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Sunday, 16 August 2009





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Madhu Shrine and Mother Mary’s mercy

The renowned Madhu Shrine has been a place of adoration for people from all faiths and walks of life in Sri Lanka for over 400 years.

The statue of Our Lady of Madhu

Although, the war that has been raging in the country for three decades stopped the flow of devotees to the sylvan shrine in the ‘80s and ‘90s, it nevertheless remained in the hearts and minds of the faithful over the years.

This month the Madhu Shrine celebrates befittingly the first feast after the successful completion of the ‘Humanitarian Operations’ by the heroic Armed Forces of Sri Lanka and total liberation of the entire country from the clutches of terrorism. Today, lights in the Madhu Shrine flicker after many years of darkness and the feast is celebrated under the overwhelming patronage of the government led by the President Mahinda Rajapaksa.

Madhu which is believed by the Catholics to be a shrine of miraculous healing power has bestowed blessings on thousands of people in misery, the destitute and the sick for centuries. History has shown that the Madhu Shrine could widen the ethnic harmony and amity in Sri Lanka with certainty. The shrine has been a symbol of unity not just between the Sinhalese and Tamils but also between the people of different religions.

In the liturgical calendar of the Catholic Church, five important feasts that mark important milestones in Mother Mary’s life are celebrated. March 25 is the Annunciation of the Lord when the Angel Gabriel met Mary. July 2nd is Visitation Day where Mary met Elizabeth, mother of John the Baptist. August 15 is the Assumption when she entered Heaven. September 8th is the Nativity - the day of her Birthday. December 8 is the Day of Immaculate Conception. Of these August 15 feast became the most popular at Madhu and the period known as Madhu season.

The Blessed Virgin Mary’s entire life was indeed a surprise. She talked to an Angel; she remained a Virgin Mother; she became the Mother of the Messiah; she gave birth to Jesus Christ in a forgotten stable; and she became the world’s First Love. It can never be forgotten that the Blessed Virgin Mary’s days were intertwined, interwoven and enmeshed with Jesus. She, it was who saw His first step, heard His first word and did with Him the thousand chores that make up childhood and home; she it was who mended His clothes and dressed His wounds; she it was who shared with Him both laughter and tears.

A view of the Madhu Shrine

The Most Rev. Dr. Malcolm Ranjith, the present Archbishop of Colombo who preached at the Annual Feast in 1995 stated, “the unfortunate war, we experience in Sri Lanka is a result of sin. The Blessed Virgin Mother at the Wedding Feast of Cana pleaded with her son Jesus to bring happiness to humanity and began the public ministry and the final victory of Jesus over the same sin. We should unite with each other, purify our hearts from sin and plead with the Blessed Virgin Mother to pray to her son Jesus for Peace on our Motherland”.

Surely, Our Lady of Madhu has played a pivotal role in the lives of many Sri Lankans, who flock around her Miraculous Statue seeking solace and respite. In 2001, the Miraculous Statue of the Our Lady of Madhu was taken on a penitential tour to the parishes in Sri Lanka in a spiritual effort to encourage Catholics to pray for peace an end to the war. Finally, the much awaited peace has dawned in our Motherland.


Each religion has its places of worship and its shrines which draw pilgrims from far and near. It was in the Portuguese period of Sri Lanka’s history that Catholicism was introduced into the country by missionaries from the West. They built churches and schools and established parishes for the Catholics. In the course of time three of the churches turned into shrines which brought pilgrims even from distant parts of the country.

It was about this time that some Catholics of the Western coast, had moved into the interior to escape being harassed by the Dutch. They had brought with them an image of the Virgin Mary (Our Lady of the Rosary) for which they had great reverence.

They had come into the Wanni jungles and settled down in a village called Sinena Maruda Madhu, where they built some huts for themselves and one in which they placed the image of the Virgin and continued their veneration of it.

This may have happened during the period from 1658 to 1687.

When Fr. Joseph Vaz of Goa heard of the sad plight of Sri Lanka’s Catholics, he decided to come to their help. In secret and in disguise he came to the island in 1687, worked alone for about six years, and was later assisted, and after him his work continued by other Indian priests of an institute he had founded at Goa before coming to Sri Lanka. These priests worked in Sri Lanka for over a century and a half until, after the restoration of religious freedom to Catholics by the British in 1806, European missionaries were again able to come into the country.

In r 1696, when Fr. Vaz was still the only priest in the country, three other Indian priests came to help him. One of them, Fr. Pedro Ferrao, arrived at Mantota in November that year.

When Fr. Vaz, who was then in Kandy, heard of his arrival, he sent him instructions to remain and work in that part of the country.

We are told that when Fr. Ferrao began to experience the problems and hardships of missionary work in the country - persecution by the Dutch, hostility of some of non-Christians, the indifference of the Christians and their incorrigible attachment to superstitious beliefs and practices, he felt greatly discouraged and was depressed. In this situation, he had left Mantota and withdrawn into the solitude of the Wanni jungles. Probably he had gone to the Christian village of Madhu.

Fr. Vaz, learning of the depressed state in which Fr. Ferrao was, had paid him a visit in the Wanni jungles, probably at Madhu, and put him right by his spiritual counsel. Thereafter Fr. Ferrao served the Church in the north-western parts of the country (Mantota, Mannar, Jaffna and the Wanni) with great zeal and dedication for the next twenty-five years, until his death in 1721. And Fr. Vaz would have visited Madhu again when he went on his missionary journeys to visit the Catholics and their pastors throughout the country.

