Seminary Life: On the completion of his high school studies successfully he expressed his deep desire to be a Priest to his uncle, the Archbishop of Ernakulam Mar Augustine Kandathil with the request to be admitted in the minor seminary for priestly studies. His request was granted and he joined the Petty Minor Seminary at Ernakulum, in the year 1925 May with the blessings of his uncle late Archbishop Mar Augustine Kandathil. Rev. Dr. Msgr. T. K. Nampiaparampil was the Rector. Msgr. Jacob Naduvathussery, Fr Thomas Vattoly and Fr Joseph Parayil were the Professors. The student had to learn Latin, English and Syrian languages. Bro. Joseph was particularly proficient in English language. After two years of studies in the minor seminary, he was chosen to be sent to the major seminary in Mangalore for higher studies because of his intellectual brilliance. The Archbishop had very high opinion about him and his character especially with regard to his obedience. He was very submissive and took pain in obeying at any coast. During his studies he began to practice all kinds of virtues. It paved the way for his future apostolate. He developed a close friendship with Dr. L. P. Fernandez from whom he learned basic principles of Homeopathy treatment.
In Kankanady, a little away from Muller’s General hospital in Mangalore, Dr. Muller was managing a hospital for treating leprosy patients. Bro. Joseph frequently visited this hospital from where he understood the extent of misery of the leprosy patients. He also observed how the doctors there lovingly and patiently treated these repulsive patients and dressed their wounds. This inspired Bro. Joseph to dedicate his future apostolate to alleviate the suffering of the lepers. We read the following note in his diary. “During the ecclesiastical studies in Mangalore Seminary, due to some sickness I was admitted twice in Fr Muller’s hospital. The chief physician Dr. L.P Fernadez used to visit me. He gave me some advice about leading a truly priestly life. Behind the Hospital of Fr Muller I used to visit the leprosy Asylum from where I got the idea of helping the leprosy patients.” The very instructions received from the doctor and the enriching experiences of the life in the seminary and his humble service in the Fr Muller’s hospital motivated him to live his priesthood in a very radically centered on the love of Jesus the Crucified. His particular devotions to his patron St Joseph, Mary Immaculate and to St Luis
made him stronger in his convictions and that was a spiritual boost for him in carrying out his charism in a most effective manner.
Ordination: Bro. Joseph edified himself to the staff and students of St Joseph’s Seminary, Mangalore through his diligence in studies, punctuality in religious duties, readiness in helping others and courteous behavior. On successful completion of his studies in the seminary he was chosen to be ordained a priest. The priestly ordinations took place on December 17, 1933 in the Cathedral church at Ernakulam. He received the Sacerdotal Ordination from his uncle Most. Rev. Augustine Kandathil. On the 18th December he said mass in his own parish at Chempu and on the following day he said mass in his mother’s parish at Vechoor. There was an interesting incident about his ordination. It was his principle not to have any pomp and celebration in connection with his ordination. His grandmother wanted to put a gold rosary on his neck, but he took it from her hand and did not allow her to put it on his neck. After the mass in his mother’s parish, instead of visiting the houses of his kith and kin and enjoying receptions and festivities as newly ordained priests usually do, Fr Joseph stayed in a Bungalow at Chengal near Kalady, which was the house of the Archbishop. Fr Joseph imagined his would be mission and spent the entire time in intense prayer and study. He wanted to do something great for the Lord especially through service to the suffering humanity, the abandoned and neglected sections of the society. He remained here in intense prayer and reflection until he got his first appointment
The first appointment: On 1st March 1934, Fr Joseph was appointed as assistant vicar to St Mary’s Church, Muttom Cherthala. The sight of a tall lean young priest, with an umbrella and a bag in his hand coming all alone to take charge of his office was a curious sight to the parishioners. They looked in admiration at this strange young priest who looked somehow extraordinary to them. He entered the church, prayed for some time and went to the parish priest, Rev Fr Kuruvila Alunkara and paid his respect and sought his blessings before taking charge as assistant.
Fr Joseph as a zealous priest: Immediately Fr Joseph started his pastoral work in right earnestness. As he was interested in music he selected some young people with musical talent and organized a choir group. They not only sang in the church for the holy services but also went through the neighboring streets singing beautiful songs. This attracted the on lookers and shopkeepers who in appreciation of their musical performance voluntarily contributed some donations to them. They entrusted the money to Fr Joseph who made use of this amount for helping the poor students.
At that there were no proper roads time in Cherthala, and it was not an easy task to visit houses. But this did not deter Fr Joseph from visiting the homes of all people irrespective of their caste and creed. He trod the hot sands of Cherthala to visit every house in the parish boundary. He understood their poverty and diseases, which made the life of ordinary people miserable. He could not close his eyes at this sad plight. He approached the well-to-do people of the locality and explained to them the poverty and misery of the people in general. He requested their help. Most of them contributed voluntarily money, clothes and foodstuffs to this young zealous priest. The following note is from his diary. “There was no conversion work in the parish then. I requested Fr Vicar to appoint Mr. Antony Kandathiparambil as a catechist. He did so for a salary of Rs 3.00 per month. After the parish work, I used to go and visit the house of low caste people in their poor huts with the catechist and I spoke to them about God. They showed interest in hearing us. We continued this for about three years. Vayalar was a centre chosen to give instructions to low caste people (Pulayas). I saw leprosy patients also in some places without anybody to help them. Some were dying abandoned by all.” Many of the lepers were suffering with foul-smelling ulcers and wounds, even covered with worms. Nobody cared for these unfortunate people. Fr. Joseph was touched by this sight and he remembered the words of the Lord “As long as you did it to one of the least of these my brethren you did it to me” and I was sick and you cared for me.” The sympathetic and compassionate heart of Fr. Joseph was shaken and was ready to care for these sick and dying at any time of the day or night. He gave them not only spiritual solace but also medicine and other material helps. All people respected and loved him.
When he visited the poor families the women use to spread the mat on the floor, he sat on the mats and taught the people catechism. The people welcomed him eagerly into their homes and all were very much consoled by his visit and help. By his great effort and with the help of the catechist Mr. Antony, he could convert about 600 people to Christianity. Thus the conversion work at Muttom was very much progressing.
He was also a lover of arts. With the help of some experts like Cherthala Kuttappan, Fr Joseph trained people in music, band, drama and other art forms. For him this was not merely a means of entertainment but a powerful medium to spread the Gospel of Christ. He organized prayer centers to foster devotion to Our Lady in the month of May. These centers gradually developed into parish churches in due course of time. Along with these activities, he also encouraged adult literary centers especially in places where there were no schools.
Fr Joseph Starts Medical Centers: At that time there was hardly any medical help available for common people in Cherthala, Fr. Joseph decide to do something in this regard. He rented a building near the Carmelite Convent in Muttom and started dispensing homeo medicines to patients as he had learned in Mueller’s hospital in Mangalore. But gradually he realized that allopathic medicine was more effective and so he sent his helper Mr. P. J. Antony to Dharmagiri hospital in Kothamangalam for four months training and latter to L. F. Hospital Angamaly for two months training. In the absence of P. J. Antony, Fr. Joseph continued the medical service by himself. But it was too much for him. So he sought the help of some sisters from the neighbouring Carmelite Convent. Srs. Regina and Josephina were deputed to help him. He also started an orphanage adjacent to his medical centre.
Mr. P. J. Antony came back after his medical training. But the absence of trained nurses was a hindrance to his medical services. At his request, Msgr. Joseph Panjikaran, the director of Dharmagiri Sisters, made arrangements for Sisters Augusta and Tresa Margaret for training in nursing and midwifery in Bangalore. After their return the medical service continued more vigorously and efficiently. Fr. Joseph notes it in his diary: “After some time we opened a dispensary in Muttom Bazar, appointed a Lady Doctor and a Carmelite sister who had completed nursing in Bangalore. For a year the dispensary worked there.”
Fr. Joseph’s sense of cleanliness, punctuality and commitment to work, and spirit of prayer touched the hearts of co-workers. He started his day’s work with prayer in the chapel with his associates. Then they all together swept and cleaned all the instruments and premises of the dispensary. From May 1942, some sisters form S. D. Convent (Sisters of Destitute) Chunangamveli, came to help Fr. Joseph. So he relieved the Carmelite sisters.
In his dispensary Fr Joseph also started dispensing medicine to the leprosy patients and dressing their wounds. This caused an inflow of leprosy patients into Mutoom Bazar. This exasperated the residents. They feared that the whole locality would soon be infected with leprosy germs. So they opposed Fr Joseph’s work of helping the leprosy patients. He understood the mentality of the people; nevertheless, he wanted to continue the work without harassing the people.
Fr. Joseph Finds A New Place For His Leprosy Apostolate:while on his bicycle through the boundaries of the parish, he spotted a place about 5km south of Muttom Bazar, it was a lonely place with no human habitation. It was an arid waste land unsuitable for cultivation. There were only some thorny bushes under which poisonous snakes had their abode. At that time the place, was being used as a burial ground for unclaimed dead bodies of humans and animals. The place had a desolate ghostly look. People called it “Anatharaveli” (an abode of most dreaded devils) for they feared that ghosts and devils haunted the place. Nobody dared to tread the place even during daytime because of the fear of ghosts, jackals; stray dogs and vultures were always in the place waiting for the dead bodies to be brought.
