The Sisters of the Imitation of Christ (Commonly known as 'Bethany Sisters')

The Historical Background

The Syrian Christians of Kerala were traditionally believed to have been converted to Christianity by St. Thomas the Apostle who landed in Kerala in A.D. 52. Kerala was also called Malabar or Malankara, the land between the mountain and the sea. This Christian community was of one faith and had used the Syrian Liturgy in worship till the Portuguese came to India. They have neglected the good old traditions of the Syrians and imposed them to adopt the Latin rite. The Syrian Christians revolted against this, and it paved the way for the Coonan Cross Oath in 1653. With this great event the Malankara Church got divided into two. Eventually the majority of the Syrian Christians went over to the Latin Jurisdiction. The rest of them in course of time cherished a relationship with the Syrian Jacobite Church of Antioch and came to be called ‘Jacobites.’ Several attempts were made by the Jacobites to effect a re-union with the Apostolic Church. But all of them resulted in vain. The attempt finally realized on Sept 20, 1930 by the Re-union of Mar Ivanios, founder of the Religious – Order of the Imitation of Christ (O.I.C) and Sisterhood Sisters of the Imitation of Christ (S.I.C). God’s timely intervention in the human history is a clear evidence of His concern towards this world and mankind. According to His will He selects leaders and entrusts them with particular missions. Mar Ivanios was a selected person who was entrusted with a mission of the renewal of the Malankara Church.

The Founder – Fr. P.T Geevarghese (Archbishop Mar Ivanios 1882-1953)

Geevarghese was born in one of the ancient Syrian Jacobite families of Kerala on 21st Sept 1882, the Nativity of our Lady according to the Julian calendar then in use, among the Jacobites. His ancestors who were renowned warriors received the title of “Panicker” from the ruling Princes. At baptism he was given the name Geevargese, the Syriac form of George. Brought up in the simplicity of his country home, he inherited the courage, nobility, uprightness and magnanimity of his ancestors. He was by nature deeply religious, of brilliant intelligence, vigilant, resolute, far-sighted, benevolent and a born leader. As he attained maturity all his natural qualities developed. During his school days he was singled out by the visiting Bishop for seminary life. He had the privilege of being the first Syrian Jacobite priest to take the degree of ‘Master of Arts’ and people gladly called him M.A. achan.

In the Service of the Church

Celibacy of Priests among the Jacobite clerics was a matter of personal choice. The Jacobite clerics are allowed to marry before the diaconate. His devoted love for our Lady and his ardent desire to uplift the Jacobites from their spiritual lethargy prompted Geevarghese to choose the celibate life and make a vow to the Church.

Even as a Deacon Geevarghese Panicker used to give sermons in Churches and in various conventions. He stressed on the necessity of a revival of spiritual life. He advised the faithful to take active part in liturgy and study Bible. People flocked to hear him and a revival of spiritual life was on the move. This revival was effected most successfully when he was ordained priest on the feast of the Assumption of our Lady in 1908. He was the pride of the Syrian Christians and the glory of the Jacobites. His efforts at revival was thwarted by the quarrels which ensued the visit of the Jacobite Patriarch Abdulla from the Middle East. Then arose a continuous strife and litigation with a see-saw of appeals and counter appeals between the Patriarch and the Malankara Metropolitan Vattasseril Mar Divannasios. Father Geevarghese Panicker who was the mainstay of his Metropolitan, succeeded in getting a catholicate erected in Kerala (Catholicate – An ancient ecclesiastical institute in which the Catholicos rules over a particular Church independent of Patriarch). But he could not bear to see the strife and litigation tapping the energy of the young and resourceful people of his Church.

In 1913 Father Geevarghese Panickar accepted the offer of a Professorship in Serampore College, Bengal in North East part of India. A number of young students and clerics in minor orders rallied round him. For these and for all other students from South India who attended the various colleges of the university of Calcutta, he was a loving father, a kind brother, watchful guide and an unfailing counsellor.

The Foundation of the Sisters of the Imitation of Christ

Father Geevarghese, while professor in Serampore met the Anglican Mission Fathers and Mother Edith Langridge, the foundress of the Oxford Mission Sisters of Epiphany (O.M.S.E) who exerted the great influence in realizing his plans for the future. He had a plan to found a Missionary Society and a Sisterhood for uplifting the womenfolk of the Malankara Church. Further consideration made him give up the idea of the missionary society for men and he was fixed on the idea of a Monastic institution in the cenobitic form. He visited several Catholic and non-Catholic Religious Institutions in North India, studied their constitutions, and visited the non Christian Ashrams of Tagore and Gandhiji. Being a true Indian, his Patriotism prompted him to form his Monastery on the line of Indian asceticism.

