Killed for working with the poor, Sister Rani Maria will be India's newest martyr.
Killed “in hatred for the faith,” Vattalil has become a beautiful witness for the Church in India. Archbishop Leo Cornelio of Bhopal said the upcoming beatification has “again proved that the hard work of any missionary will not go in vain…[and] will definitely boost the morale of missionaries working in the area, where Christians frequently face violence from extremist groups.”
Born to a simple peasant family in 1954, Mariam Vattalil joined the Franciscan Clarist Congregation after completing secondary school. After entering she assumed the name Rani Maria and professed her solemn vows in 1980. Sister Rani Maria wanted to become a missionary and served several poor communities in India.
In 1992 she was transferred to Indore and worked with the poor, oppressed and marginalized in that region. According to the Franciscan Clarist Congregation, “The developmental programs in which she was engaged for the poor tribals went counter to the vested interests of the unscrupulous moneylenders and social exploiters; she became the object of their hatred, which grew steadily in step with the progress of the poor. And her enemies decided to get rid of her.”
In particular Sister Rani Maria worked against a type of bonded labor that is a modern-day form of slavery. The local money lenders and feudal lords saw her work as a threat to their institutions and decided to hire an assassin to kill her.
They hired a man named Samandhar Singh, who followed her and boarded a bus she was riding on in order to kill her. Singh stabbed her then and there in broad daylight and Sister Rani Maria’s last word was “Jesus.”
He was quickly arrested and initially sentenced to death. However, his sentence was commuted to life in prison, which he served until being released at the request of the family of Sister Rani Maria.
Her younger sister, Sister Selmy, also a member of the Franciscan Clarist Congregation, “offered words of forgiveness [to Singh] and tied a rakhi, or sacred thread, on his hand signifying that she accepted Singh as her brother.”
This forgiveness gave him “new life” after being abandoned by everyone he ever knew. Sister Rani Maria’s family then petitioned the governor to free Singh from jail, which he did in 2006.
A documentary was made regarding this amazing act of forgiveness, titled The Heart of a Murderer, which won an award at the World Interfaith Harmony Film Festival in 2013. According to the film synopsis, Singh “is now living in his native village, but he feels lonely. No woman will marry him because of his past. He lost his only child while he was in prison. He lives a simple life, working in the family fields and cooking his own meals. He does his best to help others, following Rani Maria’s example and Swami’s spiritual guidance. Samundar visits his sister Selmy at the convent before starting his journey by train to Kerala, where he will meet Rani’s mother and brothers. The only thing that matters for him now is the love of his new family. The mother’s embrace will be for him the start of a new life: ‘You are my son, I’m glad that you came.’”