Devasahayam Pillai – “From Convert to Sainthood”

The First Indian Layman to be declared a Saint

Devasahayam Pillai (named Neelakanda Pillai at birth) was born into an affluent Nair-Caste Hindu family at Nattalam in the present day Kanyakumari District, on April 23rd, 1712. His father Vasudevan Namboodiri hailed from Kayamkulam, in the present day Kerala and his mother Devaki Amma hailed from Thiruvattar in Kanyakumari District. In the Nair matrilineal tradition of the day, Devasahayam Pillai was raised by his maternal uncle, and was inculcated with Hindu beliefs and traditions. Pillai was married to Bargavi Ammal. She was persuaded and converted to Christianity by her husband. His wife was given the baptismal name of Gnanapoo Ammal (equivalent to Theresa in Tamil and Malayalam).

Pillai was an official in the court of the King of Travancore, Maharaja Marthanda Varma. It is here that he met a Dutch naval commander, Captain Eustachius De Lannoy, who taught him about the Catholic faith.

In 1745, after he was baptized, he assumed the name ‘Lazarus’, although he is more widely known by the Tamil and Malayalam translation Devasahayam (meaning God’s help). However 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 diverted to his post in the royal administration. He was imprisoned and subjected to harsh persecution. A Catholic for only seven years, it is believed that Devasahayam had been killed (shot dead) on January 14, 1752, in the Aralvaimozhy forest by Travancore state for upholding his Catholic faith.

Sited links with his life and martyrdom are in Kottar Diocese, in Kanyakumari District of Tamil Nadu state. His tomb at St. Francis Xavier Cathedral in Nagercoil attracts large number of devotees.
Devasahayam was declared Blessed on December 2, 2012, in Kottar, 300 years after his birth. The ceremony of beatification and declaration of martyrdom was presided by Cardinal Angelo Amato on behalf of Pope Benedict XVI. Devasahayam Pillai is the first Indian layman elevated to the rank of ‘Blessed’.

On February 21, 2020, Pope Francis recognized a miracle attributed to the intercession of Devasahayam, clearing his way to Canonization (formal recognition of someone as Saint). Blessed Devasahayam Pillai will be the first non-ordained Indian to be conferred Sainthood. The Vatican announced on November 9, 2021 that Pope Francis will canonize Blessed Devasahayam Pillai, together with six other Blessed, during a Canonization Mass in St. Peter’s Basilica in Vatican on May 15, 2022.

Pope Francis says ‘Holiness is not a human achievement. It is a gift we receive: We are holy because God, who is the Holy one, comes to dwell in our lives”. Let us try each day to live a holy life through our words, deeds and thoughts. Blessed Devasahayam remained joyful in midst of persecution and torture. May we all live as joyful persons in our daily living and give witness to our faith even in the midst of challenges and trials.

-Sr. Godwina