NEW DELHI – India is expected to get its first female Roman Catholic saint on Sunday at a time when Christians have increasingly come under attack in the predominantly Hindu country.
Christian leaders hailed the move to canonize Sister Alphonsa, a nun from southern India, saying it would provide solace to Christians who have been victims of violent attacks by Hindu mobs in eastern and southern India in recent months.
"We can draw certain spiritual consolation from her canonization. This means we have one more saint in heaven who is from India and whom we can approach to intercede," said Dominic Emmanuel, a spokesman for the Catholic Bishops' Conference of India.
The worst religious clashes have been in the Kandhamal district of India's eastern state of Orissa after the killing of a Hindu religious leader in August. At the time, police blamed Maoist rebels active in the area, but extremist Hindu groups pointed the finger at Christian residents.
According to the state government, 32 people have died in the ensuing violence. The Catholic Bishops' Conference of India has said at least 40 Christians have been killed.
The process to declare Sister Alphonsa a saint, however, began long before the recent violence.
The Vatican's canonization procedures require that two miracles be attributed to the candidate. After the church confirms one miracle, the person is beatified — and put on the road to sainthood.
Previously, the only Indian to have been made a Roman Catholic saint was Gonsalo Garcia, who was canonized in 1862.
Mother Teresa, the Albanian-born nun who worked with the poor and destitute in India, was beatified in 2003.
In 1986, the church credited Sister Alphonsa with healing a boy with a club foot, said Dominic Vechor, chancellor of the Palai Diocese in Kerala.
The second miracle attributed to the nun, Vechor said, also involved healing the club foot of a baby boy, Jinil Shahji. Shahji, now 10 years old, has traveled to Rome with his family to watch Sunday's ceremony, Vechor said.
It was through her own feet that Sister Alphonsa, who was born in the southern Indian state of Kerala in 1910, expressed her religious devotion. According to a Vatican biography, she stepped on hot coals to burn and disfigure her feet to escape an arranged marriage and become a nun.
In Bharananganam, a small town in Kerala state where Sister Alphonsa lived and worked in the Clarist Convent, hundreds of devotees visit her white marble grave site to seek blessings and favors. The nun died in 1946.
"She has been a very special saint. She accepted suffering with pleasure and she continued to dedicate all her sufferings for the cause of the poor or the cause of the sinners," said Kiran Maria, who often visits her grave.
"There was something divine about her. Her face always had that enlightened look. We would find it very difficult to tear away from her," said Theramma, the nun's 73-year-old cousin, who goes by just one name.
Relations are usually peaceful between Christians, who make up 2.5 percent of India's 1.1 billion people, and Hindus, who account for more than 80 percent.