Foundress – Venerable Mother Veronica of the Passion (1823 – 1906)
“If India is a torture for some, I tell you, it is a Paradise for me. I shall willingly live and die here.”
“I don’t believe I ever had so much consolation in all my life as I had at Calicut. God blessed our efforts and the good that was done was marvellous.”
“I am so happy and content in India that I would like to remain here always.”
(Extracts from Mother Veronica’s letters to her Superior General)
Such was the impact Calicut had on Mother Veronica during those two years she spent there. Father Marie Ephrem OCD, the Carmellite parish priest with whom she worked had this to say:
Mother Veronica knew very little of Calicut before she arrived. She had heard that St. Francis Xavier had visited Calicut on March 2nd, 1549.
Mother Veronica had arrived in Calicut in obedience to her Superior General of the Sisters of the Apparition of St. Joseph’s in France, to be in charge of the newly opened School and Convent at Calicut. She was Sophie Leeves, daughter of the Anglican Pastor, Henry Daniel Leeves and Marina Haulton. Henry Leeves’ father was the famous William Leeves, Rector of Wrington Parish for nearly fifty years. Sophie was born on 1st October 1823. Faith in God and love of neighbour were the hallmarks of their family life. Mother Veronica (Miss Sophie Leeves), was deeply religious and highly intellectual. Her childhood and youth were rich in beautiful experiences – a harmonious combination of the search for truth, works of mercy, enjoyment of classical music and travelling in different parts of Europe. It was a liberal education for the five children. Sophie knew about six languages. Ancient Greek was compulsory as her father was keen on her reading the New Testament in the original. He was Chaplain to the British embassy in Constantinople where Sophie was born. During his journey to visit the Holy Land he died all of a sudden at Beirut. This broke up the close-knit family. They would never again know the happiness, love and warmth of a truly Christian family.
Henry, the only boy, and the eldest of the children, wanted to introduce silkworm cultivation in his family estate at Castaniotisa. The mother had to go to nurse him as he fell ill. The third daughter, Emily was deaf and dumb and she died at Malta where they had gone to escape the cold of England for Emily’s sake. While they were staying at Portici, Sophie and her sister, Mary Ann, often used to visit the Catholic churches. They found something special which was absent in their Protestant churches. Was it the Real Presence as the Catholics called the Eucharist? Their relentless search for the truth led them to get instruction from a Jesuit, Fr. Seagrave SJ. They spent a great deal of time in prayer and reflection. Sophie’s knowledge of the ancient Greek New Testament deepened her conviction of the Real Presence. Together with Mary Ann she received Baptism secretly and was received into the Catholic Church on February 2, 1850. It was shortly after this their mother was obliged to keep them with the Sisters of the Apparition for some time as she had to take care of Henry. The youngest daughter, Catherine, had gone to England to get married.
Sophie and Mary Ann eventually became attracted to the Religious life. Her life of prayer and renunciation culminated in the dedication of her whole self to the education of youth in the Congregation of the Sisters of Saint Joseph of the Apparition. On September 14, 1851, she became Sister Mary Veronica of the Passion, and the Cross had a large place in her life making her in truth, a victim. Sophie was professed as a Sister of the Apparition and took the name Sister Veronica of the Passion. She worked in different schools of the Order and also as a nurse assisting the sick and dying. Their experience of helping the poor children of the neighbourhood, giving them tuitions and sewing garments for them from their own pocket money, helped them to be involved in works of mercy. What Sophie enjoyed most was teaching the poor children in a school at Tremorel in Brittany.
Her assignment to go to Calicut and take charge of St. Joseph’s European School where no more sisters from their Order were available, took her on an arduous voyage to Calicut.
Calicut, a fortified city of the Zamorins, known for its hospitality to traders of spices, has a chequered history. She plunged herself heart and soul into her Apostolate. All the children, Europeans, Hindus and Parsis flocked to the School. The people called her Mother and came to her for advice. It was during this time that she began to hear a sweet voice in the depths of her heart : “I want you in Carmel.” She had heard this voice years ago, when at Athens, her father was building a Protestant Church. The voice said, “Peace I leave you. My peace I give unto you. Not as the world gives do I give.” It was early morning on Easter Tuesday when all the world was silent. She experienced a deep peace within her. They were divine words and she treasured them in her heart for long. But now she could not accept the words, “I want you in Carmel” that kept ringing in her heart and she tried to ignore and reject the message. But the soft, sweet voice was insistent. It was at this time that Father Marie Ephrem OCD, the Parish Priest was thinking of beginning a new Order of Carmellite Sisters to teach in the schools of the Calicut Mission. The Bishops of Quilon and Verapoly were thinking of the same possibility. Father Marie Ephrem advised Sister Veronica to consult Cardinal Howard, the English Prelate who would be coming on a visit to Calicut. Father Villefort S.J. discerned that it was a call within a call. Mother Veronica always had had a great longing for the silence and solitude of the Cloistered Carmel. There was a need to begin a third Order of active life in Carmel. Once she was convinced that this was God’s will for her, she obtained permission from the Holy See to leave her congregation and found a new one. Accordingly, she went to the Cloistered Carmel, Pau, in France to do her Novitiate. At Marseilles she had met a young, illiterate Arab girl who was refused admission in St. Joseph of the Apparition. She was a mystic, a stigmatist, and a marvel of miracles. Jesus had told Mother Veronica to take her along to Pau.
After her profession in the Cloistered Carmel, Mother Veronica set out to look for a place to begin the novitiate for the new congregation of the Apostolic Carmel. For five months she wandered through different places and came back to Pau disappointed. The Prioress, Mother Elias of Pau advised her to go to Bayonne. There was a dilapidated building vacated by Cloistered Nuns. The joy and peace that filled Mother Veronica’s heart told her this was the destined place for the “Little Carmel”, as she approached the site and thus the Congregation of the Apostolic Carmel came into existence on 16th July 1868.
She trained her novices to imbibe the spirit of Carmel together with the active Apostolate and sent out three of them to India. They arrived on 19th November, 1870 in Mangalore, to establish its first convent in the Indian soil. Due to some misunderstanding Bishop La Croix of Bayonne refused to send any more recruits from France to India. There was no need of the Little Carmel anymore. Heart – breaking though it was, Mother Veronica closed down the novitiate and returned to the Cloistered Carmel at Pau in 1873, to live in silence and solitude for the rest of her life. She lost touch for many years with the congregation she had founded. At Mangalore, however, the Apostolic Carmel began flourishing under the leadership of Mother Marie des Anges, one of the three she sent from Pau. She saw to the governance of the congregation for nearly forty years. Late in her life Mother Veronica and she met in Pau and from her Mother Veronica came to know how the congregation was flourishing. Her silent, sacrificial life and solitude were a great support for the growing congregation. Some time earlier Bishop Pagani of Calicut had also met her and apprised her of the good work the Apostolic Carmel was doing in Malabar and Mangalore.
Three years later, when the Apostolic Carmel was firmly established on Indian soil, she returned to the Carmel of Pau, making the Apostolic Carmel the special object of her prayers and affection. On 16th November 1906, God called her to Himself, to reward her for her life of love, labour and sacrifice.