The little known work of a well-known Saint (to be)



by Shirley. W. Somanader

Exemplary endurance and lofty heroism of a young celibate priest, determined to defy death and emboldened to bear untold suffering, in order to ably assist his fellow Catholics and restore and rebuild their church in disarray, is a story worth repeating; more so, when the hero of the tale, having won the wide approbation of "The Apostle of the Abandoned Flock", is about to be elevated to Sainthood. Here is a little known but nevertheless an important part of this inspiring story. To begin at the beginning:


There is much evidence that Catholicism had taken deep roots in Batticaloa before the Dutch took over the Maritime Provinces in 1658. It was probably introduced in Batticaloa even before the arrival of St Francis Xavier in 1548. Father Gnanaprakasar writes, in his ‘History of the Catholic Church in Ceylon’, that on December 24, 1546, Fr. Simon in a letter to Joao II, King of Portugal, said "He is sending by the same courier a letter from the Vanniyar of Batecalo (Batticaloa) asking for Baptism and for some Franciscan Fathers to convert his people." S.O. Canagaratnam in his book "Monograph of the Batticaloa District" says that this is confirmed by the Latin and French documents in the Archives of the Roman Catholic Mission in Batticaloa. In 1547, the Viceroy dispatched Antonio Moniz Barreto with 100 men and some Friars. They reached Batticaloa where they baptized the Vanniyar and two sons of a Vannichi.

The Franciscan Friars in Ceylon we are told went about preaching the Gospel, baptizing and forming Christian communities. We may surmise that the Friars who accompanied Barreto would have also done so in Batticaloa with the encouragement of the recently converted Vanniyar who was then the feudal chief of the region, owing allegiance to the Kandyan King.

In 1588, there is evidence, that the Catholic community had grown strong enough to assert itself aggressively adopting the unfortunate policy of that time of forced conversions and destruction of native places of worship. A popular folk song among the Hindus of Batticaloa narrates the following legend: I summarize:

The Captain of the Portuguese garrison stationed at Batticaloa and some others went to the famous Kokkadicholai Hindu Temple and accused the people of worshipping stones. They pointed to the image of the Nandi (the cow) Vahanaya of god Siva and said in derision that it can neither see, nor speak, nor eat. After some time, the legend continues that the cow got up and ate the straw that was provided and its droppings were there for everyone to see.

A new and further chapter in the growth and strength of the Catholic Church in Batticaloa began with coming of Jesuits from France in 1602. In this year the Bishop of Cochin under whose jurisdiction the Sri Lankan church was placed for many years decided that the Trincomalee-Batticaloa Diocese should be managed by the priests of the Society of Jesus that they may build churches and do all that they could for the expansion of the Gospel in the District.

Between 1616 and 1630, the Portuguese General, Constantine de Saa Noranha built the fort at Batticaloa. It was during and after this time that the church expanded rapidly. The first Catholic Church to be built in Batticaloa was the one at Thandavanvely in 1624 about a kilometer north of the town along the Trincomalee road. So, this was the state and strength of Catholicism in Batticaloa when the Dutch took over the administration of the Maritime Provinces from the Portuguese: There was a church at Koddaimunai with a sizeable proportion of Catholic worshippers and another within the fort in Puliyantivu, the Residence of the Portuguese regiment. Besides, there were pockets of Catholic communities in rural areas like Soorikalmunai, Amirthakali, Vakarai, Veechikalmunai and Valaichenai as the result of the preaching and teaching of, first the Franciscan and later the French Jesuit priests who replaced the Franciscans.


With capitulation of the Portuguese to the Dutch on May 10, 1656 the fortunes of the Catholic community plummeted. All the Portuguese forts in the Maritime areas had fallen one by one before this date. In 1638 the fort at Batticaloa surrendered. In 1640 the Dutch razed this rectangular shaped fort to the ground; with it we might surmise the Jesuit Residence within it.

