By Anthony Violanti
Photo by Jannet Walsh
OCALA - Outside a corner window of his room at the New Horizon nursing home, the world passes by. Cars crawl across the parking lot as people scurry about the sidewalk. It's a cloudy spring afternoon with a muggy breeze.
A television hangs on the pale yellow wall. The volume is turned off as an anchorman reads the news. The only sound is the buzz of conversation wafting from the hallway.
Mordia is oblivious to it all.
The 6-foot-2-inch man is lying on a bed, eyes closed, mouth open, under the dim light above the headboard. Breathing is a struggle. Mordia is 85 and in the final hours of life.
"There's nothing the doctors can do anymore. It's a matter of time," says Vera, his wife of 58 years, sitting at his bedside. "Right now, we just want to let him go peacefully. That's what he wanted."
Outside, the Rev. George Maniangattu, 44, squeezes his beige Toyota Corolla into a parking spot. His brisk walk turns into a desperate jog down a hallway as he dodges nurses in green uniforms and medical aides wheeling silver trays.
It's all a blur until an elderly man in a wheelchair stops Maniangattu, pats his arm near the elbow, and shakes his hand. The priest smiles, catches his breath, then moves on.
"How do I get to Room 301?" he asks through a heavy Indian accent. A nurse points down the hall. Maniangattu darts into the room.
The priest carries a small plastic bag filled with a bottle of oil, a prayer cloth, Communion wafers and a Bible. (God bless them for writing and publishing a positive article article about the priesthood, but I think they could have done better than Communion "wafers" and a bible.)
Duty and faith aren't the only things that brought him to this moment of comforting a wife and offering last rites to the faithful. So has the spirit of the Catholic Church's newest saint - his great-great-aunt, the Blessed Sister Alphonsa, whom the pope canonized earlier this month.
Maniangattu never met the woman. She died before he was born. But her story has guided her great-great-nephew his entire life. This is her work and her way.
TENDING HIS FLOCK
Maniangattu (MONEY-in-got) has been a Catholic priest for 18 years. He was ordained in India and spent a decade serving there, followed by seven years in the Caribbean.
Last year he came to Our Lady of the Springs, a contemporary white stucco-style building with a triangle of shimmering blue glass panes above the front entrance. It's on a patch of rural land on Northeast 21st Street, just off Silver Springs Boulevard.
The church is surrounded by leafy green trees, lush grass and neatly trimmed bushes. Inside, a huge crucifix stands in front of a circular stained-glass window that towers above the altar.
Maniangattu serves as parochial vicar. He says Mass and helps the church's 750 families. Most members are older than 60, so Maniangattu often visits hospitals and nursing homes.
Our Lady has two mission churches: St. Hubert of the Forest and St. Joseph of the Forest. A round trip to both totals more than 100 miles. Maniangattu puts hundreds of miles on his car each week.
He does so with an inner joy and bubbling personality. Maniangattu is a stocky, pleasant man, with black hair and wire glasses. He sports an ever-present smile to go with a laugh that quickly turns into a gentle cackle. He has a way of comforting people.
Most churchgoers don't know, or even wonder, why a clergyman dedicates his life to God. Parishioners attend services, pay their tithes and try to grow in their faiths. Maybe they get to know the man who stands before them every Sunday morning. Maybe they don't.
At crucial moments - funerals, tragedies - they look to priests for wisdom and grace. How can these men do it, time after time?
Everything in perspective
"It's always nice to see a priest," Vera Mordia says as she sits on a wooden chair near her husband's bed.
"A priest helps put everything in perspective. Knowing that a priest is here helps me know that Sam will be at peace and be with God."
She has chalk-white hair and wears a striped blouse and sky-blue slacks. Her face is lined with worry, but she seems to handle the emotional drama with tender acceptance and inner faith.
Memories flood the moment.
Vera met Sam at a Valentine's Day dance in Johnson City, N.Y., near Binghamton. She recalls the time that teenaged Sam went to a tryout camp for the New York Yankees. How he joined the Coast Guard during World War II. His years working at the Ozalid factory. The birth of their daughter, Janice, during the early 1950s. The move to Florida more than 25 years ago.
Maniangattu is preparing to administer the sacraments of reconciliation and anointing the sick, sometimes called the last rites. It's a divine and mystical way to cross the line between human death and spiritual life.
