Mother Eliswa, who hailed from Ochanthuruth in Vypeen, was the founder of the first Carmelite congregation for women in India. She was also the first nun from Kerala and is said to have established the first convent in the State and the first school for girls north of the Periyar. Before she became a nun, Eliswa, born in October 1831, was the eldest of eight siblings from the wealthy and religious Vypussery family of Ochanthuruth. At the age of 16, Eliswa, whose name is a Malayalam version of the name Elizabeth, was married off to VareedVakayil, an older businessman from Koonammavu near Varapuzha. Vareed Vakayil and Eliswa had a daughter named Anna and later her husband Vareed passed away, leaving Eliswa as a widow at the age of 20.
The custom at the time dictated that the young, wealthy widow would have to remarry. But Eliswa declined all proposals and spent her time in prayer and care of the poor. “She longed to spend the rest of her life in the service of God. A simple hut with a thatched roof was constructed near the Vakayil family’s house at Koonammavu. The thatched hut and its surroundings have now been recreated by the Church and are kept as a museum chronicling the life of Mother Eliswa.
In 1862, Eliswa spoke about her desire to serve God to her parish priest, a young Italian named Fr. Leopold. The rest has gone into the history of how the Third Order of the Carmelite Discalced (TOCD) was formed.
In 1866, the first nuns from Kerala formed the Congregation of Teresian Carmelites (CTC) under TOCD. The first convent was a simple bamboo-mat house at Koonammavu, and the congregation, under Mother Eliswa, was given the task of teaching girls who had no means to pursue education. St. Joseph’s LP School at Koonammavu was set up in 1868 as the first Catholic school for girls in Malabar. Mother Eliswa’s mission in life was to educate young girls and she set up several girls’ schools here.
When she moved to Varapuzha after the separation of the Latin and Syrian rites of the Church, St. Joseph’s School for Girls at Varapuzha was set up. Mother Eliswa breathed her last on July 18, 1913, at the convent near the Varapuzha school.
Today, the order has around 1,400 nuns in 171 convents around the country. Over the 100 years after the death of Mother Eliswa, the Carmelite order in the country grew in size and extended its operations in the field of women’s education and welfare.