ASIA/INDIA - The legacy of mother Eliswa, a woman who worked for the emancipation and education of women in India

Thursday, 28 December 2023 women   poverty   education   professional training  

by Sister Roobini Chinnappan

Varapuzha (Agenzia Fides) - She was a woman who worked for other women in India, for social emancipation and for the elevation of their status and culture. At the head of a religious congregation of women, Eliswa of the Blessed Virgin Mary, born Eliswa Vakayil, was an apostle of the "outgoing Church". She and her sisters listened to the Lord in silence and transformed it into action: her commitment, in contested Kerala (South India), marked by the caste system and untouchability, radiated into a feudal society, which forced women into domestic and male complacency. Illiterate and unemployed, women are condemned by early marriage to male domination and exploitation. Eliswa of the Blessed Virgin Mary (1831 – 1913) is a servant of God and was declared venerable by the Holy See on November 8. She founded a local religious congregation in Kerala, the Third Order of Discalced Carmelites (TODC), which later became the Teresian Carmelite Sisters. The life of the new religious family combined contemplation and an active life, with a commitment to the education and training of poor and orphaned girls, the care of the abandoned and the most needy. In more than a hundred years of service, the congregation has spread throughout the world and today has 1,500 professed religious sisters, with 209 houses, also present in America, Africa, Germany, Italy and England. Mother Eliswa's choice was to immerse herself totally in the human condition, descending to the "existential peripheries" of the poor and suffering, to bring human beings to resurrection. Eliswa lived the full female experience as a wife, sister, mother and widow. Born on October 15, 1831, she was the first of eight children of the illustrious family of Thomman and Thanda of Ochanthuruth, in the vicariate of Verapoly. She received her education at the same time as the Christian faith and, from an early age, she cultivated a particular devotion to the Eucharist and the Blessed Virgin. At the age of 16, her parents married her to Vatharu Vakayil, with whom they had a daughter named Anna. Vatharu falls ill and dies. Eliswa then takes refuge in silent prayer and service to the needy. She frequented the Blessed Sacrament, nourishing her soul and aspiring to total abandonment to the Lord. In 1862, 12 years after the death of her husband, she confided to the parish priest, Carmelite Leopoldo Beccaro O.C.D., her desire to consecrate herself to the Lord. After four years of discernment,
her dream finally took shape with the creation of the first religious community, which followed a life of prayer and works of charity. Eliswa is followed in this experience by her daughter Anna and her younger sister Thresia. On February 13, 1866, the three women of the Latin rite (Eliswa, Thresia and Anna) received the Carmelite scapular and made their religious profession on July 6, 1868. Women of the Church of the Latin rite and others of the Syro-Malabar rite joined them. Thus, during the first twenty years, the Congregation developed with the double rite. Subsequently, two independent religious institutes for women emerged: the Congregation of Teresian Carmelites (CTC) of the Latin rite and the Congregation of the Mother of Carmel (CMC) of the Syro-Malabar rite. Eliswa understood that the fundamental problem of Indian society was the illiteracy of women, which led to their economic dependence: this is what led her to engage in the apostolate of education and professional training. She introduced young girls to sewing, embroidery and self-employment, thus promoting a revolutionary idea for the time: literacy and economic independence for women. Her legacy is evident today when we talk about women and their participation in the mission of the Church. Its mission is found in the call of Pope Francis who, describing schools as "privileged places of personal development" (CV 221), calls for an educational system which combines "the mind, the heart and the hands" by harmonizing the learning, feelings and service (Message to the 4th World University Symposium, Manila). Mother Eliswa promoted the condition of oppressed women through a system of education in harmony with the mind, heart and hands. Her charisma is an inspiration to all those who today work for the elevation and emancipation of women in India and around the world, amid the mistreatment, abuse, rape and murder of women are a sad reality in many countries.
Mother Eliswa spent the last 23 years of her life at the Saint-Joseph convent in Varapuzha, sharing with her Latin rite sisters the functions of prioress, mistress of novices, educator of young girls and orphans. She died at the Saint-Joseph convent in Varapuzha (India) on July 18, 1913.
(Agenzia Fides, 28/12/2023)