Udainagar, India — When Sr. Rani Maria was first posted to this destitute central Indian region 25 years ago, she urged men loitering in the village to quit wasting their time drinking. They pretended to agree, until she left again. But one day, the sister circled back — and caught them in the act.
"We used to pretend to be good boys in front of her, but after she left the village, we would start drinking," one of the men said. He was so upset by the incident, he said, "I pledged in front of her that I would not drink again." And he hasn't.
Now, Rani Maria Vattalil, who was knifed to death by an assassin on a bus in 1995, is India's first female martyr on the road to sainthood. A member of the Franciscan Clarist Congregation, an indigenous order, she is scheduled to be beatified Nov. 4 in a special ceremony at the headquarters of the Indore Diocese in Madhya Pradesh state.
The beatification of Rani Maria, as she is popularly known, was cleared in March by the Congregation for the Causes of Saints with Pope Francis' approval.
Her family forgave her assassin, Samandar Singh, and in a Christian act of forgiveness and reconciliation advocated for his early release from a 20-year sentence in prison.* He was freed in 2006.
Singh killed Rani Maria at the behest of local moneylenders and landlords who were upset with her activism among landless people formerly assigned to India's lower castes. The nun had encouraged the laborers to demand fair wages and the right to a dignified life.
Now, as she gets closer to sainthood, the people for whom she sacrificed her life at the age of 41 say they are grateful to her for bringing them out of abject poverty and centuries-old oppression.
One of them is Tarachand Solanki, the man who quit drinking and loitering on Rani Maria's urging. Solanki worked with her during her almost three years* in his village, now renamed Anand Nagar ("city of joy") in the state's Dewas District of Madhya Pradesh.
"Our village used to be known as Kaala Pani ['black water'] before Sr. Rani Maria came," the 63-year-old man said. "But she turned it into a joyful place."
Kaala Pani is a Hindi term generally attributed to a dreary future. It was once associated with a jail on Andaman Island, where the colonial British used to banish political enemies for life.
Solanki said the village earned the notorious name because of its backwardness. It had no drinking water, road connectivity, electricity or other basic facilities. "We led a hand-to-mouth existence 25 years ago. Our condition began to change after Sr. Rani Maria came into our lives," he said, sitting on a plastic chair at his concrete house.
Rani Maria was the first Christian missionary to visit Kaala Pani, a village among several that fall under the Udainagar mission, which the sister joined in 1992.
The nun had found Solanki and other men wasting away their time. "We had nothing much to do. So we drank or gossiped," Solanki said.
The nun started visiting Kaala Pani and other villages as soon as she was posted there. To reach Solanki's village, she had to walk nearly 10 miles through slushy, uneven paths, clad in traditional nun's dress.
The nun approached the men, explaining the ill effects of alcoholism. They listened but persisted, until the day she caught them reneging on their promise to quit.
Then, Solanki said, he made his vow to her and kept it. His wife, Nani Bai, sitting on a cot near him, nodded and said, "He has not touched alcohol since that day."
Rani Maria's surprise visits jolted the men, who started to work and gradually quit drinking. "They began spending time in farming, cattle rearing and other gainful occupation," Nani Bai said. She said the villagers were impressed with the nun who took so much trouble to improve their lives.
The result was there for everyone to see. "Today, we have drinking water and road connectivity. Our children now go to schools and colleges, and we generate decent income from our farms," Solanki said.
"Earlier, we had to walk at least 3 kilometers [about 2 miles] to fetch water from a river. We used to have a bath once a week in summer," he said.
The villagers now grow Indian corn, pulses and soybeans. Concrete, electrified buildings with windows and doors have replaced thatched windowless huts. Long stretches of lush green fields line both sides of the tarred road to the village. Almost every family has a two-wheeler motorbike, and some have cars, as well.
"Sr. Rani Maria had laid the foundation stone for this transformation. She taught us to stand on our legs. Our village, with hope, has truly become a place of joy," Solanki said.
Before that, the village experienced severe drought. "We had depended on seasonal crops grown once a year. So poverty never left us," he said.
Rani Maria introduced bore wells to the villagers.
"She dug a well for us that now supplies water to every household. We also use the water for farming," Bai said.
She taught the farmers crop rotation and pressed parents to send their children to school. She also formed women's self-help groups that encouraged them to start small savings accounts to keep them away from the moneylenders who charged exorbitant interest.
She also informed the villagers about various loan facilities that the government set up to buy seed and fertilizer.
Manju Rathore, a government schoolteacher in the village, said the nun also built a pond near the bore well to store water for farming. Rathore, now in her late 30s, credits Rani Maria for her master's degree that got her the job.
"If the sister hand not encouraged my parents to send me to school, I would not have become what I am today," she said.
