Holy Row Over India's First Woman Saint

October 16, 2008

Author: K S Hari Kumar

Source: Asia Times Online


Christians, who form 20% of the 32 million people living in the southern Indian state of Kerala, are celebrating Sunday's canonization of their beloved Sister Alphonsa, unaware of the controversies that surround the life of the first Indian woman to be elevated to sainthood.

Alphonsa lived in Bharananganam, a remote village 33 kilometers from Kottayam district, and worked most of her miracles after her death in 1946. She cured the ailments of hundreds who had prayed for intercession and newspapers in Kottayam city, famed for its publishing industry and its Christian traditions, regularly carry her wimpled portrait acknowledging "favors received".

"I regularly visit her shrine to seek Sister Alphonsa's blessings, and I feel she greatly deserves to be a saint," said Sara George, a school teacher and mother of two.

What moved Pope Benedict XVI to confer sainthood on Alphonsa, officially, was the miraculous cure that her spirit is believed to have effected, in 1999, on Genil Joseph, a congenitally deformed child, yet observers have said there were more pressing political and financial reasons.

Alphonsa - who was beatified in 1986 when Pope John Paul II visited this town - is only the second Indian to be canonized, and is the first woman. She follows the missionary Gonsalo Garcia, who was born of a Portuguese father and an Indian mother and was crucified in 1596 in Nagasaki, Japan, on the orders of a suspicious shogun.

Mother Teresa, the Albanian-born nun who founded the Missionaries of Charity (MoC) and worked among the poorest of the poor in the eastern metropolis of Kolkata, was beatified in 2003 and placed on the "fast track" to sainthood - but she is still too short of proven miracles to have achieved it.

Catholic media in Kottayam have attributed Alphonsa's elevation to her being a ''daughter of the soil", and "a seed of the ancient Christian community of Kerala", but this has raised eyebrows among Mother Teresa's well-wishers, who come from various different Christian denominations.