By Andrew Bushe
DUBLIN — Men wielding machetes and a blowtorches killed an elderly County Laois nun and injured her Offaly colleague in an attack on massgoers in a church on the Caribbean island of St. Lucia on Sunday.
A man was also killed and at least a dozen other worshippers were injured as victims were either hacked at or had flammable liquid sprinkled on them before being set alight.
About 400 people were in the Basilica of the Immaculate Conception church in the capital Castries — many of them receiving Communion — when the attackers struck.
Sister Theresa Egan, 72, from Clonaslee, died in what local police described as a religiously motivated attack. Another Irish nun, Sister Mel Kenny, from Clonmacnoise, was injured.
The men burned the carpet running down the aisle of the church and then attacked those near the altar.
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At least four men were involved in the attack and two suspects are being questioned. One of the attackers is reported to have told victims, "God asked me to do it" because of corruption in the Roman Catholic Church.
The killers may belong to an extremist anti-Catholic cult associated with the worship of Haile Selassie, Ethiopia’s late emperor.
Selassie is worshipped as the manifestation of God by Rastafarians in the Caribbean. Witnesses told police that the attackers had dreadlocks — also common among Rastafarians.
St. Lucia’s Rastafarian leaders denounced the attack, denying any connection with the killers.
"It was like a scene from hell," said Cletus Springer, a local newspaper columnist. He said he had just received Communion when he heard wailing and screams from the back of the church.
"I looked up and saw flames," Springer said. "I saw four men methodically going around setting people on fire, chopping people."
Sister Theresa, a member of the Order of St Joseph of Cluny, had been one of three nuns who had been giving out communion at the Sunday evening Mass.
She had been working in the West Indies for 50 years and had been based on St. Lucia for 30. She had also worked on the nearby island of Grenada.
She was a former primary school principal and was involved in a number of educational programs after her retirement.
A spokeswoman for the order in Ireland said they were "shocked and upset" by the news, which they received from the Trinidad-based provincial of the order in the West Indies.
"We were just devastated. We couldn’t believe it," she said.
Sister Theresa came from a family of nine with strong religious connections. Another sister was also a member of the Cluny order and died in the Azores. Three sisters became Presentation nuns and two brothers joined the De La Salle brothers.
Sister Mel has also spent almost all her religious life in the West Indies, working in Trinidad and St. Lucia. She was treated in hospital but was able to go home.