I am an Indian priest, a Benedictine monk, who has worked in the Philippines for the past 10 years as the Prior of St. Benedict’s Monastery, Corte, Carmen, Cebu. I was born on Dec. 19, 1948, in a small town called Ponkunnam, in the southern State of Kerala, India. By birth I belong to the Syro-Malabar Oriental Catholic Church. My late father’s name is Thomas alias Mathew Thekkumthottam. My mother’s name is Elikkutty (Elizabeth) Vayalilkalapura. I belong to an ancient Catholic family that traces its roots to St. Thomas the Apostle who baptized our ancestors in or around the year 52. My parents have deep spiritual and religious roots.
On my father’s side I am related to the eminent and scholarly late Cardinal Antony Padiyara, the first Major Archbishop and the first Cardinal of Kerala, India. My mother is a grand niece of the late Mar Sebastian Vayalilkalapura, the first bishop of Palai Diocese in South India. Incidentally, the Diocese of Palai has a unique place in Catholic history. It has produced the highest number of priestly and religious vocations, the highest number of bishops, the first woman saint of India, St. Alphonsa, and also some other Servants of God whose process of beatification is ongoing. My late maternal grand parents are distantly related to St. Alphonsa in their own lineage. In my extended family, including my cousins, nephews, nieces etc., there are 21 nuns, three priests and half a dozen seminarians.
My family consisted of my parents and six children, two boys and four girls. Of my early childhood, what I still remember is our family Rosary in the evenings. The whole family would gather together in front of a small altar to pray the Rosary. When we were still small, my elder sister Jainamma, (now Sister Annie Thekkumthottam, SABS, Tanzania) used to take us younger children daily to the parish Church for Holy Mass. We went reciting the Rosary as we walked to the Church. My elder and younger sisters entered the same Religious Congregation of Adoration Sisters of the Blessed Sacrament in Kerala, India. Another younger sister, though physically weak by birth, also entered a convent meant for people with physical disabilities.
After my graduation, I entered the Sylvestrine Congregation of the Benedictine order of monastic life. The Sylvestrine Congregation was founded by St. Sylvester Guzzolini (1177-1267) in central Italy. He is practically an unknown saint among the galaxy of great saints in the Catholic Church, but he had the unique privilege of receiving Holy Communion from the hands of the Blessed Virgin Mary. His devotion to the Holy Eucharist and to the Mother of God attracted me from the very beginning. Only later did I discover that these two are the central pillars of Catholic spirituality. After my priestly ordination in India, I went to Rome, specializing in Benedictine spirituality at St. Anselm Benedictine College, Rome.
In 1999, upon the invitation of Archbishop Cardinal Vidal of Cebu, I was sent, together with another Indian priest, Father Joseph John Manjadiyil, from Rome to the Philippines by our then Abbot General Rev. Father Andrea Pantaloni, O.S.B., to begin a monastery of our Congregation in Cebu. When we came here we had no friends, no language, no influence, no land and no home to live in. My only help was a Rosary bought in Fatima. And it worked miracles in my life.
Our monastery is situated in a very remote mountain locality called Corte in the municipality of Carmen, in the central island of Cebu. Though remote, this is a panoramic and captivatingly beautiful place. But we started at a time when only one or two members in the Congregation were in favor of a new foundation. It was really difficult to go ahead with so much opposition and, during the early pioneering years, life was hard in every sense of the word. This had a telling effect on my health. On Feb. 14, 2005, I had a massive heart attack with a long hospitalization in intensive care. Again on Nov. 20, 2007, I underwent bypass surgery in a well-known Hospital in Cebu. Everything seemed to go well, but six days after my surgery, a new nurse, by mistake, gave me the wrong medicine and I went into a coma and died.
This is what I remember about my encounter with death. I felt like I was seated in the lap of an ancient being almost like being seated in an easy chair. I felt very comfortable, and I did not feel any fear. There were two friendly beings, one on either side of me, who to me, seemed like life-long companions. I did not see them clearly, but I could well feel their presence. (Later, as an afterthought, I felt that I had been seated in the lap of St. Benedict and that the two beings at my sides were the souls of my father and younger brother, both of whom had died many years before).
Slowly we lifted from the earth and went high. I remember seeing mountains and rivers far below. We were going very fast and straight forward. It was all a pleasant experience. I do not remember having passed through a dark tunnel. But I could see far ahead on the horizon a bright light similar to the sky at dawn. When we neared the border of this glowing land of light, something suddenly stopped my onward journey. Instantly I knew that it was the statue of Our Lady of the Holy Rosary. Although I did not see the figure of the Blessed Virgin Mary, I knew it was she, because I could recognize the semi-globular base of the statue in front of which I used to pray the Rosary daily.
