Pope Francis this week recognized a miracle attributed to the intercession of Blessed Mariam Thresia Chiramel Mankidiyan, founder of the Congregation of the Sisters of the Holy Family (CHF) in Kerala, India, making her the third nun to be elevated to the status of sainthood from Kerala.
Mariam Thresia was called during the first half of her life simply Thresia, the name given to her at Baptism on May 3, 1876. Beginning in 1904, she wanted to be called Mariam Thresia, as she believed that she was asked to add “Mariam” to her name by the Blessed Virgin Mary in a vision. And it was as Mariam Thresia that she was professed in 1914, the foundress and first member of the Congregation of the Holy Family.
She was born April 26, as the daughter of Thoma and Thanda Chiramel Mankidiyan in the village of Puthenchira, Trichur District, Kerala. Though once a rich and noble family with extensive property, they became poorer and poorer as Thresia’s grandfather married away seven daughters one after the other, selling the property to pay for each a costly dowry. To forget the poor straits to which the family was reduced, Thresia’s father and brother took to drinking.
Such was the family background in which the future pioneer of the family apostolate was born. The third of five children, two boys and three girls, Thresia grew up in piety and holiness under the loving guidance of her saintly mother Thanda.
As she wrote later in her autobiography (a small document of barely six pages written under obedience to her spiritual father), from early childhood Thresia was moved by an intense desire to love God. For this purpose she fasted four times a week and prayed the Marian Rosary several times a day. Seeing her thinned down at 8 years of age, Thanda tried to dissuade Thresia from her severe fasts and night vigils. But Thresia wanted to be ever more in the likeness of the suffering Christ; to him she also consecrated her virginity when she was about 10 years old.
Discerning her vocation
When Thresia was only 12 years old, her mother died, which was the end also of Thresia’s elementary school education. She now set out on a long search to discern her own vocation in life. She longed for a hidden life of prayer, and hatched a scheme in 1891 to sneak away from home and lead an eremitical life of prayer and penance in the solitude of the far away hills. But this scheme proved too naive. She continued to frequent the church with three of her companions, to clean it and decorate the altar.
In her love for Jesus she wanted to be like him in his toil and apostolate. Hence she helped the poor, nursed the sick, visited and comforted the lonely people of her parish. She nursed even hideous and revolting cases of leprosy and smallpox, often abandoned to their lot by their poor relatives who had no means of caring for them. Upon their death she took care of their orphaned children.
Thresia and her three companions formed a group of prayer and of apostolate. Breaking with the custom of not leaving the house unless accompanied by men, they went on the roads and visited the families in need. This was a revolutionary novelty in their little world, which did not spare its criticism (not without moralizing clerical support) of “the girls taking to the streets!”
Thresia placed her trust in the help of the Holy Family of Jesus, Mary and Joseph. She saw them frequently in visions and received guidance in her apostolate, especially for the conversion of sinners. She prayed for sinners, fasted for their conversion, and visited them and exhorted them to repentance. Her ascetic and penitential practices remind us of the extreme rigor of the ancient hermits and monks. She received several mystical gifts, such as prophecy, healing, an aura of light, and a sweet odor.
And like St. Teresa of Avila she had frequent ecstasies and levitations. On Fridays people used to gather to see Mariam Thresia lifted high and hanging in the form of a crucifix on the wall of her room. Like the well-known St. Pio of Pietrelcina, she too bore the stigmata, carefully hiding it from public view. Perhaps to help her keep humble amidst such mystical favors, the Lord let her be tormented by diabolical attacks and vexations (again like Padre Pio) almost all through her life. She was repeatedly submitted to exorcism between 1902 and 1905 by Father Joseph Vithayathil, the parish priest of Puthenchira, acting under orders of the bishop, who wondered if she was simply a plaything of the devils.
Thresia submitted to the bishop’s orders with exemplary humility, but the exorcisms seem to have made some people regard Mariam Thresia as a dubious saint, even as St. Mary Magdalene, who was exorcised by Jesus Christ of seven demons, was eventually identified with the unnamed sinful woman in the Gospel of Luke (7: 36-50) on the wrong presumption that a possessed person must be a sinner. Mariam Thresia had also to fight temptations, particularly against faith and chastity, and she passed through the dark night of the soul. From 1902 till her death she had Father Vithayathil for spiritual director. She opened her heart fully and confidently to him and followed his advice and obeyed him blindly. Of her extant letters 53 out of 55 are addressed to him, seeking advice and spiritual guidance.