The Dutch brought with them all the religious rivalries of contemporary Europe and tried to destroy every vestige of the Catholic Faith. The year 1658 was one of the worst years of persecution for the Catholics of Sri Lanka. In this year the Dutch who conformed to the Reformed Protestant religion preached by John Calvin, expelled all the Catholic priests from the Island. Then they fixed by law the penalty of death on any priest who dared to enter the island and on any Catholic who ventured to harbour a priest.

Further. they compelled all Catholics to attend the Dutch Kirk and to baptize, marry and bury according to Dutch rites and to send their children to proselytizing schools set up by them. They held out the most tempting inducements to conversion making the profession of the Catholic faith a disqualification not only for holding office under the Dutch regime but even for the traditional headmen system of Ceylon (Fr S. G. Perera Pages 12 -13.) .

The Catholic churches that were seized were either destroyed or used for Protestant worship or put to secular use. An indication of what could have happened in Batticaloa, though on a reduced scale, is contained in a description of a parallel situation in Jaffna in the narrative of Baldeus, the Dutch historian. It is said the Dutch appropriated 34 churches in Jaffna, burnt down some, and converted others into protestant places of worship. Baldeus points out the weakness of these new Christian communities by saying that there were only two or three protestant ministers to look after these churches while previously there had been over forty Catholic priests caring for them.

It was probably during this period that the Catholic church at Thandavanvely in Batticaloa town was burnt down and reduced to ashes. But the resilience of the priest-less Catholics was so visible that it was soon rebuilt. It is said that the statue of Kannikai Matha (Virgin Mary) miraculously survived the fire. S. O. Canagaratnam in his book (1921) says that this statue is still in existence and that it is carried on February 2 each year, the day of the feat of Virgin Mary.

Shortly after the Thandavanvely church was rebuilt, St Mary’s church, the present Cathedral of the Diocese of Batticaloa, was erected in the heart of the town, before its completion the construction of the adjacent St Anthony’s church was commenced, says S.O Canagaratnam in his book .


Though the Catholics at this time suffered severe persecution, they were not easily uprooted or eliminated. The reasons, for this, are many:

From the very beginning, the Portuguese rulers unlike the later Dutch and British, encouraged inter-marriages between the Portuguese and the natives, both Tamils and Sinhalese. This policy led to the creation of a local Christian population at once deeply loyal to Catholicism and at the same time quite ready to remain in Ceylon for life. Dr S. Arasaratnam says "The Dutch were not replacing a decadent and inactive church as they replaced a declining political power; on the contrary, they saw that the Catholic church was a living entity and had penetrated the life of the country with great intensity in certain parts of the country." So, it is not surprising to be told that the Catholics of Batticaloa reacted with resilience when their church at Thandavanvely was burnt down. In 1669, a community that was without priests and persecuted got together, collected money and with the permission of the King of Kandy rebuilt their church.


The Dutch seized the Maritime Provinces in 1656 and imposed the most cruel policies of persecution on Catholics It is not without significance that Joseph Vaz was born into a Konkani Brahmin family of Goa four years before these events on April 21, 1651 and was ordained a priest in 1671 when he was just 20 years old. So also that a few years later this young, resolute and saintly priest, should form a Society of native Indian priests called the Oratorians. It was probably the necessity of the times sanctioned by God’s goodwill that a South Asian Order of priests should be raised at this crucial juncture in the church’ s history.

The priests who had labored in Ceylon in this period were all European missionaries. And they were expelled enmasse at once... Even if anyone of them wanted to re- enter the Island stealthily they could not have done so because their colour would have betrayed them. It was in such circumstances the head of the newly formed Asian Order of Priests called the Oratorians asked to be released to travel to Ceylon and received permission from the Bishop of Cochin.

