Mother M. Anastasia HM

There is one who stands out in the 42 years life span of the Congregation of the Handmaids of Mary, one who has associated herself with them from the very beginning, one who had given up all she had treasured to become one of them and help the reigns of the congregation for almost two decades and formed the destinies of more than half the members of the congregation. Oh! Great Handmaid we bow in gratitude to the Almighty for sending you to us at the opportune time to work with those people of Good will who had the growth and welfare of the congregation at heart.

Mother Mary Anastasia is the eldest of 10 children born to V. Joseph and Mary Elanjikal of Kothamangalam, Kerala. Bessy as she was known in the family was born on 10th June 1920 and was baptised by the name of Mary on 18th June 1920. The Elanjikal family is a well known and well to do family. Bessy’s parents sent her to school as soon as she was of school going age.By the time she reached high school, the Lord called her to join the religious congregation of the Daughters of the Cross. Bessy, her teacher and six others left their ancestral home in Kerala and boarded a train bound for Madras – Howrah, on 19th  Nov. 1935. On reaching Howrah, Bessy and her companions were led to St. Agnes’ Convent, Howrah and started candidateship. After three months they went to St. Helen’s, Kurseong to be admitted to Postulancy on 26/02/1936. It lasted for 8 months. Then Bessy and companions were admitted to the Novitiate in a great religious ceremony called Vestition, on 22/10/1936. Today we celebrate the Golden jubilee of that occasion. Bessy Joseph Elanjikal from then on was known as Sr. Mary Anastasia FC. She and her companions formed the first group of novices to begin the two year novitiate programme. Like any other novice Sr. Anastasia assiduously practised all the virtues and followed the customs of the congregation. She pronounced her first vows on 22/10/1938 and her final vows on 11/01/1945.

Soon after her profession she was sent to Gangpur mission which held great promises for the Church. Her first assignment was to Kesramal where she qualified herself as a teacher. Then began the missionary endeavours: visiting villages to tell people about the Good news. In those days 4 wheelers were rare in Gangpur. So were cycles and motor cycles. Some fathers and a few daring sisters used Horses as conveyance. Others went on foot or in bullock carts or in palanquins. Sr. Anastasia is known to have used all these means of transport during her missionary tours. Sometimes the horses won’t obey and at other times the Palki bearers would be tired and drop the sisters down but our young missionaries were undaunted by all these. Life in the village were adventurous. The villagers would provide them with straw mattress that rustled everytime they turned on it. They had improvised open air toilets fenced and partitioned in the middle by thatched leaves to serve as W.C. and bath. Most of the time they ate the food provided by the villagers.

She had worked in all the three mission stations of the Daughters of the Cross in Gangpur : that is Gaibira, Kesramal and Hamirpur. In Gaibira she was Headmistress of the M.E. School. The educational offices were at Sundargarh. There was only one bus connecting the two places. If one came to Sundargarh in the morning one had to wait till evening for the return journey. Inspite of all these difficulties Sr. Anastasia was jovial and enthusiastic. Seeing her cheerfulness and enthusiasm, the Diwan of Rani Sahiba, Mr. Alderson remarked “One day you will be a Mother General”, but he did not live to see his prophesy come true. Now we know it did come true, she was Mother General not once not twice but almost for two decades.

As years rolled on, the Gangpur mission picked up momentum Fr. Edmond Harrison SJ, the zealous parish priest of Kesramal found some young girls aspiring to serve the Lord as religious. He encouraged them and Sr. Michael Maria FC sheltered them as possible candidates for their congregation. But by some turn of events, Fr. Harrison’s plan did not work. So he thought of an alternative ; a native congregation. He consulted his Bishop Oscar Severin SJ of Ranchi and he gave the green signal. So the new congregation – the Handmaids of Mary was in the offing. Off he sent his five recruits to Ranchi in 1944 to be trained under the daughters of St. Ann. The first Handmaids returned to Gangpur in 1946 to be guided by the Daughters of Cross. Sr. Anastasia was there to assist them in this task.

The forties had other significance too ! It was a period of transition for Gangpur mission. The missionaries of the Society of the Divine Word had shown interest in the Gangpur mission. Some of them had come to the region by 1946, some joined later and the Jesuits withdrew to other areas of Chotanagpur. This transition had far reaching consequences on the new-born congregation of the Handmaids of Mary. The efforts of the SVD fathers and the readiness of the Daughters of the Cross to help in the growth of the congregation resulted in having its own novitiate in Gaibira. Mother Juleta FC of Happy memory was appointed first novice mistress of the Handmaids of Mary. Mother Juleta and Fr. Wald SVD shared between them the responsibility of forming and guiding the Handmaids. Sr. Anastasia FC helped Mother Juleta in work as novice mistress.