Fr. Joseph somehow felt that this was an ideal place for him to start his leprosy hospital without molesting anybody. He approached the owner of the land, Mr. Luke Antony Kandathilparambil who was a parishioner of Muttom. Mr. Luke Antony readily consented because the plot was not of much use to him. The people of Muttom also encouraged his to give the plot to Fr. Joseph, because they could thus avert the danger of leprosy from their area. On October 12, 1937, Mr. Luke Antony donated 4 acres and 50 cents of this land free of cost. Fr. Joseph registered the deed not in his name but in the name of the Archdiocese of Ernakulam.
Mr. Luke Antony who had no male child so far was born a son soon after this. As a token of gratitude to God, he donated the rest of the land also to Fr. Joseph in order to start a leprosy hospital. Fr. Joseph wanted to have it separated from the public burial ground through a compound wall. He first had this area cleared of thorny bushes and the remains of dead bodies buried there in. All his travel to the place from Muttom was by bicycle. To get the permission to start a leprosy hospital, he wrote to the Government. It was granted. He also sought the permission and blessings of the Archbishop of Ernakulam and the neighbouring Bishops for the project. They blessed and encouraged him. He wrote to Msgr. L. P. Kterkels, the Apostolic Nuncio in Delhi who along with his blessings sent him a cheque for Rs. 50, which was rather unusual for the Nunciature. Fr. Joseph showed the cheque and the letter of approval to the Vicar Fr. Alunkara. Fr. Joseph had also received some donations from his friends and benefactors. He added his little pocket money to the project.
The starting date of the compound wall was fixed as 20th January. Then he received the news that his uncle priest was seriously sick in Palluruthy hospital and so he went to visit him. In his absence, Fr. Alunkara inaugurated the work. Mr. Kuriakos Kooply lent his lorry for transporting the materials. As the work of the compound wall progressed, opposition again cropped up. Some people threatened that they would not allow a leprosy hospital to be set up. A part of the compound wall was demolished.
Then a prominent advocate of Muttom, Mr. Varkey Chirackal came to the defense of Fr Joseph. He told the opponents that the project for helping the poor leprosy patients was a noble humanitarian work. The plot being an isolated one causes no danger to people. He exhorted the people to cooperate and encourage Fr. Joseph in his noble venture which hardly anyone else dared to undertake. Thus the opposition subsided. The construction work of the compound wall was resumed. It was a curious sight to the neighbourhood. So they called this plot “MATHILAKAM” (Inside the compound wall). Thus the present name “MATHILAKAM” was evolved.
Anatharaveli Turns into Greengardens: Fr. Joseph cherished the vision of turning this arid land into an evergreen garden full of greenery, flowers and fruit bearing trees. He dug wells for irrigation. He dug pits which were filled with manure and fertile soil brought outside. He then brought seedlings of coconut trees, mangoes and other fruit bearing trees, which were planted in the pits. He had watered it daily. In due course of time, the whole area bloomed into a green garden with flowers and fruit trees to the wonder and admiration of all spectators. People no longer feared to come to the area. In fact, they approached him to learn the secret of such cultivation. Impressed by his work many came forward to help him with money and materials.
Fr. Joseph Launches A Fund Raising Campaign: With the clear vision of his projects for helping leprosy patients, Fr. Joseph launched a fund raising campaign. Together with his helper Antony, he visited places like Kanjirapally, Kottayam, Thrichur, Kollam, Thiruvananthapuram, Alapuzha and Kuttana. Many good and rich people responded generously. But these journeys badly affected his health. In those days Kanjirapally was a malaria stricken area and many people died of Malaria. After the collection of money in Kanjirapally Fr. Joseph went to St George’s church Aruvithara to stay for the night. He got a severe attack of Malaria there and the time was such that there was no proper medicine for malaria. Fr. Joseph could not sleep in bed, so lay down on the cement floor but he could not sleep due to high fever and shivering. The parish priest could not help him and he prepared some black coffee and gave him. To get relief, early morning Fr. Joseph jumped in to a nearby river to cool himself. After getting little relief, he returned to Cherthala. Here he was treated by a physician and there was no relief. The fever and exhaustion troubled him and his condition became serious and he was at the point of death. Many people came from Cherthala and other places to see him thinking that he would pass away soon. At that time a new doctor came and took charge at the government hospital, Cherthala and he was called to treat Fr. Joseph. Thanks to the Lord, the doctor could diagnose his case and treated him with quinine bubbles which were the only treatment for malaria available and he had a narrow escape from death. The Lord watch over his children and comes in time to reuse them from pain and suffering. More than the medicine, it was the trust in Divine Providence and prayers to our Lady and St Joseph that restored his health.
The Birth of a Great Institution – For The Rejected Brethren: Now Fr. Joseph’s the sole desire was to build a hospital and dispensary for the lepers. He stormed the heavens with prayers and sacrifices. An idea arises in him ‘to beg’. He went from place to place and house to house begging. He was not ashamed to extend his hands before the people to get something for the poor. The people kept alms boxes in shops and churches and collected money for him. Every single paisa was so precious. As there were two assistants, the vicar permitted Fr. Joseph to continue his begging tours. On August 2nd 1939 was a great day for this institution as on that day Fr. Joseph blessed and laid the foundation of his humble leprosy hospital in Greengardens. It had only two rooms. He used one for his stay and the other for dispensing medicines and dressing the wounds of the patients. His sleep was disturbed by the frightening howls of jackals and dogs from the neighbouring burial ground. Many of those who opposed him gradually turned in to his admirers and benefactors. People of Muttom and neighbouring places contributed a share of their coconut crops and money regularly to him. Some gave Rs 2 some Rs 5 and others Rs 10. But every bit was very precious. Fr. Joseph frequently went for begging and whatever he got he used for the construction work. Rev. Fr. Basillos Panat C.S.T. and Mr. J E. A. Pereira MLA from Kollam were some of his prominent benefactors. About them there is a not in Father’s diary. “Mr. J. E. A. Pereira MLA is one of the pioneers of these institutions who encouraged both by substantial help and other timely advice at the time of troubles. It seems to be an instrument of Providence for the founding of these institutions. These institutions were installed with electricity as a souvenir of their Wedding Silver Jubilee 1922 – 1947.” S D Sisters In The Field Of Service To Help The Project: Fr. Joseph felt that in order to continue his work efficiently he needed the service of some committed religious sisters. So he approached Archbishop Kandathil with the request, in consultation with the Vicar General of the time Msgr. George Valliarampath, to have two sisters from the Congregation of Sisters of Destitute. Thus Srs. Theresita and Christina came to help. Fr. Joseph sent these sisters for training in Government Leprosy Hospital in Nooranand, Kollam. They returned after the training and joined the service in Greengardens on February 1st 1942.
On February 2nd 1942 Msgr. Valliarampath, the Vicar General formerly blessed and inaugurated the convent and its chapel in Greengardens. On the same day, Mr. M. Neelakanda Iyer, the chief Secretary of Travancore inaugurated the Leprosy Hospital. On this occasion he wrote the following in the visitor’s diary. “The arrangements are in full swing. The buildings put up are well-designed and well-equipped. Success depends upon the support of the Government and public. I trust such support will be forth coming and the Institution which is a real need will prosper.” (Mr. M. Neelakanda Iyer, the chief Secretary of Travancore, on February 2nd 1942)
Thus the cherished dream of Fr. Joseph was fulfilled. The dispensary at Muttom Bazar and the orphanage attached were entrusted to S. D. Sisters. They traveled daily to Greengardens in a bullock cart driven by P. J. Antony. The bullock cart later gave way to horse driven carriage. In 1945, an Abhaya Bhavan and Sisubhavan were started in Greengardens. As a result, the dispensary and orphanage in Muttom were closed down. On July 13th 1946 however, the S. D. Sisters were called back to their head quarters.
The Helping Hands of M. S. J. Sisters: As the instruction of the Archbishop of Ernakulam, three M. S. J. Sisters from Dharmagiri Hospital, Kothamangalam, namely Srs. Hycintha, Cicily and Monica came to help Fr. Joseph in Greengardens. They were qualified nurses. We find the following note in Fr. Joseph’s diary: “On July 14th 1946 Sunday on the octave of the feast of the Most Precious Blood of Jesus, the Medical Sisters of St. Joseph, Kothamangalam took charge of the Institutions. Three of the sisters, Sr. Cicily and Sr. Monica, accompanied by their Mother General and Director vey Rev. Msgr. Joseph Panjikaran started from mother house in a car and reached the Archbishop’s house by 1pm. After taking meal from St Mary’s Convent and visiting His Grace Archbishop Mar. Augustine Kandathil, the organizer took the sisters and reached Muttom Church by 4.30pm. After visiting Rev. Fr. Joseph Koikara, the new Vicar of Muttom St Mary’s Church they reached Greengardens by 5pm. They took charge of the Institution on that same day itself after the Benediction and blessing of the convent, dedicated to the Sacred Heart.”
