Vatican City: October 12, 2008. (AFP) - About 40,000 people attended a ceremony Sunday at which Pope Benedict XVI canonised four new saints, among them Sister Alfonsa, an Indian nun who became the country's first woman saint.
Many of those in St Peter's Square in Rome had come from India, among them large numbers of priests and nuns.
Born in 1910, Sister Alfonsa 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.
Recalling in his homily the life of the new saint the pope said she had been "an exceptional woman, who today is offered to the people of India as their first canonised woman saint."
She had lived in "extreme physical and spiritual suffering," the pope said.
She "was convinced that her cross was the very means of reaching the heavenly banquet prepared for her by the Father.
"May we imitate her in shouldering our own crosses so as to join her one day in paradise."
"This canonisation is very important to us, especially in this moment, when we are persecuted in India," said Sister Ceelia, a member of the same Franciscan Clarist order as the new saint, who was born Anna Muttathupandathu, and known as Alfonsa dell'Immacolata Concezione.
India's Christian minority, making up lttle more than two percent of the population, has felt particularly threatened in recent months.
Attacks by Hindu extremists on Christians in the eastern Indian state of Orissa have left 35 people dead since August.
Tens of thousands have fled and hundreds of houses and dozens of churches been burned down.
"Groups of criminals and mercenaries attack us because we educate the poor in our churches, preventing them from falling into their clutches," said Sister Teresa, another member of the order.
Benedict condemned the violence perpetrated against Christians in India and Iraq.
"I invite you to pray for peace and reconciliation.... I think of violence against Christians in Iraq and India," he said after the ceremony.
"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," Benedict said.
"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," he said.
Hundreds of visitors to the sleepy town of Bharananganam in Kerala state in southwestern India offered special prayers ahead of the canonisation of Sister Alfonsa.
"I have been coming here for the past 20 years to seek blessings from her for my family, especially for my children's studies," said government official VJ Joseph.
"Today is an important day as the holy Church is declaring her a saint," said Joseph, who came with his wife and two children.
Others to be canonised at Sunday's ceremony included the Ecuadorian Narcisa de Jesus Martillo Moran (1832-1869), Swiss nun Maria Bernarda Buetler (1848-1924), a missionary in Colombia and Italian Gaetano Errico (1791-1860) from Secondigliano, in the Naples region.