He was very much impressed by the dedicated life of the Oxford Mission Sisters. He requested Mother Edith to come to Kerala and start a convent for the Syrian girls in the Malankara Church. ‘Sanyasam’ the idea of a dedicated life for women was unknown to them till then, in the Malankara Jacobite Church. Mother expressed her inability to come to a far off place in Kerala and start a religious house. However, she was taken up by the idea of Fr. Gevarghese and proposed to give religious training to the Syrian girls if they are sent to the Mother House at Barisol near Culcutta. With the permission and blessings of Mar Divannasios Vattasseril, the Metropolitan of the Malankara Church, Father Geevarghese took a few girls who were the daughters and relatives of his friends who belonged to the noble Syrian Jacobite families to Barisol. Leaving their country in the South West corner of India they followed Father Geevarghese Panicker to the Mother House of the Oxford Mission Sisters of Epiphany in the North East part of India. In 1915, 1917 and 1918 three batches of students reached Culcutta, two for higher studies in the diocesan college and eleven students for religious training in the Mother house at Barisol. The structure of buildings and the simplicity of the religious house at Calcutta resembled that of the Viswabharati of Tagore. The standard of life of the Epiphany Sisters was very simple and they lived according to the Indian way of life and culture. M.A achan liked the life style of the sisters who spent their life for the poor people of Bengal. He was very confident that the Oxford Mission Sisters would give good training to the candidates of the Malankara Church to become good religious.

Mother Edith of a noble birth and upbringing was highly talented, magnanimous and one of the first lady graduates from the university of Oxford. Mother Edith entrusted the ‘Syrian girls’ to Sister Helen one of her best co-religious. In 1918 four members of the sisterhood had been received by the founder as postulants at Barisol in Bengal. Sister Helen had taken care of the Syrian Community for eleven years and Mother Edith’s role in moulding the first members of the ‘Bethany Sisters’ was really significant. The founder visited them occasionally and he had great concern in their spiritual progress.

The convent at Barisol was efficiently run under the supervision and protection of Mother Edith, a great personality she had very well understood with what intention, our girls were admitted there. She had further grasped that they were to be instruments to uplift the community which was in a state of deterioration. Hence it was a fact that she had given special attention with regard to Syrian Girls entrusted to her by Father Geevarghese.

While the formation of the sisters was underway Fr. P.T Geevarghese thought of renovating the girl’s school at Thirumoolapuram. He asked Mother Edith to help him in providing good teachers who are able to conduct this school at Thirumoolapuram. According to the invitation of Mother Edith Miss Brooks Smith, a qualified graduate and Miss Homes, a retired professor who was a companion of Mother Edith from Oxford reached Barisol. They were very happy with the Syrian girls who knew English and Malayalam. The English ladies were unwilling to come to the Southern part of Kerala, which is far away from Culcutta. They insisted that they would not go to Thirumoolapuram unless if these girls would accompany them to the new place. M.A achan and Mother Edith had to face a difficult situation in order to avail such qualified teachers. He had to take a great decision about the trainees under Mother Edith’s supervision and care. It was not so easy to find out teachers of such caliber for his school, hence he decided to bring back the trainees to Thirumoolapuram “We are immensely indebted to Mother Edith for rendering us valuable recommendation in this matter. Without her special support Balikamadhom High School at Thirumoolapuram would never have had Miss Homes and Miss Brook smith on the role of it’s staff” (Girideepam 125). Since there was no other way M.A achan was forced to call back the trainees to Thirumoolapuram.

Mother Edith was so generous to send Sister Helen the mistress also to Thirumoolapuram along with the trainees to continue their religious formation. A plot of land adjacent to the western side of the school was bought and constructed a building for the convent. The long period of preparation had two periods of 5 years each. The first period was in Barisol, Bengal, from 1915 - 1920 and for the second period of five years they were at Thirumoolapuram, Kerala, from 1920 – 1925. Thus the training period continued under the leadership of the mistress Sister Helen till 1925.