Fr. Joseph managed to buy a ‘horse cart’ to bring doctors and to by things for the institution etc. he had already bought a bullock cart. When the people saw that the institution was managed and run well, many came forward to help him. Now his mind turned to other rejected sections of the society namely the abandoned children, unwed mothers and fallen women. Mr. K. J. Kurian Kaniamparambil, Alapuzha came to help Fr. Joseph with a substantial amount. With his help he made a house both for the abandoned children and fallen women. By the end of 1946 father could admit a few destitute women and abandoned children in the poor home (Rescue Home). His heart was filled with joy and consolation when he could extended his care and help to all those who needed God’s compassion and love. This house is the present Sneha Bhavan at present.
Birth of a Congregation – First Members of ASMI: Nothing happens in this world unless it is planned and arranged by the loving Father in Heaven. Ver. Rev. Msgr. Panjikaran got sick and was bed ridden and the sisters went to visit him. On such occasions Fr. Joseph was left alone to look after the leprosy patients, general hospital, rescue home, foundling home etc. such pressure of work compelled Fr. Joseph to take a few girls, and train them to help the Dharmagiri Sisters. The first girl who came to join the group was Miss. M. V. Thresiamma, Mullanchira from Cherthala. Her father died of typhoid in our hospital which was conducted then in the priest’s quarters. Before his death Thresiamma’s father entrusted his daughter to Fr. Joseph. This girl was so longing for to join a congregation and dedicate herself to the glory of God and for the service of others. Fr. Joseph took it as a sign that the Lord wanted him to start a new congregation which will work mainly for the care of the lepers. The second girl who joined was Kochumariam, Kariyil, from Chalil parish approached Fr. Joseph with a request for admission to the congregation on April 4th 1946. Fr. Joseph sent both these girls to Ollur, to learn tailoring and both of them came back after a few months course. The third girl who comes to join was Annakutty Vandamprayil from Kuravilangad. The fourth one was Rosamma Mavunkal from Cherthala. The fifth one was Mary Augustine Komattam from Elanji who joined the group on March 31st 1949. Fr. Joseph gave them some classes and training and prepared them for religious life. He went to Ernakulam to consult the Archbishop about his idea of having a congregation dedicated for the service of the lepers, the poor and the needy. But the Archbishop was not in favour as there were already three new congregations in the Archdiocese of Ernakulam, namely the Destitute Sisters, The Medical Sisters of St Joseph and the Nazareth Sisters. But Fr. Joseph was not discouraged. He prayed all the more earnestly to know the will of God with fasting and sacrifice. The sisters, girls and the leprosy patients also joined him in prayer to discern the will of God.
In the meantime the construction for the present Assisi convent with two rooms was completed and on February 10th 1949 it was blessed by Fr. Joseph Koikara vicar of Muttom church assisted by Rev. Fr. Antoney Pudessery, the assistant priest of Muttom. Fr. Joseph met the Archbishop again and pleaded with him to grant him permission to start the congregation and to give religious habit to the few girls who were already trained as postulants. But the Archbishop did not grant him permission. Yet Fr. Joseph was not discouraged, he confided and trusted in the Lord all the more. He knew definitely that the spirit was urging and moving him to found a congregation.
From 1949 A Franciscan Congregation
The Assisi Sisters of Mary Immaculate: Fr. Joseph had not yet a clear idea of the Congregation, which he wanted to start. He began to pray and think deeply about it. Fr. Joseph writes regarding an experience that supported and strengthened his desire. He writes; “I was preaching a retreat to the Carmelite Sisters Muttom Convent. I was also making a retreat myself. One day, after an hour of adoration before the Blessed Sacrament, I went to sleep. During the sleep I had a vision. I saw Crucified Christ embracing St Francis of Assisi. Up to that time I had not cherished any special devotion to St Francis of Assisi. But this vision changed my mind. I began to study more deeply the life and work of St. Francis of Assisi.” In the seminary he was always under the guidance of the Jesuits and not Franciscans. He began to take interest in St. Francis. He joined the 3rd Order of St. Francis of Assisi and took the name Bro. Louis. He began to imbibe more deeply the spirit and charism of St. Francis of Assisi. The spirit made him realize that the new religious congregation which the Lord wanted him to found should be a Franciscan Congregation drawing inspiration from the spirit and charism of St. Francis of Assisi. He continued his prayers. He specially sought the intercession of Mary Immaculate and Little Flower for the foundation of the congregation.
Fr. Joseph went again to meet the Archbishop and requested him to give religious habits to the few girls he was forming. This time the Archbishop Mar Augustine Kandathil gave him an encouraging word and an oral permission to start the congregation. The postulants shifted their residence from S. H. convent to the newly constructed Assisi Convent on April 2nd 1949 and thus the congregation was officially inaugurated that day. Fr. Joseph wanted that the congregation be founded as a souvenir of the Sacerdotal Golden Jubilee of His holiness Pope Pius XII. The formation of the postulants started with regular classes every day. But they had a lot work, along with rescue women, carried heavy loads for the institution, and watered the coconut trees and the other trees of the whole institution. There was much famine and scarcity of food in the whole of Cherthala due to the 2nd World War. Very often the postulants had to suffer much hunger and other privations, as the institution was only just coming up. But all of them were zealous and hard working and ready for any sacrifice.
It was time for the vestition of the postulants. In preparation for the vestition a retreat was arranged on September for 24th 1949. Rev. Fr. Henery OFM cap, preached the retreat. The selected candidates for the vestition were postulants M. V. Thresiamma, Rosamma Mavunkal and Mary Augusty Komattam. Sr Annie Hyacinth of Dharmagiri arranged everything for their vestition and prepared the religious dress. As fixed earlier the vestition took place on 9th October 1949 without any solemnity, prior to Holy Mass. During the ceremony they were given the religious names as Sr Teresitta Mary, Sr. Seraphia Mary and Sr. Margaret Mary respectively. The three postulants were vested privately in the chapel. Fr. Joseph blessed and gave them the veils and the miraculous medals. This was the first simple ceremony of the vestition of “The Assisi Sisters of Mary Immaculate”
Since the Assisi Sisters should be under the guidance and protection of Mary Immaculate and each sister ought to be another Mary, giving Jesus to the world, therefore Fr. Joseph gave this name to the congregation. He wanted that Mother Mary should be the Governing Mother of the congregation. Therefore he insisted that the Superiors of Assisi congregation should not be called ‘Mother’ but each superior should act in the name of Mary Immaculate.
The Great Storm: Mgr. Joseph Panjikaran’s sickness become serious and he died on November 4th 1949. All the Dharmagiri sisters left the institution for his burial and they came back after a day. They were very sad of the sudden death of their beloved founder and they wanted to leave the institution. Their mother General came to Cherthala to take all the sisters to Dharmagiri and on 8th December 1949 all of them left Greengardens. The newly vested little sisters were left alone to take charge of the whole work. We can imagine the great sorrow of Fr. Joseph and all the little ones who were in experience. On the same day, December 8th 1949 evening postulants Kochumariam Kariyil was vested and given the name as Sr Agnes. Postulant Annakutty Vandamprayil was sick and was not vested and after few years of sincere service to the institution she left Greengardens.
The four little sisters who were very young and inexperienced had to do all the work of the institutions alone, of course Fr. Joseph was there to carry on with the lion’s share of the work. The sisters were united in one heart and soul, very disciplined and mature. Fr. Joseph had trained them in strict disciple, order, neatness, hard work and above all in prayer life. Sr. Teresitta Mary, who was the first member, holy, devoted and hardworking was given the appointment as superior. She was called as “Sr. Prefect” instead of superior. Though she was a young sister of 19 years and had no novitiate, she was very much filled with the spirit of St Francis. She was very deep in her prayer life and well known for her penitential life. She was ready for any service, night and day. Above all she was a great success in keeping all the members united under her leadership. Though they had not made any vow, they lived as though they had taken the vows and they were very faithful to community life and prayers.
The Vicar of Muttom, Fr Vattacattussery was not so happy about the formation of the new congregation. He sent some report to the Archbishop of Ernakulam. Accordingly the Archbishop sent Mgr. Mathew Pothanamuzhy the vicars general who later become the Bishop of Kothamangalam to make a careful investigation of the affairs about the newly vested sisters and about the institutions. He was deeply impressed by the work done by the sisters. He stayed here for few days, personally watched and experienced what the sisters were doing. He met each sister individually. He was very much surprised and he admired the good works the little sisters were doing, they were very punctual for their religious duties such as recitation of canonical hours together with daily Mass and other religious practices along with one reality and the need, such committed young religious to continue the services rendered to the lepers who were rejected by the society, they were hard working and did everything in a spirit of sacrifice etc. Community living and team spirit were very strong in them.
So the Vicar General submitted a very good report to the Archbishop denying the allegation brought against the congregation and strongly recommending Fr Kandathil’s venture. The sisters were though young and not much educated (all of them had completed their middle school studies) the Lord made use of them as the foundation stones of this new congregation, just as He used the apostles who were simple and uneducated for the foundation of the church. According to his instruction the little sisters went to Ernakulam to meet His Grace on 13th March 1950. The Archbishop, Vicar General, Father Secretary and the other officials of the curia asked so many questions to these little ones. All of them were below 20 years and they gave very satisfactory answers bravely and all were determined to continue the religious life in spite of all the hardships they were undergoing. They were ready to serve the lepers and the other poor and needy of the society according to the charism of St Francis of Assisi, whatever be the difficulties, under the guidance of Fr. Joseph. The Archbishop was very much pacified and his strong objection for giving the religious habit to the sisters subside and all the other misunderstandings were cleared. He gave permission to Fr. Joseph to invite more girls to the congregation. Fr. Joseph and the sisters set to work with renewed enthusiasm and self confidence.
