OBITUARY – MOTHER ANASTASIA

 

Mt. 25:34 - Come  O blessed of my Father, inherit the Kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world.”

Today these words from Mt. 25: 34 resonate in our ears as we gather to bid farewell to our beloved Mother Anastasia. She truly deserves to be addressed as the beloved of the Father and can rightfully claim the promises of the Father of inheriting the Kingdom prepared for her from the foundation of the world. A glimpse into her illustrious life as a zealous missionary of Gangpur mission and a beacon light of the Handmaids of Mary will reveal how true the above words are in the life of Mother Anastasia.

Mother Anastasia is the eldest of ten children born to late Mr. V. Joseph Elanjickal, a politician and late Mrs. Mary Joseph of Kothamanglam,  Kerala. Two of her sisters are nuns.  One of them, Sr. Mary George F.C. is with us today. With us also are her sister Daisy and brother-in-law Joseph Francis.

Mother Anastasia was  born on 10th June, 1920 and was Christened Mary on 18th June, 1920.  The family fondly called her Bessy.  Bessy’s parents were pious and God fearing and were actively involved in the affairs of the Church. Her intense desire to be a missionary prompted her to break away from family attachments and join the Daughters of the Cross at the tender age of 15. Responding to God’s call, she left with her teacher and six others to join the Daughters of the Cross on 19th November, 1935.  She started her candidateship at St. Agnes Convent, Howrah. After three months, she joined Postulancy on 26th February, 1936 at St. Helen’s, Kurseong. Her Vestition was on 22nd October 1936 and took the name Anastasia.  Like every other novice, Sr. Anastasia assiduously practiced the rules and regulations and customs of the Congregation.  She pronounced her first vows on 22nd October, 1938 and final vows on 11th January, 1945.

A year after her profession, she was sent to the Gangpur mission in 1940 which held great promises to the Church.  Her first assignment was to Kesramal where she qualified herself as a teacher.  Along with teaching, she also undertook other missionary endeavours like visiting villages to tell people about the Good News.  Those days four wheelers were rare in Gangpur and so were cycles and motor cycles.  Some of the priests and a few daring sisters used horses as conveyance.  Others went on foot or on bullock carts or in palanquins.  Sr. Anastasia is known to have used all these means of transport during her missionary tours.  Gauded by her goal of becoming a good missionary, she took up every challenge in reaching out to the people.

She served as a teacher in Gaibira, Kesramal and Hamirpur.  When she was Headmistress in Gaibira, she often had to come to Sundargarh for office work.  There was only one bus connecting both the places.  She had to go to Sundargarh in the morning and return only in the evening by the same bus.  Journey was so tiresome but she was so jovial and enthusiastic.  Seeing her cheerfulness and enthusiasm the Divan of the Rani Sahiba Mr. Alderson remarked:  “One day you will be a Mother General.”  But he did not live to see his prophecy come true.

When the Handmaids of Mary had their own Novitiate at Gaibira, their formation was handed over to the Daughters of the Cross.  Mother Julita F.C. was the first Novice Mistress.  Sr. Anastasia F.C. helped Mother Julita in her work as Novice Mistress. 

In 1951 Rt. Rev. Herman Westermann SVD became the first Bishop of the newly erected Diocese of Sambalpur.  He took up residence at Kalunga and shifted the Novitiate to Kalunga.  Sr. Anastasia was entrusted with the task of formation of the Handmaids of Mary.  She was both Novice Mistress and local Superior of the Handmaids of Mary in Kalunga and at the same time lived as a Daughter of the Cross.

Being a very honest person she found this very hard to reconcile with: she was in a dilemma.  Hitherto she had been a dedicated Daughter of the Cross.  Now her responsibility towards the sapling Congregation of the Handmaids came in the way of fulfilling her dedication as a Daughter of the Cross.  She prayed for light and sought help from her Superiors and spiritual fathers.

Fr. Valentine Zimermann SVD and Fr. Edmond Harrison SJ himself suggested her to join the Handmaids of Mary and set her mind at ease.  Finally she made her decision to become a Handmaid and devote herself fully to this Congregation.  She appealed to her Superiors and to the Holy See for permission.  The decision came in her favour.

It was also a great sacrifice for the Daughters of the Cross to let her go.  They too proved generous when the occasion came.  They parted with their dear little sister in the most generous and courageous manner. Their Mother General Mother Caroline who was then on a Visitation to India wrote to the sisters of the Calcutta Province informing them of the permission granted to Sr. Anastasia to become a Handmaid of Mary on the 25th of March 1954.  “What better day could be chosen than the Feast of the Annunciation which recalls our Lady’s answer to the Archangel, Ecce Ancilla Domini?”