1951 saw the erection of the new diocese of Sambalpur comprising of the old Gangpur and some adjoining districts and Bishop Herman Westerman SVD became its first Bishop. He took up his residence at Kalunga and shifted the novitiate of the Handmaids to Kalunga. Mother Juleta could not move to Kalunga, so Sr. Anastasia FC was entrusted with this important task of formation of the Handmaids. Her association with Mother Juleta, Sr. Michael Maria, Sr. Josephine and others stood her in good stead in carrying out this important task. 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 Zimmermann SVD and Fr. Harrison himself suggested her to join the Handmaids and settle 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 Rome for a favourable decision. The decision came in her favour. The day of her joining the Handmaids was fixed, it was the 25th of March 1954 the feast of the Annunciation, when our Lady, the Handmaid of the Lord declared her ‘Fiat’ to the Almighty. 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.

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 who was then on a visit to India wrote to the sisters of Calcutta province informing them of the permission granted to Sr. M. 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 to us Our Lady’s answer to the Archangel, Ecce
Ancilla Domini ?”. Like our Heavenly Mother our congregation strives to be the humble servant of the Lord and that is what we wish in the present circumstances.

Let us recall in gratitude the disinterested and absolute devotion of our dear old missionaries, sisters M. Juleta and Josephine who have given to the Handmaids of Mary of their very best. They will feel the sacrifice of the 25th but they will always offer it generously to God. May God bless them abundantly. She added a post script. I ask each superior to have a mass said for the congregation of the Handmaids of Mary during the week preceding March 25th.

Many congratulated and appreciated Sr. Anastasia for her great courage and faith for launching out to the uncertain. But she had the prayers of all those sisters and friends, the support Bishop Westermann and the love and good will of us Handmaids. With these she directed the destiny of the congregation till 1970 as novice mistress, local Superior and Mother General.

Once a Handmaid, she has been spending herself fully for the congregation. She co-operated with Bishop Westermann in recruiting, training and educating sisters for the various apostolates of the congregation. She even sent one of the pioneer members to Mangalore to gain experience as novice mistress with the AC sisters there. Some could go for higher studies but many couldn’t for obvious reasons. She had difficulties too!. Lack of personals to shoulder responsibilities, lack of funds even for the day to day needs of the sisters were there. The Handmaids themselves posed problems for her. Inspite for all these she took the congregation through two General chapters and one renewal chapter. In the third general chapter, one of her own recruits Sr. Xavier became the Mother General. What greater satisfaction could she have as a Mother.

During the 1954 – 70 period the Handmaids of Mary spread into 14 convents in Sambalpur diocese with 180 professed sisters and 20 novices. The congregation celebrated its silver jubilee in 1969. It was fitting that she was at the helm on this occasion too!. What an uphill task it was for her to guide the congregation  in those early days!. Recalling the beginning at Kalunga Bishop Westermann wrote to her with evident relief and satisfaction at a much later date : “The beginnings were very poor and difficult and the accommodation for the sisters and candidates very primitive till the convent buildings were erected. I still remember well when the first candidates arrived – a fairly large number of them. Inspite the hardship they were cheerful and took everything in their stride as a matter of fact. It was wonderful to work with them. Fortunately you were there to help me, otherwise it would have been impossible. So I am still grateful to you that you joined the Handmaids and formed the first generation of the sisters”. Let me add : The Handmaids too are grateful !.

After her retirement from the Mother Generalship too she had been very active in bearing the burdens of the congregation in various capacities. She has not shirked any responsibility. Although she is in her sixties she does not show any sign of weariness. None of us can beat her in her brisk and quick gait.

The sick and dying experience her tenderness and compassion more than anyone else. She is there beside them to suffer with them, to console them, to pray for them and to make easy their passage from this world.

The founder had admonished her on her joining us, to be a mother to us, to be our leader and guide. She has been doing it to this day. Let me conclude with the words of Fr. Zimmermann addressed to her, “God will never be outdone in Generosity for what you did for Him. He in return will take you in His care and Keeping. Such sentiment are the like will be woven like a golden thread into the great pattern of your vocation and your final oblation as Mary’s Handmaid”.

(Copy of the address delivered at Kalunga on the Jubilee day).

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