Wearing richly hued attire, hundreds of residents walked through the streets of North Floral Park to celebrate the life and intercessory works of St Alphonsa on a recent Sunday afternoon.
Accompanied by the rhythmic beat of drums and cymbals, along with the prayers of a multicultural assembly, four men bore a statue of the saint on their shoulders as the Auxiliary Bishop Raymond Chappetto of Brooklyn carried a relic in procession.
“We are happy to have our own saint,” Geetha Joseph told a visitor as she walked amid family and friends.
The festivities began on July 19 with a concelebrated Mass at Our Lady of the Snows Church, which has honoured the Indian saint’s feast with increasing passion since 2010.
“You know what’s so beautiful? Everybody comes out for this,” said Fr Kevin McBrien who noted that the annual feast is one of the biggest at the parish. Most impressive, he said, is that the devotion attracts Indians as well as Filipinos, Irish and Italians.
This year’s celebration also drew former pastor, Bishop Chappetto, who was the main celebrant at Mass and a special homilist, Bishop Thomas Eusebius of the Syro-Malankara Exarchate in the US.
Our Lady of the Snows is home to members of the Syro-Malankara and Syro-Malabar churches, Eastern Catholic churches in full communion with Rome, as well as the Indian Latin rite, coordinated in the diocese by Fr Robert Ambalathingal. The parish offers a Latin-rite Malayalam Mass on the second Saturday of every month.
Canonised in October 2008, St Alphonsa is the first female saint of Indian origin and the first saint of the Syro-Malabar Church.
“We come today to honour her memory, to seek her intercession and to think about the virtues and gifts God gave to her,” Bishop Chappetto told the crowded church.
A 20th-century religious sister from the state of Kerala in India, St Alphonsa is known for living a short life characterised by great suffering, which she considered a gift from God.
Born Anna Muttathupadathu in August 1910, she endured a difficult childhood before joining the Franciscan Clarist Sisters in May 1927, and taking the name Alphonsa of the Immaculate Conception in honour of St Alphonsus Liguori.
Her life was marked by illness and pain, including an accident which burned her feet, leaving her permanently disabled. She died in 1946 at the age of 35 on July 28, which is now the date that her feast day is observed.
Bishop Eusebius said: “What made her life exceptional, was not so much the quantity of her suffering, but the faith and dignity with which she embraced the suffering.”
Accepting suffering and offering it to the Lord in love is countercultural in today’s world, he noted, where people go out of their way to avoid any kind of pain.
“Suffering is the price that we pay for love; love and suffering are two sides of the same coin. “This is the great message St Alphonsa gives us,” Bishop Thomas said. “We cannot remove suffering from our lives, but … we can change our attitudes.”
Mary Beth Gonzalez participated in the parish novena to the saint for the first time this year and said she is inspired by the saint’s simple approach to life.
“Her (St Alphonsa’s) message is that we must do God’s will, not our own. “When you do God’s will, it leads to the peace and happiness he promises us,” she told The Tablet, newspaper of the Diocese of Brooklyn.
Bishop Mar Eusebius noted that while the primary significance of saints is their example of Christian living, they do also intercede for the faithful on earth.
In the case of St Alphonsa, many miracles have been attributed to her intercession. Reji Babu and her husband, Ciby Fernandez, count their 16-month-old son Jonathan among those miracles.
After four years of difficulty conceiving a child, the couple prayed before St Alphonsa’s shrine in Kerala in 2012. At the saint’s feast day Mass one year later, Father Ambalathingal kept seeing the couple’s faces in his mind. He hoped it was a sign.
“The next month, we were expecting,” Babu said. “It happened so miraculously, I couldn’t help but believe it was her intercession.”
After visiting the saint’s shrine, Philomina George was inspired to bring the devotion to Our Lady of the Snows, but it took some time to win over Bishop Chappetto, who is now a devotee.
Last summer, he visited the saint’s shrine in Kerala, where he prayed for his former parishioners.
“I prayed for you because it was through you and your love that I was able to develop this love of St Alphonsa,” the bishop said.
Expressing his hope that the devotion continues to grow, he encouraged those present to spread the word about this “wonderful role model,” and follow her example of faith and courage in the face of their own personal suffering.
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