Tests: The Vicar of Muttom Fr. Joseph Koikara was admitted in the hospital in Ernakulam. Fr. Joseph and sisters form Greengardens visited him. He did not seem to be in a critical condition, but he expired suddenly on April 1st 1950. It was a serious blow to Fr. Kandathil because Fr. Koikara was a great friend and benefactor of Greengardens Institutions. Before Fr. Kandathil could recover from the pain, the second blow came. It was the death of Fr. Joseph’s Father, who although old, used to visit Greengardens now and then and encourage his son in his heroic service. He died on May 24th 1950.
The Great Sorrow: Fr. Joseph gave an advertisement in the weekly ‘Sathyadeepam’ inviting girls to the congregation. Two more girls came seeking admission on 31st May 1950. They were Rosamma Edayadiyil and Mariakutty Thattaradyil from Changanasherry diocese. After the official enquiry from the curia everything went on peacefully and Fr. Joseph was relieved of much of his mental anguish and suffering. But a greater sorrow was awaiting him and the whole institution. Wonderful and mysterious are the ways of the Lord!
Sr. Teresitta Mary, the first member of the congregation suddenly fell seriously ill. The treatment in Greengardens hospital did little to improve her condition. Fr. Joseph visited the sister and consoled her. She made her confession and received Holy Communion. Fr. Joseph had to go to Ernakulam on some urgent business. On return he learned that Sr. Teresitta’s condition became critical. He gave her the anointing of the sick and Viaticum. She passed away peacefully on Wednesday June 7th 1950. It was an indestructible shock to Fr. Director, the community and the inmates of the whole institutions. Sr. Margaret Mary fainted and other members of the community wept aloud. Fr. Joseph was overwhelmed with grief. Sr. Teresitta Mary was buried at Muttom cemetery on 8th June in the presence of six priests, sisters from Carmel convent Muttom, the relatives, a large congregation, sisters and members of the institution. The whole institution mourned over the sudden demise of this zealous soul.
A Miraculous Vision: The Lord asked this great sacrifice from all for the greater purpose. All were convinced that Sr. Teresitta offered as a victim and holocaust to the Divine will and sacrificed her life for the growth and development of the institutions and the congregation. The very same night of her a death the Archbishop Mar Augustine Kandathil, Fr. Director and Sr Mariam Teresa an old nun of the Carmalite convent, Muttom had vision of Sr. Teresitta Mary, going up to heaven in white habit with great brilliance and a crown of roses on her head. Next day when Fr. Director went to see the Archbishop Mar Augustine he informed him about the death of Sr. Teresitta, the Archbishop disclosed the vision he had. He confirmed that it was the same sister who had come to visit him earlier to Archbishop’s house. Now the Archbishop become very sympathetic and showed great concern towards the congregation. Her spiritual father testified that she practiced great penance and austerity during her life time and was very faithful to all her religious observances and to her work. Sr. Teresitta was only 19 years old. With a little religious training she had, she was a model and inspiration to the community. The bud which was blossoming, the Divine gardener plucked away in its tender age. It took some days for the little sisters to recover from the shock and sorrow. She led them ably but gently not only in religious practices but also in the arduous tasks of nursing the patents, tending the garden etc. they all considered her as a saint and a mediator in heaven for the religious congregation.
Now Fr. Joseph appointed Sr. Margret Mary as the prefect of the sisters as she was very courageous to handle the situations. With the remaining three sisters Fr. Director continued his work with enthusiasm and determination. The sisters were doing all the work of the institutions day and night and one could understand the amount of work they did in the beginning of the congregation. They had a great potential to cope with all the trials. Gradually more candidates came to join the congregation. It gave some relief to Fr. Director. He initiated them into the religious spirit and trained them in the hospital work. Fr. Joseph insisted that sisters should acquire proficiency in English and talk in English. This helped them much while going out of Kerala for work and studies and to converse with the distinguished visitors to Greengardens.
Fr. Director taught the sisters about the importance of silence that would help them the spirit of recollection and to listen to the voice of God. He also advised them not to unduly interfere with the affairs of others. He was advised them not to unduly interfere with the affairs of others. He was particular that the sisters should spend one hour daily in adoration before the Blessed Sacrament. More and more girls began to come to Greengardens seeking admission to the Congregation, but Fr. Joseph was troubled at heart because the congregation and its constitution had no formal approval yet.
Slow Growth: Meanwhile the postulants were getting ready for vestition on 18th January 1951 and they were given the religious habit after the retreat. Postulants Mariakutty Thattaradyil and Rosamma Edayadiyil received the religious habit, as Sr. Cicila Francis and Sr. Teresitta Francis respectively. The vestition ceremony was very simple, but fervent and devotional. In those days the sisters were using only a bonnet as head dress and there was no veil. They were using the veil only in the chapel and for other official functions. Since two members were added it was very a great relief for the other sisters. Sr. Cicila Francis was very clever, able and did much service to the congregation and the institution in the early years as Sr. Prefect, but the Lord did not give her the grace to continue the religious life and she left the congregation before her perpetual vows. Sr. Serapia one of the senior members also had to leave the congregation after three years and after wards she became a Carmelite sister. In the process of growth of a congregation as it happens everywhere, it had its own failures and success. The Lord who plans and governs everything allowed the congregation to have its trials and sufferings in plenty in the initial stages.
Archbishop Visits Greengardens: For the first time after starting the Greengardens Institutions Archbishop Augustine Kandathil of Ernakulam, visited the Greengardens together with his secretary, Fr. Varghese Puthusserry on January 19th 1951. He walked around the Institutions and inspected its work. He was satisfied. He spent the night in Greengardens. Next day he said Mass in S.H. Convent chapel. He took breakfast with sisters. They felicitated the Archbishop on his golden jubilee.
Two more girls Annamma Joseph and Alekutty Joseph Kalapurackal, came to join the congregation on May 31st 1951. They were the first E.S.L.C. candidates of our congregation. Fr. Joseph was very happy to receive educated girls and Annamma was a teacher for few years. They completed their period of postulancy and received the habit on January 6th 1952 as Sr. Teresa Mary and Sr. Catherine Francis respectively. Fr. Joseph and the sisters were praying to the Lord of the harvest to send more labourers into the vineyard. In answer to their prayers the Lord sent few more girls from different places. They came not in groups, but one by one. On June 7th 1951 Rosamma Mavely and on 18th November 1951 Thresiamma Pampackal came to join the postulancy. They completed the postulancy successfully and after the canonical examination by Fr. Joseph Vattacattussery, they were promoted for vestition.
The congregation was growing in number as well as in its spirit and charism. The spirit supported father very powerfully to get through the diverse challenges which threaten this young congregation and institution. He experienced God’s presence and actions through people and situations and continued his effort. The number of leprosy patients increased both in the outpatient and inpatient departments. More and more people came for help and service. He continued his begging tours and as he got more money he wanted to add more wards both for male and female patients. Fr. Joseph requested the government to give 6 acres of land adjacent to our leprosy hospital to enlarge the leprosy hospital to 200 bed strength in 1952. The government sanctioned the land on permanent ‘Kuthaka Pattam’ (permanent deed) and gave also the timber needed for the buildings.
Now the attention of Fr Joseph was to train the sisters as he felt that without proper training and qualified hands the institution will not run well. So he made arrangements to send two sisters Srs. Teresa Mary and Gertrude Francis to take training in compounding under the Dutch sisters. The sisters had no novitiate or training and did not know English yet they did well in their studies.
Dr. Francis Alapat, a retired civil surgeon from Trichur, came to serve the lepers in Greengardens. He in collaboration with Fr. Director re-organized the leprosy hospital and rehabilitation centre. He took charge of both the hospitals and the construction of the operation theatre started in 1953. The foundation stone of the operation theatre and the surgical ward of S.H. hospital were blessed by His Excellency Rt. Rev. Dr. Martine Lucas, the Internuncio on 30th April 1953. The number of beds increased to 200. Fr. Director and Dr. Francis tried to make the life of the inmates as happy and useful as possible. Carpentry, a weaving school and a shoe – making centre were started. With the help of these, the patients who got cured would go back to their home and earn their livelihood. A band set, a choir group and a drama troupe were also organized. A reading room and library with a good number of books and periodicals were provided for the patients. The able bodied patients were encouraged to cultivate vegetables and other agriculture products. Dr. Francis also trained the sisters to nurse the leprosy patients and dress their wounds scientifically. The service of Dr Francis was a landmark in the history of Greengardens Institutions. It was from March 19th 1953 to November 1956.
The pressure of work was too much and Fr. Joseph could not do all the work by himself. So according to his request the Archbishop sent Fr. George Manickanamparampil to assist him. The young priest was a great help to Fr. Joseph. In July 1952 three more girls came to join the congregation. They started their postulancy and after six months of postulancy they were vested on February 11th 1953 taking the names as Srs. Mechtilda Francis, Philomina Mary and Elizbeth Mary. Fr. George Manickanamparampil preached the retreat for them.
