THIRUVANANTHAPURAM, India (AFP) — A young Roman Catholic nun who once disfigured herself to avoid marriage will become India's first woman saint on Sunday when she is canonised by Pope Benedict XVI.
A large number of Indian clergy and pilgrims are expected to attend the special mass at the Vatican for Sister Alphonsa Muttathupadathu, who died in 1946 at the age of 36.
She is only the second Indian to be elevated to sainthood after the 16th century martyr, Gonsalo Garcia, who was canonised in 1862. Albanian-born Mother Teresa of Calcutta, who died in 1997, was beatified in 2003 -- the first step to sainthood.
Sister Alphonsa's pending canonisation has caused great excitement among Catholics in India and comes at a time when the Christian community here has been feeling under considerable threat.
Around 35 people have been killed and numerous churches burned since August in anti-Christian violence in the eastern state of Orissa which has been strongly condemned by Pope Benedict.
Hardline Hindu groups have long accused missionaries of bribing poor tribespeople and low-caste Hindus to convert to Christianity by offering free education and health care.
"In these times, the canonisation is an encouraging moment for those suffering in the name of Jesus," said Father Alphonse Arokiam, who heads one of the churches dedicated to the popular saint-elect.
Christians account for 2.3 percent of India's billion-plus Hindu majority population.
Such is the importance attached to Sunday's ceremony that the Communist government in Sister Alphonsa's home state of Kerala in southern India has despatched a cabinet minister to the Vatican.
And thousands are expected to crowd the site of her tomb in the small Kerelan town of Bharananganam on Sunday for their own celebrations.
"It's a matter of great joy for the Indian Christian community that one of its believers is being canonised," said Father Dominic Emmanuel, spokesman for the Delhi Catholic archdiocese.
Born in 1910, Sister Alphonsa was so determined to enter a convent that she deliberately stepped into a burning fire to disfigure her feet so that her aunt would stop pressuring her to marry.
She was plagued by serious illness for much of her relatively short life, but was known for her stoicism and compassion. After her death, numerous miracles were attributed to her and her burial place became a pilgrimage site, especially for those seeking relief from ill health.
"She was not famous, she led an uneventful life. But she was able to see God's hand in her suffering and receive it with joy," said Arokiam.
The main miracle attributed to her intercession and approved by the Vatican involved the reported cure in 1999 of a one-year-old boy, Jinil Joseph, who was born with a birth defect affecting his lower limbs.
After a visit to Sister Alphonsa's tomb, his legs apparently straightened despite his parents being told they would only do so with expensive surgery.
"I pray to Sister Alphonsa everyday for curing me. She made my life normal and I'm indebted to her for the miracle cure," said Jinil, who will be at the Vatican canonisation ceremony
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