Devasahayam Pillai, who was born a Hindu in Kanyakumari district of Tamil Nadu and converted to Christianity in the 18th century, became the first Indian layman to be declared a saint by the Vatican on Sunday.
Devasahayam was born on April 23, 1712 in Nattalam village in Kanyakumari district, and went on to serve in the court of Marthanda Varma of Travancore. After meeting a Dutch naval commander at the court, Devasahayam was baptised in 1745, and assumed the name ‘Lazarus’, meaning ‘God is my help’.
“His conversion did not go well with the heads of his native religion. False charges of treason and espionage were brought against him and he was divested of his post in the royal administration,” the Vatican said in a note in February 2020. According to the Vatican, “while preaching, he particularly insisted on the equality of all people, despite caste differences”, which “aroused the hatred of the higher classes, and he was arrested in 1749”.
On January 14, 1752, Devasahayam was shot dead in the Aralvaimozhy forest. He is widely considered a martyr, and his mortal remains were interred inside what is now Saint Francis Xavier’s Cathedral in Kottar, Nagercoil.
In 2004, the diocese of Kottar along with Tamil Nadu Bishops’ Council and Conference of Catholic Bishops of India recommended Devasahayam for beatification. He was declared blessed by the Kottar diocese in 2012, 300 years after his birth.
During the midday ‘Angelus’ prayer in the Vatican that day, Pope Benedict XVI described Devasahayam as a “faithful layman”, and urged Christians to “join in the joy of the Church in India and pray that the new Blessed may sustain the faith of the Christians of that large and noble country”, the note from the Vatican said.
In 2014, Pope Francis recognised a miracle attributed to Devasahayam, clearing the path to his canonisation. He was approved for sainthood in February 2020 for “enduring increasing hardships” after he decided to embrace Christianity, according to the Vatican, which last November announced May 15, 2022 as the date for the ceremony.
While clearing Devasahayam for sainthood in 2020, the Vatican dropped ‘Pillai’ from his name, and referred to him as “Blessed Devasahayam”.