On 25th March, 1954, the Feast of the Annunciation, when Mary the Handmaid of the Lord pronounced her ‘Fiat’ to the Almighty, Sr. Anastasia F.C. became Sr. Maria Anastasia H.M. leaving her Congregation where she spent 17 years.  It was a great act of courage and sacrifice on her part to make this choice to join a Congregation which had neither roots nor branches and whose future was uncertain.

“Unless a grain of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it remains only a single seed.  But if it dies, it produces many seeds.”  Jn. 12:24.  Sr. Anastsia’s surrender was so complete and her transformation so down to earth that when the Handmaids of Mary saw her in saree, their religious habit, they wept altogether in acceptance and appreciation of her kenosis for their sake – for the sake of a new born Congregation that was little known.               Sr. Anastasia had died to herself, the comforts, conveniences and privilege of her foreign congregation, all her friends and loved ones within the Daughters of the Cross and stooped down to embrace an indigenous Congregation for which she had to die literally day in and day out for the rest of her life.  It was a Gethsemane experience for her – launching out into the inevitable, seeing before her in a flash the enormity of the burden she was promising to embrace.  How much blood she must have sweated in the quietness of the chapel and the privacy of her bedroom cum office! Like her Master and Lord who walked before her and showed her the way, she accepted it all with her radiating smile and confirmed her surrender on 25th March 1954. 

Fr. Edmond Harrison S.J. advised her on her joining us to be a mother to us, to be our leader and guide.  She had been doing it till the last.                  Fr. Zimmermann addressed to her, “God will never be outdone in generosity for what you did to Him.  He in turn will take you in his care and keeping.  Such sentiments and the like will be woven like a golden thread into the great pattern of your vocation and your final oblation as Mary’s Handmaid.”

Once a Handmaid, she has been spending herself fully for the Congregation.  After embracing the Congregation of the Handmaids of Mary as her own, her position as the Congregational leader was automatically accepted and acknowledged. In 1958 in the first General Chapter  Sr. Anastasia was elected the first Superior General of the Handmaids of Mary.  She was re-elected in the second General Chapter in 1964.

Under the guidance of Bishop Hermnan Westermann SVD she recruited, groomed and educated her sisters for the various apostolates of the infant diocese.  She even sent one of the pioneer members to Mangalore to gain experience as Novice Mistress with the Apostolic Carmel sisters. Some of the sisters were sent to study, and some were not as they were below matriculation and needed more time to qualify for admission to studies in various disciplines to meet the urgent needs of the apostolates.  There was also financial stringency.  She had many other difficulties to face – lack of proper personnel to shoulder responsibilities and the lack of funds even for the day to day needs of the sisters.  Kalunga served as the Generalate, hospital community and the Novitiate and so there was lack of space.  So the Generalate was shifted to Sundargarh.

Meetings the needs of the Congregation, taking care of the Novices and Postulants were not easy tasks.  Nor was the knocking at the door of the Bishop for everything very pleasant.  But she had no choice.  Her humility and trust in Providence and the goodness of the Bishop sustained her through these hardships.  She was a teacher to the novices, superior to the community and mother to all the Handmaids.  When in urgent need she could try her hand in cooking, gardening, masonry or carpentry with apparent ease. Her availability, simplicity, hard work, spirit of service and prayer life were remarkable.  As Mother General, she visited communities far and near walking miles, braving risks and inconveniences to encourage sisters and show concern and solidarity with them. Handmaids did not own a vehicle those days.  There was no secretary or any one else to do her official work. 

Fr. Antony Fleming SVD wrote for the Golden Jubilee souvenir of the Handmaids of Mary: “No hill was too steep to climb; no river was too deep to cross for the Handmaids of Mary to reach out to the poor and needy.”  True enough: because we had a leader in our mother Anastasia who walked before us showing us the way.   The growth of the Congregation of the Handmaids of Mary from 1946 to 1970 can be attributed to her without any dispute. When she laid down her office in 1970, we had 14 convents, 180 professed sisters and 20 novices.

After her term of office as Mother General, she settled down in a small community away from the hustle and bustle of the Generalate for a more peaceful existence.  Later the Congregation entrusted her with the responsibilities like hostel superintendent, local superior and junior mistress.   She had been to Barilapta, Birmitrapur, Kalunga, Kusumdegi, Kansbahal, Kesramal and Chuhipali. She came to Asha Niwas, Nuagaon on 5th June, 2008. She also helped in  the communities according to her capacity. She opted for a more relaxed life and spent her time in reading, reflection and prayer.  But often she was seen with the sick and dying, consoling them, praying with them and strengthening them to accept God’s will.  She had great concern for the old and infirm and a soft corner for the poor and the neglected.

