Sister Lucia, last of the three shepherd children who saw the Virgin Mary, is buried

Thousands of devout followers of Sister Lucia, one of three shepherd children who saw an apparition of the Virgin Mary near the Portuguese village of Fatima in 1917, flocked to Coimbra yesterday for her funeral.

Thousands of devout followers of Sister Lucia, one of three shepherd children who saw an apparition of the Virgin Mary near the Portuguese village of Fatima in 1917, flocked to Coimbra yesterday for her funeral.

The cathedral steps and steep streets of this ancient university city were packed with old women wearing dark shawls and pious expressions.

Many sang, others whispered prayers with a rosary between their fingers, or carried bouquets. Officials whisked the flowers from their hands as they entered the creamy, gilded cathedral to file past the coffin before the funeral began.

"I saw her face through the glass top. She radiated peace. She made me feel totally at peace," said Isabel Lourenco, 49, as she stood in the cobbled square and squinted in the sunshine after saying farewell to a woman she adored. "I'm going to wait here, then follow the coffin."

The remains of Lucia de Jesus de los Santos, who died on Sunday, will be returned for burial after the service to the Carmelite convent of Saint Teresa across town where she had been cloistered for 57 years. Next year, her body will be transferred to the basilica in Fatima to join her two cousins, Blessed Jacinta and Blessed Francisco, who died three years after the virgin was said to have appeared to them in a field while they were watching sheep. The spot has become an important Catholic shrine and Portuguese national symbol, visited by millions of pilgrims every year, some crawling on their knees for long distances.

Conservative political leaders, including the beleaguered Prime Minister, Pedro Santana Lopes, who faces a tough election challenge on Sunday, attended the service along with a papal envoy, Archbishop Bertone of Genoa.

Mr Santana Lopes declared yesterday to be a national day of mourning, and flags few at half-mast. But some bishops complained the Prime Minister was exploiting Sister Lucia's death for political advantage.

The fervour displayed by pilgrims to Fatima reached new heights when the Pope beatified Jacinta and Francisco at the site in May 2000, but it was held in check yesterday in Coimbra. Rather, everyone exuded intense, subdued devotion. Some Portuguese clerics had urged worshippers not to display excesses of "fanaticism".

Jose Ribeiro, 56, a veteran of Portugal's war in Mozambique in the Seventies stood ramrod straight in a black suit. He had driven with his daughter Elena, 26, a checkout operator, 200 kilometres from the town of Braga, renowned for its religiosity. "We wanted to show the depth of our faith," he said. "Lucia was a simple person, who wanted peace and goodwill in the world. We need more of that." Elena added: "We visit Fatima three or four times a year, sometimes spend days there in a caravan."

Sceptics say the visions seen by three frightened, ill-fed, illiterate children were manipulated by bishops and the fascist dictatorship of Antonio Salazar. Lucia entered a convent as a teenager and wrote only years later of the virgin's "secrets" regarding war and communism, under strict clerical supervision. For decades Portuguese people complained their lives were dominated by "football, fado and Fatima".

The Pope believes the Virgin of Fatima saved him from an assassin's bullet in 1981 and he is devoted to her. He sent a warm message that the Bishop of Coimbra read to the congregration. As dusk fell, they waved white handkerchiefs as the coffin was carried into streets lined with worshippers.

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