondered why never a word was raised on the issue of the High School. Rev. Sr. Chalissery solicited then and there His Excellency's presence at a meeting with her Counsellors.
The brief meeting held that day on July 17, 1982, saw the sprout of a High School burst out of the dormant seed, casting aside the pod of dubiety. Subsequently, the Sisters presented their application to the Kerala Government for a High School at Poonkavu. Mr. Philip Thayyil, the then Panchayath President of South Mararikulam, did his best to expedite the official processes. Finally, sanction was granted on 30th April, 1983.
The inauguration of Mary Immaculate High School was held in the parish hall on the following June 15 and the classes were begun on the same day. The foundation stone for the Mary Immaculate High School was laid by Sri. Oommen Chandy, M. L. A. 0n 10th May, 1984. The first batch started that year came off with flying colours later. Of the 36 who appeared for the S. S. L. C. Examinations, 35 passed and among them 14 had First Class!
There was quite a bit of an overcast over the construction of the convent and the school buildings. There were such a lot of comments and criticisms, if not so much of antagonism, from the parishioners themselves. On second thoughts, it was no wonder. It would have been a miracle, had no clouds clustered over the attempts and efforts of the Church in the locality. The region, of course, has had enough events to claim attention to class war! Whatever it be, the Sisters felt quite stuffy and suffocated and suffered a lot but slowly the misgivings and misunderstandings melted. The parishioners are now proud that the entire atmosphere of Poonkavu is made beautiful by the presence of the Sisters of Mary Immaculate.
The very title 'Catechist Sisters of Mary Immaculate, Help of Christians' indicates that their mission is evangelisation and Catechesis. The pressing invitation of the Church, is "to bring Good News to all strata of humanity" and through its influence, to transform humanity from within and make it new. The activities undertaken by them at Poonkavu are mainly house visits and education. Two Sisters are completely engaged in visitation and seven in teaching apostolates.
This their mission is accomplished by the proclamation of the Word through village apostolate, house visits, catechezing and also through medical and educational apostolate. Cultural centres, oratories, boarding houses and hostels, welfare homes, homes for senior citizens and Good News Centres supplement their effort. They organize spiritual retreats, social work and other activities to meet the needs of the times in accordance with their Constitution. They involve themselves in all the parish activities. The Congregation also animates pious associations of the parish such as Mission League, Legion of Mary, Catholic Youth Movement, K.C.S.L and Marian Sodality.
Written by His Excellency, (Late) Rt. Rev. Dr. Joseph Kureethara