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Bharananganam Church: Tomb of St Alphonsa

Kerala has always been blessed by some great souls who made their life an example for all to follow. This has also been a place which values faith & who better to follow than the revered Alphonsamma or St Alphonsa who in many ways manifests the way of God with sincere faith. For people today the life of this sacred soul can be realised at Bharananganam in Pala & it’s a place of solace for all.
St Alphonsa is the first Indian woman to have been canonised as a Saint & it is indeed a matter of pride that such a person graced the lands here. Alphonsamma was born in 1910 to Christian articulate parents in 1910 at Kudamaloor & was named Anna. The young girl was born with a clubbed feet deformity but that never stopped Anna to do all her daily chores with a lot of vigour. It is important to know that the young girl from her very young age suffered a lot of hardships. The death of her beloved mother at an early age made her leave the house & live with her maternal aunt who was quite demanding. The clubbed feet also became the reason for ridicule in the school for the young child. Annakutty as she was fondly called by her father at the age of three contracted eczema which made her stay at home for over a year. Over the years she became more close to the church as the Murickan family in which she was raised were prominent members associated with the church. At a very early age Alphonsa had decided to work for the well being of people & be the bride of Jesus but her family did not approve of it as they worried for the lineage. For Annakutty, Therese of Lisieux became a beacon of hope as both women endured the same difficulties at a young age. Alphonsa’s maternal aunt wanted to marry her off & when Anna knew about this predicament is said to have burnt her hand which became a permanent scar for the rest of her life. At the age of 17, Anna came to the Bharananganam convent & studied here for over a year. It was in 1928 that she received the postulant’s veil & took the name Alphonsa along with taking up the job as a teacher in the school of the church. Sister Alphonsa is said to have been a good teacher & her work was applauded by the church which sent her to Vakkakad as a temporary teacher. It was while working here that her heath kept waning. It is to be known that though Alphonsa was in deep distress with her failing health she never forgot to pray as she believed that the pain she endured was for a reason & God had a reason for her suffering. 

By 1932, it was difficult for Alphonsamma to work as a teacher as she constantly was affected by illness. She continued her clarist work at Changanassery & after taking her permanent wow returned to Bharanaganam where she continued to teach. It is believed that the first miracle in her life happened in 1936. It is said that when she was very ill & all treatments failed, the revered Kuriakose Elias Chavara healed her when he happened to come to Bharananganam. This miracle touch healed Alphonsa & she became a devout of Father for the rest of her life. It is also to be noted that both Kuriakose Chavara & Alphonsa were canonised as Saints on the same day, this miracle healing of Alphonsa being credited by the Vatican as a miracle conducted by Chavara Achan. Sister Alphonsa continued to work as a teacher in the convent with limited mobility after the healing but her health took a turn for the worse when she was affected by severe pneumonia adversely affecting her speech. Alphonsa, not bothered by this kept praying to God but it seemed that poor health was a constant companion, she started having seizures & breathlessness. There were phases in her life when she would be unconscious for days together & in some instances there was loss of memory but she always remembered the prayers. By 1945 her health had waned to the lowest point, affecting her organs like the stomach & liver causing her to vomit. It was on 28th July 1946 that Alphonsa of the Immaculate Conception breathed her last in her room. In many ways she had suffered much in her entire life but what made her death quite a miracle was the presence of countless numbers of people who came to pay their last respects  to the departed holy soul. She was finally buried in the St Mary’s Catholic church at Bharananganam where she spent most years of her life. 
It is to be known that post her death, many forgot about Anna, Annakutty or Alphonsa. It so happened that the students whom she had taught kept coming to her tomb & praying. The students found the place a beacon of hope & it is believed that many were healed physically & mentally when they prayed here. It is believed that a young boy with clubbed feet came to the tomb & prayed silently for a long period. His parents took the child back home where he continued to pray with a small picture of Alphonsamma, miraculously in a few days the feet became normal & the boy could walk well. The news of this miracle spread far & wide giving all confidence to come to the church. Even today it is believed that all who endured the same suffering like Alphonsa can find solace as Annakutty is the only person who can understand the pain.
It so happened that many people who suffered from health problems irrespective of their religion flocked to the Forane church to pray at the feet of Alphonsamma. The belief of these people that the divine soul will cure them resulted in the Vatican to recognise her as a Saint. The healing miracle of Alphonsamma was first recognised in 1985 by the Vatican & it was in 1986 that Pope John Paul II on his visit to Bharananganam declared her as “blessed” & was named Venerable Sister Alphonsa. It was Pope John Benedict XVI who canonised Alphonsamma from the St Peter’s Basilica as a Saint in 2008. The Pope addressed St Alphonsa as a soul who endured “extreme physical & spiritual suffering” & blessed the people whom she helped with her prayers as children of God. It was indeed a moment of heavenly grace that a simple lady who with all the sufferings was capable of living through them with just the power of faith.
Today Bharananganam has risen to be an important pilgrimage for people from all strata & faith. The St Mary’s forane church which one sees has a story & history of itself. The church as one sees now has been rebuilt & renovated many times to its current Gothic structure. The population in the 10th century around Kottayam were attracted to the teaching of the missionaries & started increasing in numbers. There was also a situation when Christians had different factions based on their beliefs & an argument ensued among them as to where a church should be built. It became difficult to come to an agreement & so the Kottayam ruler had to intervene. He ordered the people that his elephant will show the place & as per order the elephant is said to have stopped & directed at the current place of the church. The earlier name of the church was Aanakallu Palli which was built in the 11th century as a small structure with a simple altar made of wood. As the members grew it became difficult to accommodate all inside the church & in different eras, many more additions were made to finally come to the current structure. The old Altar is still preserved inside the church for all to see. The church is a beautiful work of architecture based on the gothic style  with large halls & a tall Altar. On the side is also the altar which is dedicated to St Alphonsa. The tomb of Sister Alphonsa was placed in the Forane church for a long while until she was canonised & the new shrine for the Saint came up a little away where all now pray. 

The shrine today is a place of pilgrimage where all come to pray & be part of the services. The complex also has a museum which houses the articles used by St Alphonsa when she stayed here, her cot is also placed here for all to see. This museum also has a room where the life sized figure of St Alphonsa is placed & the portrait where Kuriokose Chavara is seen healing her when she was unwell. It is also important for all to visit the divine home here where Alphonsamma spent most of her time tending to needy people, her students & found her own time to pray. The Holy stone cross opposite the church & a grotto which depicts life of St Alphonsa is also what all pilgrims visit here. 

The whole pilgrim complex today is a place to attain solace, think about oneself, pray, remember a holy soul & finally be blessed by St Alphonsa. The story of Alphonsamma is an example for all to know how by just faith a human can endure their sufferings. 

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