The Archdiocese of Verapoly observed the 100 death anniversary of Servant of God Mother Eliswa here on Thursday. Mother Eliswa, who hailed from Ochanthuruth in Vypeen, was the founder of the first Carmelite congregation for women in India. She was also the first nun from Kerala and is said to have established the first convent in the State and the first school for girls north of the Periyar.
Before she became a nun, Eliswa, born in October 1831, was the eldest of eight siblings from the wealthy and religious Vypussery family of Ochanthuruth. “They were a ‘Capithan’ family. They were soldiers of the local king and had several tenants under their administration,” says Sr. Susie, a Carmelite nun who has researched the history of the Church and Mother Eliswa’s congregation. “She was able to get some education because of her family’s wealth. There are also texts that speak about her kindness towards the poor tenants of Vypeen,” she says.
At the age of 16, Eliswa, whose name is a Malayalam version of the name Elizabeth, was married off to Vareed Vakayil, an older businessman from Koonammavu near Varapuzha.
The Vakayil family, which traditionally dealt in business of dried ginger ( chukku ) and other goods, had administrative powers over large areas of land in Koonammavu. How the family came by the land is a story that speaks much about the life of the people in those times, if one goes by what Antony Vakayil, the 87-year-old patriarch of the family says. “The people here were so poor that they could not afford to pay taxes. So, nobody was willing to take up administration of land,” he says. Government officials once happened to seize some illegal goods being sold by Vareed. He was given the choice of two punishments – stand in the sun bearing a massive rock for a whole day or take up administration of 600 acres of land. “He chose the latter and assumed control of all these lands,” says Mr. Vakayil. Vareed Vakayil and Eliswa had a daughter named Anna before Vareed passed away, leaving Eliswa a widow at the age of 20.
The custom at the time dictated that the young, wealthy widow would have to remarry. But Eliswa declined all proposals and spent her time in prayer and care of the poor. “She longed to spend the rest of her life in the service of God. A simple hut with a thatched roof was constructed near the Vakayil family’s house at Koonammavu. Here, Eliswa and her child Anna spent much of the next 10 years in prayer,” says Sr. Susie.
The thatched hut and its surroundings have now been recreated by the Church and are kept as a museum chronicling the life of Mother Eliswa.
In 1862, Eliswa spoke about her desire to serve God to her parish priest, a young Italian named Fr. Leopold. The rest has gone into the history of how the Third Order of the Carmelite Discalced (TOCD) was formed. “There were no Malayali nuns then and the Church was considering bringing in Spanish nuns to carry on God’s work here. That is when Mother Eliswa came forward willing to serve. The Church trained her along with her sister Thresia and daughter Anna, who were also drawn to Mother Eliswa’s way of life,” said a nun of the order.
In 1866, the first nuns from Kerala formed the Congregation of Teresian Carmelites (CTC) under TOCD. The first convent was a simple bamboo-mat house at Koonammavu, on the land once administered by Vareed Vakayil. The congregation, under Mother Eliswa, was given the task of teaching girls who had no means to pursue education. St. Joseph’s LP School at Koonammavu was set up in 1868 as the first Catholic school for girls in Malabar. Mother Eliswa’s mission in life was to educate young girls and she set up several girls’ schools here.
When she moved to Varapuzha after the separation of the Latin and Syrian rites of the Church, St. Joseph’s School for Girls at Varapuzha was set up. Mother Eliswa breathed her last on July 18, 1913, at the convent near the Varapuzha school.
Today, the order has around 1,400 nuns in 171 convents around the country. Over the 100 years after the death of Mother Eliswa, the Carmelite order in the country grew in size and extended its operations in the field of women’s education and welfare.