Father Joseph Vithayathil has played a unique and decisive role in the life of Blessed Mariam Thresia and in the early years of the Congregation of Holy Family so as to merit the title of co-founder. Since much of the evidence concerning the life and sanctity of Blessed Mariam Thresia is drawn from his writings, it seems good to give here a brief account of the life, activities, and personality of this holy man.
He was born on 23 July 1865 as the son of Joseph and Anna Vithayathil, a prominent family in the parish of Manambady, Puthempally in Kerala. He had two brothers, Varkey and Paily, and two sisters, Annam and Mariam. Quite early in his life, he showed an ardent desire to be in the service of God. Therefore, with the consent of the parents, and prompted by his own desire, he lived one year with the parish priest Fr. Scaria Naganoolil and learnt to serve at Mass. On 30 May 1881 when he was 15 years old, he began his priestly training under Fr. Rector Rev. Alphonsus, T.O.C.D., in the seminary annexed to the Elthuruth monastery. In November 1883 he received the first tonsure from Bishop Marcellino, who had been appointed in 1877 Administrator for the Christians of the Syriac Rite. He received the first, the second and the third minor orders in 1884, 1885 and 1886 respectively.
Bishop Adolf Medleycott, who was nominated the Vicar Apostolic of Trichur in 1887, transferred Joseph and his companions to the St. Thomas Seminary. After his studies in the St. Thomas Minor Seminary, he was sent to the Puthenpally Major Seminary, whose rector was Fr. Bonifacius O.C.D. There he received his priestly training under Fr. Bonifacius, Fr. Eliseus, and Fr. Lodovicus Gasper. On 8 December 1892 he received the fourth minor order Acolyte at the Our Lady of Lourdes Church, Trichur. He received subdiaconate and diaconate in April 1891 and in October 1893 respectively in Puthenpally seminary. On 11 March 1894, he, together with eleven of his companions, received the priestly ordination in the parish church at Ollur and offered his first mass on 26th of the same month in the same church. He was then appointed assistant parish priest at Ollur on 23 April 1894 and vicar of Mukkattukara on 15 December 1894. On 1 February 1895 he was appointed vicar of Kandassankadavu. After two years service as parish priest in Kandassankadavu, he took rest for some time in his home parish. During this period he also worked for two months as acting parish priest at Chalakudy and eight months at Edathuruthy. After this period of rest, he was appointed parish priest at Pariyaram where he worked for two years. From there he was transferred to Kottekad. After fifteen days there, he became ill. When he recovered from his illness, he was appointed vicar at Mala. From there, after a period of 8 months, on his own petition, he was transferred to Puthenchira on 30 April 1902, where he did pastoral work until 15 January 1922.
When the Congregation of the Holy Family was erected by Mar John Menachery on 14 May 1914, Fr. Joseph Vithayathil, who was then parish priest of Puthenchira, was appointed its chaplain. Even before the erection of the Congregation, it was Fr. Joseph Vithayathil who stood by Blessed Mariam Thresia and guided her in the struggles of her soul and the search for the realization of her ardent desire for a life of religious commitment and her vision of Christianization of families. Realizing the intense thirst of Thresia for a `solitary house' for prayer, Fr.Joseph Vithayathil approached the Bishop on her behalf several times. But the bishop wanted to test her integrity and sent her to the Carmelite Convent at Ollur in 1913. Convinced that her vocation was not to the Carmelite Order, Thresia returned to Puthenchira, where Fr.Joseph Vithayathil, as requested by the bishop, built for her the `solitary house' which was blessed in October 1913. This solitary house was actually a potential religious community. Fr. Vithayathil himself prepared a programme of life for Thresia. Under his spiritual direction and observation Thresia started living in this house along with her companions, leading a life of prayer and service. On 14 May 1914, the bishop, in consultation with Fr. Vithayathil, erected in this solitary house a new congregation by the name of Holy Family, with Thresia as the superior and Fr. Vithayathil as the Chaplain.
Fr.Joseph Vithayathil's role as the protector and co-founder of the Holy Family Congregation is quite significant. Both Thresia and Fr. Vithayathil worked together, with the limited resources at their disposal, but above all trusting in the providence of God, to bring up the congregation. At her death on 8 June 1926, Blessed Mariam Thresia left the infant congregation in the care of Fr.Joseph Vithayathil. With tender care and concern he continued to guide the twelve year old congregation. He took up the reigns of the congregation as the divine plan of God, starting new branches, and projects, enlisting new members and benefactors. He trusted above all in the Lord. When all were asleep he used to sneak away quietly to the chapel. One could see him kneeling before the Blessed Sacrament for hours as if he were casting all his burdens on the Lord and drawing power and strength from Him. When the first General Council was formed with Mother Isabel as the Mother General, he entrusted the administration in their hands.