Fr. Joseph Vaz came to hear of the dire plight of the Catholics in Sri Lanka in a fortuitous way. It was made known to him by a Canon in the Cathedral at Goa. The Canon and other Catholics had stopped over in Colombo when returning from Macao. Some Catholics of Colombo stealthily went on board the ship for spiritual ministration and disclosed their sufferings at the hands of the Dutch to the Canon. Hearing the oppression of the church in Ceylon, Father Vaz resolutely determined to visit Island although he was made aware of the dangers he would have to face in the Dutch controlled territories.


So it was Father Joseph Vaz arrived in secret and in disguise as a beggar in Mannar in 1687. The singular purpose of his visit was to encourage and assist a persecuted and oppressed Catholic Community and to help it to recover and restore itself. No doubt he would have been strengthened by hearing stories of great resilience and resoluteness of groups of Catholics. From 1687 to 1696, for a full decade he was the only priest in the whole island, moving from place to place dressed as a poor, destitute beggar

From Mannar he travelled by foot to Jaffna. When the Dutch authorities there came to know of his presence, he escaped to Puttalam and amidst great hardship and suffering he continued his ministrations winning the hearts of the people. From here he extended his mission up to Colombo, even winning the support of the King of Kotte. It was Fr. Vaz who introduced the carrying of coconut leaves instead of Olive branches during the procession on Palm Sunday when Christians make Crosses out of these tender leaves and preserve them in their homes until the Ash Wednesday of next year when they burn them for ash. It should be pointed out the Traditional Passion shows had been enacted from Dutch times. Even during the times of Dutch persecution Fr Joseph Vaz had enacted Passion plays in Puttalam in 1706 and later in other places.

From Puttalam Fr Vaz moved to the capital of the Kandyan Kingdom. At Kandy he won the goodwill and support of King Vimaladharmasuriya II (1689 – 1707) who was a devout Buddhist but tolerant towards other faiths. But, not before the rivalries among the Christians nearly hindered the Father’s progress. Nandars de Lanerolle, a French Huegonot, who was violently anti-Catholic informed the King that a Portuguese spy, in the disguise of a Catholic priest, was trying to enter his territory. Consequently, he was held under house arrest in the city from 1691 onwards and not allowed to cross the river that surrounded the city. But the king, when he realized that Fr Vaz was an innocent and harmless Catholic priest who wanted to help his persecuted fellow believers who had sought refuge in Kandyan Kingdom, was allowed to move freely and even visit the Dutch territories. Fr Joseph Vaz then established his mission headquarters in Kandy. He was virtually the head of the Catholic Church at this time.


Fr Vaz visited Batticaloa, most probably, while he was staying in Kandy. No doubt he would have been impelled to visit by hearing stories of great courage and faith by the shepherd-less Catholics of this place. He might have heard of how the Thandavanvely church was destroyed by the Dutch and then rebuilt by a determined people without the leadership of a priest and the miraculous escape of the statue of Kannihai Matha (Virgin Mary) from the conflaragation.

It is said that the holy priest arrived secretly one night in Batticaloa at the time the Angelus was being recited by the Catholics. He fell in with some of the faithful and made himself known. He stayed in with the Catholics of Batticaloa for some time encouraging and ministering to them till he was betrayed by an apostate. The Dutch authorities arrested him. In punishment he was tied to a Vammi tree close by to the Thandavanvely church and severely beaten. Though there is no trace of this tree now, tradition among the Catholics of Batticaloa identifies the place where this incident occurred. The spot is in an adjacent compound to the church. And the church still holds Mass at this site annually to remember Blessed Joseph Vaz’s visit as an event of great source of encouragement and inspiration to the Catholics of Batticaloa in a time of dire peril and persecution.

The Catholics of Batticaloa will greatly rejoice with other Catholic faithful in Sri Lanka on the day Pope Francis I canonizes Father Joseph Vaz , "The Apostle of the Oppressed", who lived and died here, as the first Saint in Sri Lanka. We are reminded here of Jesus’ words to his disciples, "I tell you the truth, unless a kernel of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it remains only a single seed. But if it dies, it produces many seeds." (John 12:24)

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