As the villagers' dependency on moneylenders declined, the landlords felt the pinch. Their laborers had started demanding the wages set by the government, Solanki said.
This enraged the moneylenders, who decided to get rid of the nun.
Solanki said they had no inkling of the plan — they would have protected her at any cost.
Singh boarded the bus to Indore that Rani Maria was taking on her way to vacation in Kerala, her native state. He stabbed her aboard the bus, dragging her off as he continued to attack her. No one from the bus helped her.
She died on the roadside at Nachanbore Hill, a forest area about 12 miles from Udainagar, and was buried at the Sacred Heart Church in Udainagar.
Fr. Santosh Tigga, who worked as the Udainagar pastor for eight years before his recent transfer, said Rani Maria had succeeded in infusing villagers with confidence to fight for their rights. The villagers loved the martyred nun "so much that they would share with her all their problems," he said. "She made a big difference in their lives within a very short period."
The priest said he learned from the villagers that Rani Maria had not helped materially, but "played a very crucial role in motivating them to fight against poverty and illiteracy and start income-generation projects."
Sikdar Chauhan, a 50-year-old farmer of Shivan Pani, a village of about 150 families, agreed with the priest. The father of four boys and three girls said the nun had helped "immensely" to bring his family out of debt to work for a better future.
"We are illiterate and lived in poverty, as we were totally dependent on seasonal rains and occasional work we got from landlords," said Chauhan, who now harvests multiple crops from his 3 acres of land.
"I go to the market every other day to sell vegetables," he said. With the earnings, he bought a tractor and built a two-story house. His grandchildren now go to school.
"All this unimaginable turnaround was possible because of Sisterji," he said, using a respectful term for Rani Maria.
"She showed us how to earn from almost barren land and use our abilities for our welfare," said his wife, Bhoori Bai.
Rani Maria's current provincial, Sr. Princy Rose, said her work affected around 20,000 people living in 15 villages. "Sr. Rani Maria was committed to the Gospel and lived accordingly."
The provincial said Rani Maria's intimacy with God helped her never to succumb to pressure from moneylenders and landlords.
"She has proved that we can live the Gospel even at a time the country faces serious persecutions and attacks. She showed us how to live the Gospel practically," she said.
Madhya Pradesh, currently ruled by the pro-Hindu Bharatiya Janata Party (Indian People's Party), has recorded hundreds of anti-Christian attacks. The party now controls 18 of India's 29 states and seven territories that are federally governed.
Rose said living the Gospel is tougher than preaching it, saying Rani Maria did so, "discarding her comforts for the benefit of the poor and the needy."
Seva Singh Sulia, a local catechist who knew Rani Maria, said the nun's greatest quality was boldness.
"Once she was convinced about something, nothing could discourage or stop her from doing it," he said, adding that the people continue to experience the nun's presence even a quarter-century after her death.
"Poverty has become a thing of the past and many of our children got government jobs, thanks to Rani Maria's stress on education," he said.
The congregation continued to work among the villagers even after her assassination. Sr. Deena Maria, who succeeded Rani Maria in the Udainagar mission, said the scenario has changed as people have become educated and self-reliant.
"However, we continue our field visits and conduct cultural activities for villagers," she said.
Deena Maria, who had worked with Rani Maria, said her colleague was willing to shed her blood for people who live in poverty. "Once, she shared with me that 'there is only one life, and I want to live and die for the poor.' I did not understand her then. Now, I do."
Rani Maria's larger community is looking forward to her beatification.
The bishop of Indore, Chacko Thottumarickal, said the upcoming event will be "a matter of great pride" for the Catholic Church in India. "She will be a great model and inspiration to the missioners to withstand persecution in the changed scenario in the country," the Divine Word prelate said.
Among those excited about the event is Sr. Selmy Paul, Rani Maria's younger sister and a member of the same congregation.
"I consider myself fortunate and blessed to be her younger sibling," Paul said. She now works in their convent at Sarni town in Betul District, 195 miles east of Udainagar.
Rani Maria's assassin, Singh, said he is happy his victim will be declared blessed. "At the same time, I feel so sad that I committed such a brutal offense," he said. "I console myself, believing that it was God's plan."
Singh was convicted and sentenced to 20 years of hard labor. He served 11 and a half years before his release, aided by Paul and her family. He now leads a normal life engaged in farming at Semlia Raimal, his village 11 miles from Udainagar, though the incident affected his family: His wife left him and remarried while he was in jail.
He said he is happy that the slain nun's family has accepted him as a member. He is sure Rani Maria will become "an inspiration for everyone to do good to others without fear. I will continue my life eking out a living from my farm and offering whatever little help I can do for others."
* This story has been corrected.
[Saji Thomas is a freelance journalist based in Bhopal, a central Indian city. He has worked for several mainstream newspapers such as The Times of India.]