A life of suffering
When Blessed Sister Alphonsa was named a saint on Oct. 12 at the Vatican - becoming the first woman from India to reach full sainthood in the Catholic Church - her physical suffering was recounted.
There was a lot to talk about. Alphonsa's mother died a few months after her birth. She was raised by her aunt and was a sickly child.
When she was a little girl, Alphonsa had a vision of Saint Therese of Lisieux, known as "the little flower." Alphonsa was determined not only to become a nun, but a saint.
Her aunt didn't want a religious life for Alphonsa. She wanted her to marry. To avoid an arranged marriage, the teenage Alphonsa stuck her leg into a burning pit. She suffered severe burns and would be in physical pain the rest of her life.
Later in life, she contracted a severe attack of malaria and also double pneumonia. Intestinal problems made eating problematic, and she would often vomit.
She dedicated her suffering to God. She became a nun and comforted the sick, despite being chronically ill herself. Sister Alphonsa died in 1946. She was just 35.
Numerous miracles were reported at her tomb in the south Indian state of Kerala. A child born with club feet was healed. A nun's crippled leg returned to normal.
Millions have visited the tomb over the years, inspired by her example that suffering can be an expression of faith.
"I have given myself up completely to Jesus," Sister Alphonsa once wrote. "My only desire in this world is to suffer for love of God and to rejoice in doing it."
Sister Alphonsa "constantly accepted all her sufferings with serenity and trust in God...She learned to love the cross through her love of the crucified Lord." Pope John Paul II said during a 1986 visit to her tomb in India.
SUBHED: 'Your mind is elevated to God.'
Maniangattu grew up in a deeply religious family, and among his relatives are 16 priests and 17 nuns. None was more revered than his maternal great-great aunt.
Maniangattu first visited her tomb as a child, holding the hand of his mother. It was a rite of passage for him and countless others in his homeland.
"There's something special there, a holiness you can feel," he said. "Your mind is elevated to God."
In India, Maniangattu said, the population is about 80 percent Hindu, 13 percent Muslim and 7 percent Christian. All faiths are inspired by Sister Alphonsa, he said, but for him it is more personal.
"She made me aware of my commitment to Christ," Maniangattu said. "She carried my cross."
A moment of grace
Maniangattu stands near the front of Sam Mordia's bed. Vera stands by the priest's side. Suddenly, Sam regains consciousness.
"A priest is here to see you," Vera says, cupping her hands and speaking in a loud voice as she bends down toward her husband's ear.
"A priest?" he responds.
"Father," Sam says, barely above a whisper, as Maniangattu stoops low, near Sam's mouth, to listen.
"I'm here to see you," the priest says.
"To pray for you."
"Thank you," Sam says before slipping back into unconsciousness.
Maniangattu closes his eyes, slowly nods, and once again looks down at Sam's face. Sam's eyes are closed and he says nothing. The priest absolves him of his sins. Vera sits in a chair, head bowed.
Maniangattu, holding a small plastic bottle in his left hand, puts drops of oil in his right hand. He anoints Sam's forehead and hands. "May the Lord, who frees you from sin, save you and embrace you."
Vera rises and joins the priest in saying the "Our Father." Then Maniangattu bends over towards Sam once more, holding a Bible in is left hand as he makes the sign of a cross in the air with his right.
"May almighty God offer you everlasting life."
A saintly moment
Years ago, when Maniangattu was barely 15 and fresh off his commitment to the priesthood, he experienced a time of doubt. One rainy summer day, he and about 40 other seminarians went to visit the tomb of Blessed Alphonsa.
It was a long journey, about 5 miles. The rain grew more intense, and the wind and water hit Maniangattu in the face. He remembers the water rising past his ankles.
But they kept walking. "We felt protected," he said.
He kept wondering: Did I make the right decision? Could I give my life to God and serve as a priest?
They reached the chapel that holds the tomb. Maniangattu stood in front of the white casket that holds Blessed Sister Alphonsa's remains. In front of it was an altar and large, wall-length crucifix. The room was quiet and serene.
Maniangattu's doubts soon diminished. The young man, soaked with rain and shivering from the cold wind, felt warm and comforted. He knelt, bowed his head and prayed.
"I was feeling peace of mind, and I could feel her presence," Maniangattu said. "She is the same blood as I am. In India, families are very close. She is part of my family and religion, and she brought me peace."
Read the rest of the article HERE.
More stories and videos about St. Alphonsa and Rev. George Maniangattu can be found HERE.