Venerable Mother Eliswa, the pioneer of religious life among women in Kerala remains a splendid model of Consecrated life in the Church. Mother Eliswa is also the forerunner of the Carmelite way of life for women in India. On November 8, 2023, His Holiness Pope Francis authorized the promulgation of the Decree of the Dicastery for the Causes of Saints regarding the heroic virtues of Mother Eliswa of the Blessed Virgin Mary (in the world: Eliswa Vakayil), foundress of the Congregation of the Third Order of the Discalced Carmelites (tocd), now the Teresian Carmelite Sisters (ctc).
Eliswa was born on October 15, 1831 in the rich and pious Vyppissery family in Cruz Milagris Parish, at Ochanthuruth, as the eldest daughter of Thomman and Thanda (Kathreena). Her sister Thresia was the co-foundress of this tocd and her brother Fr. Louis Vyppissery was the first ordained priest of the Indigenous Discalced Carmelites for the Latin Rite. He was a scholar, linguist, writer and was very famous as one who issued the first Catholic bimonthly publication in Kerala against the Protestant propagations. Mother Eliswa’s uncle, Fr. Thomas Guyommar Panambil was the secretary of Archbishop Bernardine Baccinelli, the then Apostolic Vicar of Verapoly.
Eliswa was exceptional from her childhood in her compassion towards the poor, her devotion to Our Lady and her ardent love to the Eucharistic Lord. Her desire was to love and serve Jesus in the poor and needy, but married life was the only lifestyle for girls at that time. Through her marriage with Vatharu Vakayil in 1847, she reached Koonammavu, the fertile soil of the Carmelite missionary activities. Eliswa started her life in the Vakayil family and was blessed with a girl child on April 21, 1850. Vatharu died in 1851, when Anna was only one and half years and Eliswa was 20. Mother Eliswa denied the proposals for a second marriage and spent a life of contemplative prayer, detachment and humility. They changed their residence to a small granary house and she practiced contemplative prayer for many years by turning to the side of the Blessed Sacrament in the church. She identified herself with the Lord, and the Holy Spirit instilled in her the spiritual desire to grow to the heights of His love in Carmel. The heavenly Sower sowed the seeds of contemplative prayer life, love for silence, solitude and detachment in her heart.
She was a humble instrument in the hands of God and accomplished the plan of God in favour of the women in the society. The foundation of the first religious Congregation for Women and the education of girls through convent school, boarding house and orphanage, opened a new horizon in the lives of the women. In 1862, one day in the evening, Mother Eliswa underwent great stirring in her heart and prayed to the Lord in the church. During her prayer, she had a divine inspiration to reveal her special charism to Fr. Leopold Beccaro, ocd. Anna, her daughter, and Thresia, her sister, shared the charism and followed the life of prayer and meditation.
Fr. Leopold ocd convinced the Apostolic Vicar, Archbishop Bernardine, about the genuineness of Mother Eliswa’s call and charism. The Archbishop made the necessary study and evaluation of their family situation, life and spirituality. He was happy to know that they were the nieces of Fr. Thomas Guyommar, his Secretary, and the brother of Eliswa and Thresia, Louis, was a seminarian in the Monastery. Archbishop Bernardine obtained the Constitutions of the Discalced Carmelite Nuns of Genoa and made necessary arrangements to start the tocd Congregation for women. Archbishop Bernardine officially accepted Eliswa, Anna and Thresia as foundation stones of the Third Order of the Discalced Carmelite Congregation (tocd) on February 12, 1866, by issuing the Decree Documentum Erectionis. On February 13, 1866, these three members of Latin Rite were given the Carmelite scapular by Fr. Leopold ocd and they entered the temporary convent. On the next day a widow from the Syro-Malabar rite was received by Mother Eliswa.
A new convent was built for them and it was blessed on March 27, 1867, by Fr. Leopold. The same day they received the Carmelite habit and entered the novitiate. On July 16, 1868, Mother Eliswa and the first members made their religious profession. They started education for girls as their apostolate on July 20, 1868, and started a school, boarding house and orphanage for girls. After the division of the Archdiocese of Verapoly, the tocd Congregation for women was divided according to the Latin and Syro-Malabar rites in 1890. Mother Eliswa and Latin sisters had to shift their residence from Koonammavu. The Archbishop accommodated Mother Eliswa and the sisters temporarily at Ernakulam and later brought them to the new convent at Varapuzha. The Latin branch is known as the Congregation of Teresian Carmelites (ctc) and the Syro-Malabar branch as the Congregation of the Mother of Carmel (cmc). After 23 years of virtuous living at Varapuzha, Mother Eliswa received her eternal reward on July 18, 1913, at the age of 82. She was declared a Servant of God on May 30, 2008, by Archbishop Daniel Acharuparmbil ocd.
Mother Eliswa lived in heroic faith, solid trust in God and ardent love for God and people around her. She was addressed by the contemporary local historian as prapancha viraktha (one who is detached totally from all earthly things). She made no claim on her earthly properties and proclaimed through life that God is her only treasure. She was prudent and patient in challenges and, through her life in Carmel, witnessed the Beatitudes in the Gospel. Mother Eliswa, the first religious woman in Kerala, shines as the superb model for all Consecrated people and spreads the fragrance of heroic virtues. She remains a worthy instrument of God and leaven of divine love to revitalize the lives of women and families. The ctc has spread its branches in many other countries like Italy, Germany, the United States and Rwanda, with 213 convents and 1,400 professed members in nine provinces and two regions. Venerable Mother Eliswa lives in the Church through her glorious witness to the Gospel and through her followers’ committed service to humanity.
* Superior General
Congregation of Teresian Carmelites
(Ref. Positio, Super Vita, Virtutibus et Fama Sanctitatis, Stampato nel mese di luglio 2020 da Tipografia NOVA RES srl, ROMAE)
By Dr Sr Soosamma ctc*