The winter of 1909 was unusually cold and cruel in Puthenchira, Kerala. Smallpox began spreading and many were dying without medicine and care. People were frightened to the extent that the affected individuals were condemned to be burned alive along with their hut or buried alive. Wherever you spot bonfire, there you could hear the helpless screamings out of pain. Vaccination could not reach to the southern tip of this tropical land in the beginning of 20th century. It was during this time a brown robe clad nun and her companions took the brave decision to take care of such suffering people irrespective of caste, gender and religion. It was unusual at that time and strange for young women to go out of their houses. Political situations were also worse. Caste system was widely practised. Despite oppositions, with courage and trust in their Master they served the sick and the dying. That nun was St. Mariam Thresia who was canonized on 13 October 2019 at St. Peter’s square. One needs to look into her past to understand the source of her strength and valour. Her Femininity reflected various hues like that of a ray reflected by a prism.
Thresia was born on 1876 April 26 in Thrissur district of Kerala. From childhood, she was oriented to God and prayer. She used to do mortifications and voluntarily take fasts from the age of nine. Though her father and siblings didn’t like this, her mother understood her. At the age of 12, she lost her mother. She overcame this by taking Mother Mary as her mother and by starting a friend circle with three other ladies. They went through houses visiting the sick and old. Her prayer life didn’t stop her from reaching out to the needy. She had many visions, ecstasies, locutions etc. She is the first woman from India to receive the gift of stigmata of the Lord. She also suffered from dark nights and tormentations from the devil. She faced all this with the help of her spiritual father and now Venerable Fr. Joseph Vithayathil. Even the then Bishop Mar Thomas Menacherry suspected her as a hysteric and schizophrenic but Fr. Joseph stood by her as he was her confessor. Once the Bishop ordered an exorcism on her and another time he strongly insulted her. Though the church authorities were harsh on her she obeyed them with complete obedience. Seeing her humility and perseverance the bishop approved her dream to start a house for the poor. Later being satisfied with her conduct and life Bishop himself started a congregation for her and appointed Thresia as its General. The congregation was named after Holy family because of the devotion of Thresia to the Holy family. She was 38 when she began the Congregation of Holy Family. She knew families were the places where problems began. Therefore charism of her congregation stressed on family apostolate. According to the mandates of Fr.Vithayathil she had written many letters and autobiographical notes and spiritual experiences. These are enough to tell the state of perfection that her soul achieved. Her soul was burning with love of God and people. It was impossible for an unlettered woman to write deep mystical matters that only a sage or mystic can write.
Thresia became a saint not through the miracles but through her life of prayer and action. She never stepped out of her village except to meet the Maharaja of Travancore for a help. Though she didn’t travel much she could start a big revolution in Kerala. She could become a beacon of hope for the women and people at the peripheries. She started boarding schools, dispensaries, orphanages etc. She wanted her nuns also to be educated and efficient. Therefore she sent her nuns for higher studies. She was a woman with great vision – A nun who changed the conventional notion of being a nun. She was a mystic who was concerned about the world.
Mariam Thresia became a saint by doing ordinary things with extraordinary love. She had a large heart for understanding the pain of the other. She was a contemporary of St Alphonsa and she could live with St Euphrasia in the Carmelite convent for a few days. There is a common thread that connects their lives. Three of them were known as passion flowers. All the three had intense spiritual experiences and had to undergo many trials and sufferings. They all burned with love for Christ the crucified. All three of them had strong resemblances with the life of St Theresa of Lisieux. It is a wonder and divine work for sure that He raised three saints at the beginning of a century which had two world wars. Their lives helped people to face the difficulties and they still help many. I believe lives of saints are a beacon of hope and assurance of the presence of a loving God who is concerned about the world He created. Life of St Mariam Thresia reiterates it.
By Deslin Paulson SJ