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Saint woman

October will be a good month to be a Christian in India. Two Sundays from now — on October 12 — the late Sister Alphonsa will be the first Indian woman to become a saint, reports Paramita Ghosh.

india Updated: Sep 27, 2008 22:46 IST

October will be a good month to be a Christian in India. On the 12th, Anna Muttathupandathu of Kottayam will become Saint Alphonsa. Anna was beatified by the Vatican in 1986 as the Blessed Alphonsa and on March 1, 2008, Pope Benedict XVI decided that she deserved sainthood. Two Sundays from now, she will officially become a saint — the first woman saint and the second person ever to be canonised in India.

Anna had wanted to become a saint all her life, says Father Alphonse of the fledgling parish at Vasant Kunj, the only church dedicated to her in the Delhi Archdiocese. While getting a granite plaque ready to mark her canonisation by the Pope in Rome, he drives the point home: “Being a saint means being closer to God.”

Countdown to holiness
Blessed Alphonsa is India’s first woman saint. She was born in 1910 in Kottayam and died in 1946.
Gonsalo Garcia was the first Indian to be declared saint by the Catholic church. He was canonised in 1862. Garcia, who was from Vasai (Maharashtra), was born of an Indian mother and Portuguese father in 1556. He was crucified in 1597 in Nagasaki.
Pope John Paul II had declared Sister Alphonsa as Blessed on February 8, 1986. Mother Teresa, became Blessed Teresa after beatification on 2003. On October 12, Alphonsa will, after canonisation, be declared a saint by Pope Benedict XVI in Rome.
According to the Catholic Encyclopaedia, to secure beatification (the most important and difficult step in the process of canonisation) enquiry commissions are set up by the local episcopal authority to judge the worthiness of the case. The results of these enquiries are sent to a body, the Congregation of Rites in Rome. After various levels of debate, the candidate is given the title of Venerable. After miracles are proved — a lengthy process —the process of beatification starts after which the beatified person is known as Blessed.

Sainthood, however, was for Alphonsa, a bit of a project. She “loved to suffer,” says the priest. Born Annakkutty in Kudamaloor village in 1910, she spent most of her 36 years sick in bed. She suffered from tuberculosis, pneumonia, typhoid and malaria. But she made the best use of all her ailments “by experiencing and inviting the pain of others,” says Father Alphonse. “She turned her life of pain into a virtue.

As a child, Father Alphonse remembers accompanying his parents to her tomb in Bharananganam, and asking his mother to explain why they shared the same name. “Her doctor had said (my mother) would have a difficult delivery when she was carrying me. So she had prayed to Alphonsa,” says the priest. “When I was born, I was named after her.” And to underline the fact that he alone wasn’t born under Alphonsa’s watchful gaze, Father Aphonse rattles off more ‘Aphonse/Alphonsas’ he knows from his hometown in Dindigul district, Tamil Nadu, that include a nephew, a marriage photographer, a teacher...

Alphonsa is well on her way to spiritual stardom. So what makes Anna of Kudamaloor a saint while others like Mother Teresa and the Blessed Kuriakose Elias Chavara (who’s been waiting for more than 50 years for the papal nod) are yet to be canonised? The answer lies in one word: miracles.

According to the Catholic church, acts of faith like miracles, ironically, need the stamp of science. A saint needs at least 22-24 miracles, explains Father Alphonse of which four are picked as ‘proof’. “In Alphonsa’s case, her first miracle which was noticed within six months after her death in 1946. Doctors certified it as a miracle when the legs of a boy with a club-foot, became straight, after they touched Alphonsa’s grave. This could only be the power of prayer.”

Mother Teresa’s work, he adds, “was easier” — she went out on the streets and brought home the poor. She was visible. “But to be inside the four walls of the convent like Alphonsa was, couldn’t have been easy. But she accepted it and resigned herself for a long struggle in a short life.”

When she died, there were only a few people who were there to carry her coffin. After her canonisation on October 12, things will change.