In those days though there was no novitiate, the postulancy was very strict with much hard work and classes. The meals were just sufficient and there was much poverty and sacrifice. Corrections were given, even for the least fault. The postulants were given full responsibility along with the sisters as the sisters were only a few. Without any systematic training the sisters were running both the institutions the leprosy and the general hospital well and were conducting deliveries and assisting operations etc. Fr. Joseph realized the need of trained nurses Sr. Mechtilda Francis and Sr Philomina Mary were sent to Guntur, St Joseph’s hospital under the Dutch sisters for regular nursing training on June 28th 1953. These sisters who were sent to Guntur for training had no novitiate yet they were known as the best religious, very hard working and model for other religious and nurses. The Mother Superior wrote letters to Fr Joseph, praising him for giving good training to the sisters and for their good spirit. The sisters who went for training came back successfully with good result. In the year 1953 the Lord sent six candidates to the congregation. From then on the candidates began to come in batches. After their postulancy and training they were vested on 11th February 1954.
Care of the Poor Uneducated Children: The people of the locality were pressing Fr. Joseph to start a school for the many poor and uneducated children of the locality. Being a very poor and backward area, the parents were not sending children to the school. Fr. Joseph waited in prayer and reflection to discern God’s Will. The Lord inspired him to start the school as it was a need of the hour. He thought that if there was a school in this locality the children might start going to the school to receive knowledge and get character formation. Hence Fr. Joseph bought a plot of one acre and thirteen cents land adjacent to Assisi Convent. Fr. Joseph started the L. P. School with 1st and 2nd standard on June 7th 1954 in a thatched shed. Sr. Scholastica Mary the first sister who joined as a trained teacher was given the appointment as the Headmistress. In spite of the humble beginning of the school it developed into a U.P. School in 1966, educating thousands of children every year and became a model school and also the best school of Cherthala vicinity. The School was given its name as Little Flower U.P. School.
The Approval of the Congregation: Fr. Joseph approached again the Archbishop for the formal approval. This time the Archbishop readily consented. He was evidently influenced by the vision of Sr. Tersitta ascending to heaven in the religious dress. He took it as a token of Divine approval to the new Congregation. The impression the Archbishop formed, as a result of his recent visit and inspection of Greengardens institutions also helped him to take the decision. Thus the formal approval was granted on February 6th 1954, “If God is for us who can be against us” (Rom 8:31). With the formal establishment of the congregation, some new administrative arrangements were made. Sr. Cicilia was appointed as the Novice Mistress and Sr. Gerturde was appointed as the Superior of the Congregation. This gave more time to Fr. Director to give classes to the Novices. Fr. Joseph Thuruthikat V. C. was always available to help the founder. In the mean time 30 acres of paddy field in Kuttanad and Vechoor were bought. In addition a plot of 5 cents of land together with a two storey building was bought in Nagercovil as rest house for sisters during vacation. On April 16th 1952 Father with the members of the congregation went to Nagarcovil villa in the newly bought building to spend summer days over there.
The Novitiate: As more members joined Fr. Joseph’s attention turned to give them a proper formation through good novitiate training. The Lord continues His work as He plans in spite of diverse circumstances. Fr. Joseph wanted that the sisters be well trained and thus put a firm foundation for the congregation. The sanctity of the congregation depends very much upon the sanctity of the members. The real Assisi congregation would be established only when each sister would be imbued with the spirit of St. Francis and the charism of the founder.
With this end in view Fr. Joseph began to reflect and pray and the Lord inspired him to write to Cardinal Tisserant, the Prefect of the Sacred Oriental Congregation Rome in 1954 about his desire that the Assisi Sisters should have a good novitiate under the European sisters. Accordingly Cardinal Tisserant requested Mother Neomi the French provincial of the Salesian sisters to Greengardens, Cherthala to start the novitiate. Cardinal Tisserant took personal interest in the Assisi Sisters, as he had seen the great work of Fr. Joseph and the Assisi Sisters during his visit to Greengardens on 15th November 1953. It was at that time he blessed and inaugurated the central ward of the male patients known as Cardinal Tisserant ward.
Mother Neomi, the provincial and mother Raphael came from Nagpur on 6th 1954 according to the letter of Cardinal Tisserant to meet Fr. Joseph and consult with him about the details of starting the novitiate. In the year 1954 six more candidates came to join the congregation and they had regular training as postulants.
Another blessing for the institution during 1954 was the two European doctors namely Dr. Dukoff M. D. and Dr. Wyss M.D. took charge of the hospital here. The leprosy hospital developed very much under their care. Fr. Joseph continued his correspondence with mother Neomi and everything was settled regarding the sending of two European sisters to conduct novitiate for Assisi Sisters. Fr. Joseph approached the Archbishop Mar Augustine Kandathil and explained everything and that he was very happy that the French Sisters would take charge of the novitiate. In preparation for the novitiate and vestition of postulants a retreat was arranged for them in January. Since the leprosy hospital, general hospital and other institutions had to be managed, all the sisters who were already vested could not enter the novitiate together. For the sake of convenience six sisters were selected for the novitiate in the first batch and five from the postulancy. One of the postulants after the retreat and vestition, who took the name as Sr. Regina Mary remained outside the novitiate to help in the hospital, as she had some training in the hospital work. Those who were selected for the novitiate had to undergo a canonical examination and Fr. Joseph Panjikaran the Vicar of Thikkattussery came for the same on 14th January 1955
17th January 1955 was a red letter day for the Assisi Sisters as on that day the Mother Provincial of the Catechist Sisters Mother Neomi came with her three sisters to begin the novitiate for Assisi Sisters. They went first to meet the Archbishop Mar Augustine Kandathil and the Archbishop sent them in his own car to Cherthala. Sr. Magdalen Maria a French sister was appointed as the Novice Mistress and superior of Assisi Convent and Sr. Adrian a Belgium sister was appointed as the superior of Sacred Heart Convent. On January 20th the Provincial Mother Neomi went with mother Raphael to Kumbakonam
On January 22nd 1955 Fr Mathew Mankuzhikary preached the retreat to the postulants and novices in preparation for the novitiate. The same day the novitiate also was inaugurated officially. The sisters who were selected to make the novitiate were, Srs. Cicilia Francis, Teresitta Francis, Teresa Mary, Rosaline Mary, Bernadit Mary and Little Flower Francis. The postulants who were vested and began their novitiate were Srs. Anastasia Francis, Lucy Francis, Sabina Mary, Seraphia Francis and Ursula Mary. Thus the eleven sisters began the first batch novitiate under the French sister Magdalene Maria. The chapel of Assisi Convent was also blessed and inaugurated by Fr. Joseph on the same day. The services of the European sisters were excellent. They supervised all the work of the sisters in all the Institutions and gave them timely advise and corrections. The fathers also took classes for the novices. Thank to the mercy and providence of the Lord for sending such good sisters in the initial stage of the congregation.
On January 10th 1956 Father Director with Dr. Wyss had gone to Ernakulam to invite the Archbishop for the profession of the sisters, but they found the Archbishop seriously ill. Dr. Wyss examined him and told Fr. Joseph that the Archbishop’s condition was critical. Both of them stood beside the Archbishop. On the same day Archbishop Augustine Kandathil breathed his last. His last words were “Most Sacred Heart of Jesus, I Trust in Thee”. Fr. Joseph Kandathil was grief-stricken. Yet he had the satisfaction that he was fortunate to be at the bed side of his uncle Archbishop at the time of his death to nurse him. The Congregation of the Assisi Sisters attended the funeral of the Archbishop.
First Profession: January 23rd 1956 was another memorable day for the Assisi Sisters as eleven novices the first batch took their first vows in the congregation. His Excellency, Mar Joseph Parecattil the Auxilary Bishop of Ernakulam presided over the ceremony. The ceremony was very simple and devotional and a good number of people attended it. Rev. Sr. Magdalen received the vows of the sisters as she was delegated by the Superior General of the Congregation though she belonged to the congregation of Salesian Missionary of Mary Immaculate.
Visit to Rome: Fr. Joseph got an invitation to attend an International conference of leprosy in Rome. The military order of Malta, a pious association who sponsored the International leprosy conference also met Fr Joseph’s expenses of the stay in Rome. Fr. Joseph was very happy to attend this conference to widen his knowledge and experience and also to visit the Holy Father, holy places in Rome and other European countries. He applied for passport and did all the other formalities to attend the conference. He knew that the institution will suffer during his absence. So he entrusted the whole institution to St. Joseph for his guidance and protection. He also erected the statue of St. Joseph at the entrance of the institution. His Excellency, Bishop Michael Arattukulam officiated the blessing of this statue on 1st March 1956. To manage the affairs of the institution during his absence it was necessary to have and efficient person. So Mother Paul came from Kumbokonam and stayed at Greengardens for a few months during the absence of Fr. Joseph. He had his flight from Bombay on 7th March 1956 along with Dr Wyss who accompanied Fr. Joseph for the conference. He attended the Inter National conference of Leprosy and then he had a private audience with Holy Father Pope Pius XII. He presented to the Holy Father the spiritual bouquet of all the inmates of the Institution carved in ivory. The Holy Father gave his special blessing and his photo signed with his own hand to the Institution. He sent a letter of thanks to Fr. Joseph, blessing the Assisi Sisters and the Leprosy Patients.
