India got its first female saint – a Catholic nun who was so determined as a young girl to enter a convent that she stepped into a fire to disfigure her feet and stop her aunt pressuring her to marry. Pope Benedict used the canonisation of Sister Alphonsa to call for an end to the religious violence in India in which Hindu mobs have killed dozens of Christians forced thousands from their homes.
"As the Christian faithful of India give thanks to God for their first native daughter to be presented for public veneration, I wish to assure them of my prayers during this difficult time," the Pope told the crowds gathered in St Peter's Square. "I urge the perpetrators of violence to renounce these acts and join with their brothers and sisters to work together in building a civilisation of love."
Alphonsa Muttathupadathu, who was born in 1910 in the southern state of Kerala, has been credited with curing illness and disease even after her death in 1946. She is India's second saint, following Gonsalo Garcia's elevation in 1862, and the country's first woman to be canonised, pipping India's most famous nun to the post. Albanian-born Mother Teresa was beatified, the first step to becoming a saint, in 2003. Attending the ceremony yesterday at the Vatican was a 10-year-old Indian boy whose club foot was, in the judgement of papal officials, miraculously healed after prayers to Sister Alphonsa.
It took more than 50 years for the Vatican to sift through the evidence and make Sister Alphonsa a saint. She considered Jesus to be her "divine spouse" and was desperate to avoid having to marry. "My marriage was arranged when I was 13. What had I to do to avoid it? I prayed all that night ... then an idea came to me. If my body were a little disfigured no one would want me!"
Meanwhile, around Kerala, the bells of white-painted churches rang out and firecrackers were set off as Catholics celebrated. Thousands packed into a small church and a school auditorium in the town of Bharananganam, where Sister Alphonsa is buried, to watch the event on television. "We always thought she was someone special, we felt she had an aura about her," said Sister Grace Kalriparambil, 77, an acquaintance. "At a time when evil is so widespread, it is good to have something like this to keep our spirits up."
India's Christians, who account for up to 2.5 per cent of the population, have been shaken in recent weeks by violence in the eastern state of Orissa. Thousands of poor Christians have been forced from their homes. At least 35 people have been killed and a nun, from Kerala, was allegedly raped.