The foundation of the Congregation of the Holy Family
In 1903 Mariam Thresia requested her bishop’s permission to build a prayer house of solitude, but Mar John Menachery, the Vicar Apostolic of Trichur, first wanted to test her vocation. He suggested to her to consider joining the newly founded Congregation of the Franciscan Clarists, but she did not think that she was called to it. In 1912 he made arrangements for her to live in a convent of the Carmelite nuns at Ollur.
Though the Sisters would gladly have admitted her into their Congregation, she did not feel that it was her call. Finally, in 1913 Mar Menachery permitted her to build a prayer house and sent his secretary to bless it. Thresia moved in, and her three companions joined her soon. They led a life of prayer and austere penance like hermits but continued to visit the sick and help the poor and the needy irrespective of religion or caste. The bishop discerned that here was in gestation a new religious Congregation for the service of the family. On May 14, 1914 he erected it canonically and named it the Congregation of the Holy Family (C.H.F.), while receiving the perpetual profession of Mariam Thresia. Her three companions were enrolled as postulants in the new Congregation, while she was appointed its first Superior with Father Joseph Vithayathil as chaplain.
Nurturing the new Congregation
The newly founded Congregation had no written Constitutions. The bishop himself procured the Constitutions of the Holy Family Sisters of Bordeaux from their house in Ceylon (today, Sri Lanka), adapted it and gave it to the foundress. Mother Mariam Thresia saw to its strict observance in the new Congregation, which she nurtured with great care. During and after the difficult years of the First World War, with indomitable energy and utter trust in divine providence, she built, in less than 12 years, three new convents, two schools, two hostels, a study house, and an orphanage.
Education of girls was Mariam Thresia’s theology in action, without the slogan. Several young girls were attracted to her by her simplicity, humility and shining sanctity. At the time of her death at the age of 50 there were 55 Sisters in the Congregation, 30 boarders and 10 orphans under her care. The co-founder Father Joseph Vithayathil continued, till his death in 1964, to nurture the Congregation, which grew steadily. In the year 2000, this Congregation of the Holy Family had 1584 professed Sisters, serving in Kerala, in the mission areas of North India, in Germany, Italy, and Ghana, with a total of 176 houses in 7 provinces and 119 novices.
Death and reputation for sanctity
Mother Mariam Thresia died on June 8, 1926, from a wound on the leg caused by a falling object. The wound defied cure owing to her diabetes. After her death the fame of Mariam Thresia spread as she continued from heaven to succor the sick and the needy through miraculous favors. In 1971 a historical commission collected the necessary evidence regarding her life, virtues and writings and presented it in 1983 before an eparchial (diocesan) tribunal, which also collected the depositions of 15 of the surviving eyewitnesses. On June 28,1999, the Congregation for the Causes of Saints promulgated a decree stating that the Servant of God Mariam Thresia had practiced the Christian virtues heroically, and so she was entitled to be called Venerable.
Of the numerous miraculous cures reported, the following one was examined canonically in 1992.
Mathew Pellissery was born in 1956 with congenital clubfeet and till he was 14 he could only walk with great difficulty on the sides of his feet. After 33 days of fasting and prayer invoking the help of Mother Mariam Thresia by the whole family, his right foot was straightened during night sleep on August 21, 1970. And similarly after 39 days of fasting and prayer his left foot was straightened overnight during sleep on August 28, 1971.
Ever since then Mathew has been able to walk normally. This double healing was declared inexplicable in terms of medical science by as many as nine doctors in India and Italy and was declared a miracle obtained through the intercession of the Servant of God Mariam Thresia by the Congregation for the Causes of Saints on January 27, 2000. This miraculous cure thus met the last canonical requirement for her beatification in April 2000. Pellissery was grateful to be able to be present at this solemn celebration of beatification in Rome.