Fr. Joseph wished that the congregation of Assisi Sisters be affiliated with the Capuchins. So he took along with him the application signed by the Superior Sr. Magdalene, to the Capuchin Generalate curia in Rome. He met the Minister General of Capuchins and requested him to affiliate the Congregation to the Capuchin order. The application was accepted and the order of affiliation was issued on 3rd November 1956.
Fr. Joseph returned to Cherthala on 5th June 1956 after his visit to Rome and the other European countries. He reached Greengardens very quietly without informing the exact time of his arrival. He always avoided any kind of celebrations, receptions, wishings etc. he was very enthusiastic to share all his experiences in Europe to the sisters, patients and to the other inmates. He even wrote letters to the sisters who were studying in Guntur describing all about his experiences in Rome and Europe and sent them also medals and presents to encourage them. The sisters always cherished this kind of fatherly concern and touching experience throughout their life. As the first members of the congregation he shared his experiences, he shared with them in an intimate way.
The First General Chapter: Mother Neomi the provincial decided that the European sisters should leave the Institution and Congregation entrusting everything to the Assisi Sisters. So it was necessary to have the election to choose a superior general and the council for the Assisi Sisters. Archbishop Mar Joseph Parecattil met all the sisters personally. Every preparation was made for the election of the superior general and the councilors. On 12th February 1957 all 28 professed sisters assembled in the study hall of the Assisi convent under the presidentship of Archbishop Parecattil. The chapter elected Sr Michael Francis as the superior general. The councilors were Sr. Teresitta Francis, Sr. Little Flower Francis, Sr Hyacintha Mary and Sr. Teresa Mary. It was really a hard time since the government of the congregation came into the hands of the inexperienced sisters who were just out of the novitiate. But the Lord was with them and he continued His work through the sisters. The able and experienced hands of Fr. Joseph were with them and he watched and guided them in everything. As Sr. Michael was only 28 years old and since she didn’t have the required years of profession according to the Cannon law, it was necessary to get exemption of age and profession from the Holy See and it was done. Sr. Magdalen who was very humble, simple and very much interested in the welfare of the Assisi Sisters wanted to give an example of humility to the sisters. So she knelt down in the presence of all and asked pardon for all her shortcomings during her office as the superior and novice mistress of the congregation. All were edified by this example and could not control their tears. Sr. Magdalen and the European sisters left the congregation on 22nd February 1957 entrusting everything to the newly elected sister general and the councilors.
First Branch Covent: Fr. Joseph was anxious that the congregation should extend its activities to other places also. For this reason he bought some acres of land at Vallakom, Vaikom. Mr. Kuruvilla Joseph Kollamparambil, of Thalayolaparambu donated 2 acres of land to start a convent there. Fr. Joseph worked hard for the construction of these two convents simultaneously and approached many people to help him in the inauguration. The tow convents were ready for blessing and inauguration. His Grace, Archbishop Joseph Parecattil blessed and inaugurated these two convents on 2nd February 1958. The blessing of Little Flower Convent Thalayolaparambu took place in the morning. Sr. Celine Francis took charge of the convent as the superior. On the same day after noon Assumption convent, Vallakom also was blessed and inaugurated by His Grace. Sr. Gertrude Francis took charge of the convent as the superior. It was a great day of rejoicing for Fr. Joseph, because his great dream of starting new branch of the Assisi sisters was fulfilled.
Further Growth: Fr. Joseph wanted that his sisters be well trained in professional field also. The sisters were formed well after their religious training and commitment, they were so committed to their cause of Christ, that they were ready to go anywhere for professional studies. Fr. Joseph wanted to send Sr. Michael for medical studies. He secured admission for her in the University of Rome and made all arrangements for her studies. After one year Sr. Michael resigned her office as the superior general and went for studies on March 29th 1958. Shortly afterwards Sr. Regina and Sr. Rosaline went for nursing studies to Ireland and Sisters Mary and Florence to Patna for Nursing and Srs. Sabina and Hyacintha to Patna for Pharmacy in the year 1958. Meanwhile Sr. Teresitta Francis was acting as sister general and made all arrangements for the election of a new superior general.
On July 15th 1958 a general chapter was held under the presidentship of Very Rev. Mgr. George Valliarampath the Vicar General of Ernakulam, since His Grace the Archbishop had gone to Rome. In this chapter Sr. Mechtilda Francis was elected as the sister general of the congregation. The councilors were Sr. Teresa, Sr.Teresitta, Sr. Gertrude and Sr. Gemma. As Sr. Mechtilda was only 25 years old and was elected soon after her first profession she did not have the required age and the years of profession to become a sister general according to cannon law. So Fr. Joseph wrote a letter explaining everything to the Holy See and got exemption from age and profession bar from the Cardinal Prefect of the Sacred Oriental Congregation. Fr. Joseph’s experience, prudence and able guidance were behind all the affairs of the congregation and the institutions. The Lord worked out this plans wonderfully in everything for His glory, in spite of all the trials and difficulties of the early days and allowed the congregation to take deep root and flourish. At this time Fr. Kuruvila Panjikaran got transfer and Fr. Xavier Cherupallikattu came to assist Fr. Joseph.
Sacerdotal Silver Jubilee: In the year 1958 was the Silver Jubilee year of Fr. Joseph. On 17th December he was completing his 25 years of priestly life. But Fr. Joseph, who wanted to lead a humble and hidden life, did not allow the sisters to have any celebrations externally. He wanted to spend some time in prayer and penance in Holy Land to prepare for his Jubilee. By providence Fr. Joseph got a very holy Italian priest Fr. Taffren SJ, to preach the one month retreat for the novices. He requested Fr. Taffren to stay a little longer in Greengardens to help the sisters. Fr. Joseph made all the arrangements to visit the holy land and the holy places in Jerusalem.
The Vicar of Muttom Fr. Joseph Vattakattussery also wanted to celebrate Fr. Joseph’s silver jubilee in the Muttom Church, where he started his priestly ministry. But Fr. Joseph avoiding all such celebrations, on 4th December 1958 Fr. Joseph started his journey to Bombay and from there to Jerusalem. He stayed in Jerusalem and made his retreat in preparation for his jubilee. Father said his jubilee mass of thanks giving in Basilica of Sepulcher Jerusalem on 17th December 1958. The whole Greengardens felt the absence of Fr. Joseph on this great day. The sisters celebrated the jubilee in the whole institution, offering prayers of thanksgiving for the mighty works the Lord has accomplished through him. He visited most of the holy places and prayed during his stay there in the holy land. It was a unique privilege for Fr. Joseph to live in such a holy place and celebrate his sacerdotal silver jubilee
Fr. Joseph returned to Greengardens on 18th January 1959 after visiting His Grace Archbishop Joseph Parecattil and Mgr. Valiarampath the Vicar General. The sisters and all the other inmates were happy to see him at Greengardens. He was full of eagerness, delight and devotion and he shared all his experiences of holy land to the sisters, patients and other inmates of the institution.
Fr. Joseph’s attention now turned to further development of the institution and to spread its activities to many places. His Grace Mar Augustine Kandathil donated his family property of nearly 10 acres of land at Neerpara near Thalayolaparambu to Fr. Joseph to extend his activities and to help the poor. He leveled the land a planted rubber and other trees. Many times he walked from Thalayolaparambu to Neerpara as there was no bus service to this interior and undeveloped village. Construction of a dispensary was started to help the poor people of the location. Fr. Joseph often visited the site and supervised the work. The construction work was over and His Grace the Archbishop blessed and opened this convent and dispensary on 18th October 1959. Sr. Susan Mary was appointed as the superior.
Many important people like His Excellency Rt. Rev. James Robert Knox, the Inter Nuncio, His Eminence Valerian Cardinal Gracias of Bombay, Very Rev. Mgr. Joseph Rayan the National Secretary of Catholic North East Welfare Association, Msgr. Weidner of Raipur, His Grace Mar. Mathew Kavukatt from Changanacherry visited the Institutions, congratulated and encouraged Fr. Joseph for all his humanitarian works.
Fr. Joseph felt the need of training more and more sisters in various professions in order to meet the needs of the various apostolates. He sent sisters to different parts of India and abroad to get training in nursing, pharmacy, lab, radiology, medicine etc. it was really encouraging for Fr. Joseph to see more members joining the congregation. The fifth batch of novices who made their novitiate under Sr. Elizbath Mary made their first profession on 11th February 1960.
Since more admissions came to the foundling home and since there was not sufficient place for all those who came, a new foundling home and orphanage was built at Vallakom. Thus the foundling home was shifted from Greengardens to Vallakom on 5th March 1959.
The general hospital also developed very much by this time and many people came seeking medical service. So Fr. Joseph had to increase the number of beds in the hospital. Besides this different new departments were started in the hospital such as laboratory, X-ray etc. Fr. Joseph Panapally came to assist Fr. Joseph in 1960 and he was a great help for the many activities of the institution. He worked hard for the growth and development of the institutions. It was Fr. Joseph Panapally who helped the sisters to register the Institution as ‘The Social Service Guild of the Assisi Sisters.’