Some of the major events of her tenure as Novice Mistress and Mother General from 1954 to 1970 are:  the Renewal Chapter and Silver Jubilee of the Congregation in 1969, the establishment of Generalate at Sundargarh  and laying the foundation for the Novitiate building at Jharsuguda.  She got the Congregation registered in 1969 under the Societies Registration Act of 1860.  She was also present in many of the subsequent Chapters.

As a whole she maintained her good health and did not suffer from serious ailments.  She came to Asha Niwas in 2008 for better medical care due to her advancing age. Due to her age and poor intake of food, she became weak and was bed ridden since 2010.  Even as she was bed ridden, she was jovial and pleasant.  She never complained about anything.  It was a pleasure for anyone to look after her. 

She was shifted to the hospital on 5th May, 2012.  Her breathing became difficult and shallow by 6th May, 2012. She was put on oxygen and was under constant observation of the doctors and staff of Nuagaon hospital. Sisters spent days and nights by her side praying with her and easing her discomforts.  Bp. Alphonse Bilung, Dr. Fr. Valerian and Fr. Telephore director took turns to pray with her.   She was administered the anointing of the sick on 5th May 2012. Sr. Mary George F.C., Sr. Ann Bernard F.C. and a good number of the Handmaids were with her on 5th and 6th May praying for her and comforting her. On 7th May morning her breathing became slower and slower and finally stopped at 4.15 am without any extra struggle. Thus singing her Magnificat in the company of her daughters and the presence of her sister Sr. Mary George F.C. and others she breathed her final fiat into the hands of the Lord.

Dear friends, the demise of Mother Anastasia is a historical event not only for the Handmaids of Mary but for the entire Church and the world.  Today we mourn her death but he spirit will continue to enkindle the gentle, sweet and radiating light of Jesus for all ages to come.

“Well done, good and faithful servant! You have been faithful with a few things; …. Come and share your master’s happiness!” Mt.25:23. Mother Anastasia always reminded us: “Keep the rules and the rules will keep you.” Yes, dear Mother, you have shown us how to be faithful in little things to inherit the Kingdom.  You are a legend for Gangpur mission and particularly for the Congregation of the Handmaids of Mary.  You have left behind you a legacy – a legacy of missionary commitment, spirit of surrender, simplicity, authenticity and hard work required of a missionary at the grassroot level. You are a role model of Incarnational Spirituality, becoming the message and the messenger.  Your demise leaves a vacuum in the Congregation of the Handmaids of Mary that can never be filled or replaced. But we shall not miss you.  You will be with us always.

 

Mother Anastasia HM

10.06.1920:   Born to Mr. Varkey Joseph Elenjical and Mrs. Kocumariam Joseph.

18.06.1920:   Baptised at St. George’s Church, Kothamangalam, present Cathedral.

15.12.1927:   First Holy Communion from Rt. Rev. Dr. Angel May, the Archbishop of Verapoly who had come to bless the newly built Little Flower Church, Kozhippilly, situated close to her house.  She was affectionately called Bessy.

10.11.1935:   Joined the Daughters of the Cross.

19.11.1935:   Candidate, St. Agnes, Howrah.

26.02.1936:   Postulant, St. Helen’s, Kurseong.

22.10.1936:   Novice, Kurseong.

22.10.1938:   First Profession as the Daughter of the Cross, Kurseong.

22.10.1939:   Kidderpore.

22.10.1940:   Kesramal School, Teacher’s training.

1942             Hamirpur School.

11.01.1945:   Final Vows as Daughters of the Cross.

1948             Kesramal

1949             Gaibira

1952             Succeeded Sr. Julita F.C. as Novice Mistress to the Handmids of Mary.

25.03.1954:   Final vows as HANDMAIDS OF MARY at Kalung.

1958             Elected 1st Mother General in the first General Chapter.

1964             Re-elected as Mother General in the second General Chapter.

1967             Shifted the Generalate to Sundargarh.

1970             Barilapta

1973             Birmitrapur hostel.

1976             Superior, Kalunga.

1979             Kusumdegi.

1980             Kansbahal.

1981             Boarding in charge, Kesramal.

1984             Kalunga.

1989             Chuhipali

1993             Kansbahal

05.06.2008    Asha Niwas

07.06.2012    R.I.P.

 

 

 





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