Till then Sanyasa (Religious life) for women was not a tradition in the Jacobite Church. Even the Malankara Metropolitan Mar Divannasios who allowed the girls to go to Calcutta was not in favor of Sanyasam for women. M.A achan and those who were longing for the profession of the trainees were very anxious about this. In the Eastern Churches only a Bishop could receive the profession. Father P.T Geevarghese pleaded the Metropolitan again but he did not allow it. The Epiphany Sisters also were waiting for the profession. The founder had great faith in the merits of Mother Edith. Being a great Greek scholar, Mother Edith translated the teaching of St. Basil the Great on religious life and wrote a guide too on the religious life for the use of the new community. It was again Mother Edith who designed the religious habit of the Bethany Sisters on the occasion of their first profession in 1925.

The Choice of a Name and Place

When the foundation of the monastic institutions have taken their initial shape, the choice of a name and place became necessary. The thought of the monastic foundations pre-occupied the Founder and it was the chief subject of his prayers too. Thinking over a suitable name, he opened the Biblical dictionary and the first word he saw “Bethany” which to him seemed the most appropriate name for his religious institutes.

One of his friends, a rich man in Kerala donated him hundred acres of virgin forest called the “Dwarf Mountains” of Kerala at Perunadu, where Father Geevarghese founded his first Monastery. He thought to build the convent also for the religious sisters on this mountain but by divine providence the convent was started at Thirumoolapuram, Thiruvalla in 1925.

The First Profession

Father P.T Geevarghese was consecrated as Bishop on May 1st 1925. Soon after the Episcopal Consecration as the Bishop of Bethany, the new Bishop Mar Ivanios received the profession of the first three sisters of the Imitation of Christ on 21st Sept 1925, on the feast of the Nativity of Our Lady. True to the Eastern concept of profession it was a complete dedication of life, a jubilant giving of oneself as a holocaust. At first the sisters took perpetual vows, simple or solemn. Thus the following sisters made their profession in the Jacobite Church in the following names:-

Sosamma – Mookencheril – Thripunithra – Sister Shina (Peace)

Achiamma – Ponvanibhom – Kayamkulam – Sister Huba (Love)

Saramma – Koodathummury – Vennikulam – Sister Denaha (Epiphany)

Thus the first women congregation was founded by Mar Ivanios in the Malankara Church on 21st Sept 1925 according to the Julian calendar. Thus the great event of Profession ceremony was conducted in the Malankara Church and the three sisters received the religious habit from Mar Ivanios.

The Re-union of the Sisters

The historic re-union of Mar Ivanios with the Catholic Church was on 20th September 1930. The next day all the ten members of the congregation, together with the founder, re-united with the Catholic Church. When the founder Mar Ivanios became Archbishop of Trivandrum, the house in Thiruvalla was closed down according to the decision of the General Chapter and all the sisters went over to Trivandrum where the Mother house was erected in 1936. A couple of months later 3 sisters were sent back to Thiruvalla to help Mar Theophilos, bishop of Thiruvalla, in his diocese. Thus a separate community was formed there. These separate communities continued to grow independent of each other and established houses, schools and orphanages of their own until their reunification in 1956.

The Pontifical Status

The congregation was elevated to the Pontifical Status on August 6, 1956 by Pope Pius XII. The decree of praise and approbation of the congregation were both given on the same after having united the two branches of the congregation as two provinces of the same institute under one Mother General. Very Rev. Fr. Placid C.M.I was sent as a special visitor from Rome. He executed the decree of the Holy See on 21st August 1956. The constitution was temporarily approved on 17th May 1959.

The Bethany Sisters try to attain their personal sanctification by imitating our Lord Jesus Christ in His hidden life of contemplation and in His active life. The charism of the congregation:- The spiritual renewal of the Syro Malankara Catholic Church, Re-Union, Evangelization and the upliftment of women through imitation of Christ. Since the re-union the congregation has grown rapidly. There are five provinces namely Trivandrum, Thiruvalla, Bathery, Pathanamthitta and Muvattupuzha under one Mother General. Our Missionary activities extend to India, Germany, America, Italy, Switzerland, Israel, Ethiopia and South Africa.

Charism of the Congregation

The Charism of Bethany Sisters consists in a life of Imitation of Christ, thereby: Striving for the Spiritual renewal of the Malankara Church, Re-Union with the Catholic Church, Emancipation of Women and Evangelization.