New Novitiate House: Fr. Joseph being the founder of the congregation was anxious that the sisters be well formed spiritually, filled with the Franciscan spirit and charism. So he thought of shifting the novitiate from Cherthala to Kottagiri. He arranged a place near the Capuchin Theologate as it was convenient for the fathers and the professors of the Theologate to take classes for the novices and help them in their formation. He asked the sister general and the sisters to visit the spot and study all the details. Everything was arranged to buy a plot with the house to start the novitiate at Kottagiri. On 10th February 1961, the house was blessed and the novitiate was inaugurated by Fr. Guido O.F.M. cap, the Rector of the Theologate. Sr. Gertrude was appointed as the novice mistress.
The sisters, who have completed their period of temporary vows, were sent to Kottagiri by turn for their spiritual renewal and tertian ship for 4 to 5 months before their perpetual vows. Thus everything possible was given to the sisters for their personal and spiritual growth. After due preparation the first batch of sisters made their perpetual vows on January 23rd 1962.
The Nursing School: Sacred Heart general hospital developed very much by this time with the departments of surgery, gynecology, pediatrics etc. the sisters were working very hard to cope with the needs of the many patients who came to the hospital. So the need of starting a nursing school was felt to train our own sisters and to help the other girls who were interested in the nursing profession. Fr. Joseph welcomed this idea and gave full support to the sister general to do everything possible to start the nursing school. The Government gave the sanction letter to start the nursing school and the Health Minister Mr. Velapan laid the foundation stone on 13th October 1962. Sr. Philomina was sent to the college of nursing Trivandrum, for tutor’s course to teach the nursing students. The central Government gave the subsidy to start the Nursing School.
Leprosy Control Programme: “Prevention is better than cure”. There were plenty of leprosy cases in and around Cherthala. Patients came from far and near for treatment. Fr. Joseph and the sisters did everything possible to help this poor, forsaken group of the society. Now the sisters’ attention turned towards the control of this horrible disease. In collaboration with the Central Government the sisters began the S.E.T. programme. Srs. Bridgit and Seraphia started visiting every house, for took the survey and detected leprosy cases and gave early treatment.
Generalate: In the general chapter of 1962 June 28th Sr Mechtilde was re-elected as the sister general and the councilors were Srs. Teresa, Teresitta, Gertrude and Sr. Anastasia. As the congregation has grown sufficiently, Fr. Joseph advised the sisters to shift the residence of sister general from S.H convent to Assisi. So was shifted in 3rd July 1964 and from then on the Generalate of the congregation is in Assisi. A new Generalate was built in Assisi in the year 1973 and the residence of sister general was shifted to this new building.
Auditorium: Fr. Joseph felt the need of recreational facilities for the leprosy patients. The patients had their choir, orchestra and other recreational facilities. In order to conduct programmes meant for the patients, it was decided to construct an auditorium. So very soon it was constructed and its blessings were done by His Grace Archbishop Mar Joseph Parecattil on February 11th 1965. A library was also constructed for the benefit of the patients.
60th Birthday: Fr. Joseph completed his 60th Birthday on 27th October 1964. There was no external celebration on this day. There was a thanksgiving Holy Mass and other spiritual celebrations to thank the Lord for the gift of Fr. Joseph and for all the blessings he received.
Cure of the Blind and the Handicapped: The Holy Spirit who is the inspirer and accomplisher of every good, touched Fr. Joseph and the sisters to take care of this section of the society. The special charism of the Assisi sisters is to radiate the compassionate love of Jesus to all those who are rejected and neglected of the society.
Call to the Mission: Assisi Sisters accepted the call of God to work in the vast mission areas of North India to spread His kingdom in those areas where there were no Christian witnesses. The sisters took up the work where the Spirit led them and they lived out their charism there. The first mission house was in Dallirajhara in the diocese of Raipur.
Perpetual Adoration: The Assisi Sisters always drew energy and vitality for their apostolate from the Eucharistic Lord. The Perpetual Adoration of the Blessed Sacrament was started on 13th March 1966 at Sacred Heart chapel, Greengardens, in the silver jubilee year of the Institutions.
The Government Gives Three Acres of Land to the Greengardens: As Fr. Joseph’s constant request to the government authorities three acres and five cent land was given for the purpose of the leprosy hospital in the year 1971. Father built a wall all around it without delay.
The Growth of the Tiny Seed into a Tree: Fr. Joseph wanted to extend his congregation’s services to wherever it was required. Accordingly, the congregation began to spread and, more and more apostolate were undertaken by the sisters and many bishops invited the Assisi Sisters to their dioceses especially to take up the leprosy relief work. Wherever the convent was erected to each convent was attached with a leprosy hospital, rehabilitation center or school for the handicapped children. As recognition of Assisi Sisters selfless service in the church, Pope John Paul II raised this young congregation to the
Pontifical Rite on April 28th 1986. Fr. Kandathil was overwhelmed with joy and thanked the Almighty for this great blessing to the congregation, which he started in a humble way, was given the Papal Recognition in his life time. It was received with special recommendation of the Archbishop of Ernakulam and with the approval and satisfactory report of the Bishops of different dioceses where the Assisi Sisters were working. As a sign of the congregation’s growth, to extend its service to the world, and also for the sake of administrative conveniences, the bifurcation of the congregation in to two provinces was found feasible. As a result there arose two provinces, namely S.H. Province in the North India and St. Joseph Province in South India.
The First Chapters of the New Provinces: On 9th October 1987 the members of the St Joseph Province delegates gathered in Greengardens for its first official provincial chapter. Under the presidentship of Sr Marina Francis the then Superior General on 11th October 1987 elected Sr. Michael Francis as the Provincial Superior and the councilors were Srs. Rita Francis, Julia Mary, Florence Francis and Sr. Vincent Mary. The provincial and team decided to take the name for the province as St. Joseph and fixed the date for its inauguration on 28th October.
S. H. Provincial Chapter was held in Dallirajhara 18th October 1987 in the presence of Sr Marina Francis the sister general, the assistant general Sr. Berchmans Mary, and the general councilor Sr. Gabriel Francis. 48 delegates were present for this first provincial chapter and Sr. Celestine Francis was elected as the new provincial and the councilors were Sr. Vincencia Mary, Sr. Genevive Francis, Sr. Theresa Mary and Sr Anastasia Francis. The provincial and councilors decided to take the name of the northern province as ‘Sacred Heart Province’ and fixed the date for its inauguration to be on 14th November 1987.
A Sufferer Nailed to the Cross of Agony: (the experience of Fr Augustine Kolencherry with Fr. Joseph) for several years Fr. Joseph Kandathil was suffering from malarial fever coupled with Filaria. Once walking with him at Kottagiri I found him suddenly turning pale. His eyes became red and a high fever set in. as he returned to his room I asked “Father, you get recurrent fever. It takes you by surprise at any moment of the day. How do you manage to go about attending to your work?” Fr. Joseph told me, this cross I must bear. There is no remedy, no healing for it. I bore it for several years. I think I will have to go to the grave with it. In fact he would never complain about his frequent deteriorating fever. He was found always peaceful and self possessed. There was no bitterness, no impatience rather a complete resignation to the will of God shone upon his face. He appeared to me like living martyr and extraordinary personality veiled in silence and mystery exhibiting before the world sanctity rarely found.
In the evening of summer holidays at Kotagiri, I used to see Fr. Joseph Kandathil walking up and down with a rosary in his hand. He loved to pray alone and in silence. He kept himself away from people and acquaintances as far as possible. Hence some people regarded him as inhospitable and rough. But one thing was certain, Fr. Joseph was an ascetic, highly disciplined and rigorously mortified. He never knew what luxury was! His was a monk’s life marked by self-control, strict poverty, prudence and self-sacrifice. He was indeed a sage of complete detachment. He had an old cassock hardly fit for him. He says, “It appeared to me that the tailor had committed an artistic blunder!”
Honors come after Fr. Joseph Kandathil: Although Fr. Joseph was engaged in many heroic service of charity, he did not seek any publicity for them. He deliberately shunned all public approval and applause. He stuck to the words of Our Lord Jesus Christ, “Let not your left hand know what your right hand has done.” Nevertheless both ecclesiastical authorities and general public came forward to recognize and reward his contributions to the welfare of the society and especially to the suffering humanity, who are rejected from the society. On May 26th 1969, in a meeting organized in Ernakulam to felicitate Archbishop Parekkattil on his elevation to Cardinality, the Archbishop publically announced that the Holy Father has conferred the honor and thanked the Holy Father and the Cardinal Parekkattil. However he rejected the invitation to attend Investiture Ceremony in Ernakulam. His family members and the sisters tried to present him with the purple cassock and Bireta of the Monsignor. They also tried to organize a meeting to felicitate him in Cherthala. But he refused and told them that, he was happy to be a simple priest and to serve the people of God in a humble way. He did not even allow them to take a photo with the official dress of Monsignor.
In 1989, the All Kerala Catholic Congress (AKCC) selected Msgr. Kandathil for its award for the best social service. Fr. Kandathil did not allow any public meeting to be held in this connection. He was bed-ridden at that time and accepted the award in his room. Cardinal Padiyara the Archbishop of Ernakulam, Sri. M. D. Joseph, the A. K. C. C. President, Mr. John, the general secretary and Sri. Avira Tharakan, the Archdiocesan President were present. The function took place on January 2nd 1991.