Fr. Joseph Vithayathil was a dear loving Father to all the Sisters of the congregation. From the time of Blessed Mariam Thresia, he was always called by the Sisters and the people as well, as `Pithavu' an endearing term for a loving father, and as a sign of respect.
According to the direction of the Bishop, Fr.Joseph Vithayathil asked Blessed Mariam Thresia to write down her life story from early childhood. The result is the Autobiographical Notes of Blessed Mariam Thresia which deals with her life experiences and events of life until 1905. But events after 1905 till the foundation of the congregation are found in her letters to Fr.Joseph Vithayathil. The diary of Fr.Joseph Vithayathil provides a beautiful biography of Blessed Mariam Thresia. The loving bond which existed between Blessed Mariam Thresia and Fr. Joseph Vithayathil seems to have been solemnized by God by calling him to heaven on 8 June 1964, after 48 years of Blessed Mariam Thresia's death on 8 June 1926. Thus 8 June has become a doubly blessed day for the Congregation of the Holy Family.
This short account of the life and activities of Father Joseph Vithayathil may be fittingly concluded with the following authoritative testimony of Mar James Pazhayattil, Bishop of Irinjalakuda, who knew him personally and gives tribute to the trustworthiness of his written accounts on the Servant of God. Rev. Father Joseph Vithayathil, a priest of the Diocese of Trichur and Co-founder of the Congregation of Holy Family Sisters, to the best of my knowledge and as per the testimony of others of different walks of life, had been a very holy, prudent, edifying, just man.
Rev. Father Joseph Vithayathil, a priest of the Diocese of Trichur and Co-founder of the Congregation of Holy Family Sisters, to the best of my knowledge and as per the testimony of others of different walks of life, had been a very holy, prudent, edifying, just man.
For 62 years, during his priestly career, till his death at the age of 99, he lived and worked in my home parish or native place, Puthenchira- Kuzhikkattussery area, as a man of God at the service of Church and people, as the chaplain of Sisters and the beloved father or `pithavu' to every body irrespective of caste, creed and colour. From childhood onwards I knew Fr.Joseph Vithayathil. I used to serve his Holy Mass. Only with his blessing I entered the Minor Seminary, joined the Major Seminary and took up the priestly ministry and college life after the ordination.
Fr.Joseph Vithayathil was a priest of vision and spiritual insight. He was quite generous towards the poor and suffering. He was in the habit of spending hours in prayer. He was particular to preach pretty zealously. Even at the age of ninety he was used to conduct Holy Hours on First Fridays, most of the time on his knees. Most of the people looked at him with awe and respect and under his mediation the disputes among the families could easily be settled.
The Servant of God, Blessed Mariam Thresia, the Foundress of the Congregation of Holy Family Sisters, from 1902 till her death in 1926, got the spiritual direction and timely guidance from Fr. Joseph Vithayathil. Fr.Joseph Vithayathil knew her through and through and was indeed a father, and guide in her visions, trials, spiritual life and family apostolate. He was the main support for her to start the new congregation and to start new convents and schools. In all endeavours and extraordinary experiences and raptures, not to speak of the visions and trials, Fr.Joseph Vithayathil was a prudent intermediary between the local Bishop and Blessed Mariam Thresia. She was fully submissive to God's will, also following the will of Ecclesiastical authorities especially through the great spiritual Director of hers.
Fr.Joseph Vithayathil made it a point to have the biography of Blessed Mariam Thresia written down and to have some articles and records connected with the life stream of this chosen soul, preserved and handed over to the future generation.
At the request of His Excellency Bishop George Alapatt, Fr.Joseph Vithayathil did hand over everything and thus this biography has come to lime light. Whatever is recorded in this is the experience of Fr.Joseph Vithayathil- what he has seen, heard, and shared. Being a reliable person of erudition, prudence, discretion, this biography deserves special value and esteem.
Father Joseph Vithayathil has become the witness par excellence of the holy life and heroic virtues of the Blessed Mariam Thresia.