Caught in a Web of Rosaries
In an instant I saw that I was entangled in a net. I tried my best to shake and break and get out of it. I was like a little insect caught in a spider’s web. The more I tried, the more I got entangled. Then I saw that this net was made of Rosaries. There were hundreds and hundreds of all kinds of Rosaries, gold and silver, big and small, white and black, wooden and plastic. I could not move my hands or my legs, I was so badly entangled. I did not know that, at that very moment, hundreds and hundreds of people were praying the Rosary for me all over the world.
In my struggle to break free, I did not notice when my unearthly companions disappeared.
Suddenly I opened my eyes, and I saw that I was caught in a web of all kinds of tubes and pipes and medical equipment in the intensive care unit of the hospital. Two nurses were holding my hands and arms strongly so that I did not throw off the medical gadgets attached all over my body! I was back to life again. And of course, I had a long hospitalization after that, and a longer recovery period.
I had known the power of the Rosary from my early childhood. After becoming a priest, I always had a Rosary around my neck. When I was asked by my superiors to go to the Philippines, I was happy. I knew that this was the only Catholic country in Asia with a very deep Marian devotion. After coming to the Philippines, I used to pray all the mysteries of the Rosary daily, and on certain days and for certain needs, I prayed six Rosaries. Sometimes I used to pray the Rosary of the Seven Sorrows of the Blessed Virgin Mary also. In addition, from the first day of our arrival in the Philippines, we recited the Holy Rosary daily together with the local people.
Most probably, this is the only Benedictine monastery in the world that prays more than one Rosary commonly as a monastic community and together with the local people. Through the years, this devotion developed here, and the number of pilgrims increased.
Finally, next to our monastery, some generous benefactors built a Rosary Center, the only one of its kind in the Catholic world. This Rosary Center, which has 20 life-sized paintings of the mysteries of the Holy Rosary, is dedicated to Our Lady of Manaoag of the Holy Rosary. Hundreds and hundreds of pilgrims now come here daily to pray the Holy Rosary, and with many reported miracles.
Previously, too, in my priestly life, I had experienced the power of the Holy Rosary in moments of danger. In October 1992, I was riding a bicycle through a remote village, about 25 miles from Ranchi city in North India, on a vocation promotion campaign. As I was going down a steep road in a very isolated area, suddenly a group of young robbers encircled me and stopped my cycle. They had wooden clubs in their hands. From their look I knew that they would beat me to death any moment. Looking around, I saw other bicycles and a charcoal truck that had been destroyed in looting.
One hefty fellow, who seemed to be the leader, pulled open my shirt to see whether I had any gold chain on my neck. I had a brown Rosary on my neck. As soon as the man saw the Rosary, it was as though he got a shock and took his hand off me instantly. They murmured something in their tribal language, and in a second they disappeared into the jungle, leaving me still trembling in the middle of a lonely forest road.
That particular Rosary was beloved. It had a tiny reliquary containing a little soil from the Holy Land and had been given to me by the late Father Sylvester Trivellini, O.S.B., the then General Councilor, while I was studying in Rome in the 1980s. Later, I gave this Rosary to a dying cancer patient, who died peacefully after putting it around his neck.
In 1997, I was in the Asirvanam Benedictine Monastery, in Bangalore, India. One day I took the monastery’s jeep to go into the city. On the way, it started to rain so I decided to return. As I reversed, I could not see well behind me because of the tall grass, and before I realized what was happening, the jeep fell into a 20-foot deep pit.
When the rescuers lifted me out of the jeep, I regained consciousness. Mysteriously the Rosary on my neck had gotten entangled on the steering wheel, as though I was tied to it. Why the Rosary was not broken, I do not understand even to this day!
Some hundred-odd laborers working on the neighboring farm came running to help, and within a few minutes they pushed and pulled and brought the jeep back to the road again. There was not even a scratch on me or on the jeep!
That Rosary had been given to me by Pope St. John Paul II in Rome in 1995 during a private audience for the Chapter Fathers of our Congregation, of whom I was also a delegate from India. That same year, when a Hindu woman in my hometown of Ponkunnam requested this Rosary for her only son who was diabolically possessed, I gave it to her.
My intention in writing this little story of mine now is to help you also to grow in devotion to the Blessed Virgin Mary by praying the Holy Rosary. If you think this story can help others also, please send it to them so that God may be glorified in everything. And may the Holy Mother of God help you.
FATHER THEKKUMTHOTTAM, O.S.B., writes from St. Benedict’s Monastery, Corte, Carmen, Cebu, Philippines.