A Fall and Fracture: As usual Fr. Joseph went to Kottagiri for his holidays. It was in the year 1978, he went out for an evening walk, on the way he slipped and fallen. He had a fracture in his ankle of his right foot. He could not get up from there. It was the villagers who informed the sisters in Cotherstone hospital. They went in a van and brought him to the hospital. The surgeon Dr. Urmese Mampilly did the operation. A steel plate was inserted. After the operation he developed malaria, which he had earlier. Dr. Sr. Michael treated him and his condition was improved. He came back to Greengardens when he recovered his health.
As years passed, the heath of Fr. Joseph was also worsened. He used to walk hours through the hospital, school and the wards of the leprosy patients. He could not continue, since he was affected with fever on and off. Even though he had physical illness his mind was very strong and had very good memory power. In 1986 when Sr Michael was sister general he visited Andhra Pradesh. Many tried to discourage him from going but, nobody could dissuade him from his discussion. Thus he went and came back very safe. This was his last mission tour.
Till 1989 he offered Holy Mass for sisters in Assisi, but afterwards he was in need of someone’s help to walk. So, Father was unable to Assisi for Mass and began to offer the Holy Mass in his room itself. He used to walk with the help of a walker. As the pain and weakness increased he sought the help of a wheel chair. Gradually the condition of Fr. Joseph’s health became very weaker and weaker. Nevertheless he continued to say Mass daily in his room, sitting on a chair. This time he wanted nurse’s care as he could not do anything by himself. Sr. Celine was appointed for it. In the mean time he developed gastroenteritis; Dr.Vijayakumar the chief physician of S.H. Hospital referred him to a specialist Koothatukulam, Dr. Philip Augustine. He returned after regaining his health.
The Last Mass: Fr. Kandathil had a filial love and devotion to Mary Immaculate and his last mass also was on the feast day of Mother Mary. And on our surprise it was during the mass on December 8th the feast of Immaculate Conception of Mother Mary his vision blurred, and there after he did not say Mass. He received Holy Communion in his room; he seemed to have an intuition of his approaching death. As his condition was not stable, it was informed to his beloved ones of his family and to the sisters. They all came to visit him and though he was tired and with pain and fever, he spoke to everyone and blessed them. Meantime his fever had increased, and it was diagnosed as bronchitis pneumonia. Doctors took special care in treating him. Besides the doctors of S. H. Hospital other doctors also were consulted.
The Last Moments: The day – December 12th 1991, morning sun rose on the East with a special Brightness to see this heroic priest one more day on this earth. On this day he felt well in his condition and the trip which was going on for a few days was removed. The day’s programme was started as usual, prayer, breakfast (two pieces of bread and tea) medicine. Towards the evening he seemed to be tired. When informed, Dr. Vijayakumar came and examined and he prescribed a few more medicines. Meanwhile Father asked Sr. Celine; “how many days, more are there, for Christmas?” when sister answered, he remembered that the next day was the feast of St. Lucy. His memory was so sharp even at that time. At 4.30pm Sr. Celine gave him tea and at 5.30pm Sr. Celine noticed that father’s eyes were flickering and she sent word to doctor. The doctor and Fr. Thomas Mulavarical reached together. Fr. Thomas administered the sacrament of the Anointing of the Sick and doctor gave heart massage trying to bring him back to life. But it was in vain and Father breathed his last peacefully.
Sister General, Sr. Berchmans, Sr. Theresa, Sr. Celine and a few other sisters were around his bed together with Fr. Thomas Mulavarical and Dr. Vijayakumar. Father Kandathil completed his journey on 12th December 1991 at 5.30pm. It was a great shock to the sisters and difficult to accept the truth that Our Father was no more on this earth. They cried and felt helpless, but father’s training and direction made them dutiful and did the other preparations soon. The body was immediately embalmed, as the sisters from North India had to come for funeral. The body was dressed and placed in a coffin and on the following day morning placed in the auditorium for public veneration.
A big stream of people of all castes and creeds from far and near lined up the whole day to pay their last respect to this great humanitarian who devoted the whole of his 87 years of life in serving the suffering humanity, especially the most neglected and rejected sections of the society, relentlessly and unselfishly. Priest from different dioceses and rites said almost an unbroken series of Masses in the Auditorium. The sisters and the inmates of Greengardens and a large number of people from neighborhood observed a prayerful Vigil during the whole night.
The Burial: A tomb had been prepared by the sisters in S. H. Perpetual Adoration Chapel without the knowledge of Msgr. Joseph Kandathil. On the day of 14th December at 2.30pm the body was placed in a decorated van and taken in procession through the high way to S. H. Chapel. His Eminence Antony Cardinal Padiyara, the Archbishop of Ernakulam said a con celebrated mass in which several priests participated. Rev. Fr. Joseph Panappally, who was with Fr. Joseph Kandathil for a long time as a close associate, preached the sermon. The body was laid to rest at 5.30pm. Thus now having the living memories of a saintly life of a heroic charity lived in humanity and obscurity. His whole life can be summarized in one sentence. “He met Jesus in the poor”.
Having seen it earlier, it was in 1987, two provinces, namely Sacred Heart Province and St. Joseph Province were constituted. Sacred Heart Province at Nagpur - Maharashtra consists of 125 members with 14 houses and St. Joseph in Kerala consists of 167 members with 18 houses. By 2005 Sacred Heart Province had 42 communities and was further bifurcated into 3 provinces. Namely: 1. Sacred Heart Province having its Provincialate at Nagpur, Maharashtra, 2. Nirmal Matha Province with the Provincialate at Bhopal Madhya Pradesh, and 3. Little Flower Province with the Provincialate at Warangal, Fatima Nagar, Telangana
St. Joseph Province: At present St. Joseph Province has 44 communities where the sisters render their services in the medical and educational apostolate through hospitals, dispensaries, special schools for the deaf & dumb, blind and direct evangelization. There are three regions under St. Joseph Province: St. Francis Region, Germany (2008), Mary Matha Region, Tamil Nadu (2009) and St. Alphonsa Region, Karnataka (2009). For further details log in to the following website: Neerpara School – www.hssfordeaf.org, Assisi garment Avinashi – www.assisiorganics.com, Assisi School For the Deaf – malaparambu.assisimpm.blogspot.in and Assisi School For the Blind, Kalaketty – www.assisiblind school.com
Sacred Heart Province: Sacred Heart Province has 20 communities, working in Maharashtra, rendering their services in hospitals, dispensaries, schools, schools for the mentally handicapped children, HIV care centers, leprosy asylums etc.
Nirmal Matha Province: There are 30 communities under the Nirmal Matha Province in Madhya Pradesh, Utter Pradesh, Jharkhand, Uttarakhand, North East and Chhattisgarh working in the hospitals, schools, special schools, etc. For further details log in to the following website: www.nirmalmatasociety.org , www.nemsss.org
Little Flower Province: There are 17 communities under Little Flower Province in Andhra Pradesh, mainly working among HIV patients, leprosy patients, in the hospitals, villages and special schools.
The Mother House and Generalate are at Greengardens, Cherthala. There are four communities under the Generalate such as: Assisi St. Francis Generalate, S. H Convent, Sanjoe Convent and the newly erected prayer House Kripalayam at Edayazham in the birth place of Fr Joseph, which was blessed and inaugurated on 1st Oct 2017
Global Presence of ASMI: At present ASMI is spread mainly in India; there are 4 communities in Italy, 9 communities in Germany and 3 communities in Africa. We are 851 sisters living in 114 communities.
The Superior Generals since the foundation of the Congregation are: Sr. Michael Francis (1957-1958), (1984-1987), (1999-2005), Sr. Mechtilde Francis (1958-1966), Sr. Augustina Francis (1966-1971), Sr. Berchmas Mary ( 1972-1978), (1990-1993) Sr. Aquinas (Prashanti) Mary (1978-1984), Sr. Marina Francis (1987-1990), Sr. Gabriel Francis (1993-1999), Sr. Alex Francis (2005-2011), Sr. Sebastina Mary (2011-2017), Sr. Celestine Francis was elected as the Superior General in 29th May 2017. The ASMI Generalate is in Kerala, India. (Superior General ASMI, Assisi St. Francis Generalate, Green Gardens, Cherthala – 688 524, Kerala, India).
Assisi Sisters of Mary Immaculate (ASMI)
1)NUMBER OF RELIGIOUS WORK IN KERALA FROM THE CONGREGATION -- 254
2)NUMBER OF RELIGIOUS WORK OUTSIDE KERALA FROM THE CONGREGATION -- 408
3)NUMBER OF RELIGIOUS WORK OUTSIDE INDIA FROM KERALA FROM THE CONGREGATION -- 66
4)NUMBER OF RELIGIOUS HOUSES IN KERALA -- 28
5)NUMBER OF RELIGIOUS HOUSES OUTSIDE KERALA -- 70
6)NUMBER OF RELIGIOUS HOUSES OUTSIDE INDIA -- 16
7)NUMBER OF THE PROVINCES/ REGION -- 4 provinces and 3 regions