First Church

A report of 1701 reveals that Fr. Ferrao built a church at Madhu to replace the original hut that had been used as a chapel. It is also mentioned that Madhu was outside the jurisdiction of the Dutch but not too distant for the Catholics of Mantota and Jaffna to come there on the occasion of greater solemnities, which implies that the Madhu church already held a more prominent position among the chapels and churches of the region. Madhu continued to be looked after by other Indian priests who worked in Sri Lanka. It is reported that the church built by Fr. Ferrao at Madhu was rebuilt by an Indian missionary, Fr. Antonio de Tavor.

The religious freedom given to Catholics by the British and the arrival of missionaries of the Order of Oblates of Mary Immaculate to work in Jaffna vicariate were two important factors that contributed to the further development of Madhu as a shrine. Religious freedom enabled Catholics from far and near to come on pilgrimage to the shrine. The Oblate Bishops of Jaffna who came after the first Bishop (Bettacchini), namely Stephen Semera (1857 - 1868) and Christopher Bonjean (1868 - 1883) took special interests towards growth of the shirne.

Present Church

When pilgrims began to come in larger numbers, the need of a larger church was felt. Bishop Bonjean planned the present church and laid the foundation stone for it on August 8, 1872. Building work progressed under his successor, Bishop Andrew Melizan (1883 - 1893), and was completed by the next bishop, Henry Joulain (1893 - 1919).

They built a facade, the spacious presbytery, the restful chapel of the Blessed Sacrament and the grotto of Our Lady of Lourdes.

With the revival of Catholic faith by missionaries such as Blessed Joseph Vaz, Oratorian priests expanded the small shrine in late 17th century. With the arrival of British to the island, the persecution ceased, but the number of Catholics remained small, with just 50,000 members in 1796. With such a small community the Shrine at Madhu started to attract pilgrims from all over the country.

The stifling of Jesuit authority which had started in 1773 in the subcontinent built-up as a problem and eventual suppression of the Congregation in Madhu by 1834.

Origin of the Shrine

The growth of the Madhu church is uniquely interesting. Even before the Dutch arrival, Catholics of Mannar underwent oppression at the hands of King Sankili of the Jaffna Kingdom. In 1544, more than 500 Catholics of the Kadayar community were put to the sword by Sankili at Thottaveli in Mannar. Thereafter, Catholics were apprehensive in exercising their faith openly for a while. During that time a statue of Mother Mary was installed in a grotto in Manthai. Soon this grotto became an important focus of Catholic worship.

When the Dutch began their repressive campaign the grotto at Manthai became a prime target. Anticipating trouble, a band of devotees removed the statue and made their way through the thick jungles and hid the statue in the hollow of a giant Palu tree bearing Palai fruit.

Thereafter nothing much was heard of the statue until an old woman had a dream where the Virgin Mary appeared and instructed her about the statue hidden near Marutha Madhu. There was a stream surrounded by Marutha tree near the Palu tree where the statue was hidden. Madhu means stream and so the area in thick jungle became known as Marutha Madhu. Soon it became simply known as Madhu.Soon a spate of miracles associated with the Our Lady of Madhu church began occurring.

Its fame spread and Catholics from the south too started attending it. Vows taken here were fulfilled according to belief. The belief was that the church had healing powers. Also childless couples found their desires fulfilled. It was widely believed that no wild animal would attack pilgrims on their way to Madhu despite the abundance of elephants, leopards and bear. Another belief was that Madhu pilgrims were immune to snakebite or stings by scorpions and tarantulas. All this added to the Madhu mystique making it the Sri Lankan equivalent of Lourdes, Fatima or Vailankanni.

In spite of Madhu becoming a magnet for Catholics it continued to retain its simplicity which again contributed to its mystique. Though pilgrim rests and lodging facilities were established around the church, it was certainly not enough to accommodate the large numbers that throng during Madhu seasons. So devotees would camp in tents or makeshift huts demarcating their “territory” with branches of trees.

In the earlier days water was available in the Madhu stream and a few wells. Pilgrims would sleep on mats or cook using primitive contraptions like stone stoves. In spite of the difficulties a warm spirit of cheer and goodwill prevailed. Linguistic identities of Sinhala and Tamils were overwhelmed by the over arching feeling of being Catholic and Madhu was one place where the ethnic divide was virtually non- existent.

Feast Day

In the year 1870, Bishop Bonjean the new Bishop arranged an annual festival to be celebrated on the 2nd of July. But in recent years the August 15th festival draws the biggest crowds because it is one of the most hallowed days for Catholics celebrating the day of Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary into heaven and also because the school holidays facilitate entire families to make the trip.

Coronation of Our Lady

In 1920, Bishop Brault who had a very special devotion to Our Lady of Madhu, obtained the Pope’s sanction for the historic solemn coronation of the Statue of Our Lady of Madhu.

Bishop Brault with the clergy and the laity had petitioned the Vatican Chapter through the Apostolic Delegate Cardinal Van Rossam, Prefect of the S.C. of Propaganda and he personally presented the request to the Holy Father who in his audience of April 7, 1921, granted this favour of coronation of Our Lady.

A great day in the history of the shrine was July 2, 1924. That day after a solemn religious service held by the then Bishop of Jaffna, Alfred Guyomar, the Madhu image of the Virgin Mary was solemnly crowned before a vast gathering of pilgrims by Archbishop Anthony Coudert of Colombo, officiating as Papal Legate appointed for the occasion by Pope Pius XI.

Consecration of the Church

The Church was consecrated in 1944 during World War II. In preparation for the consecration ceremony, a marble altar replaced the old wooden structure and the whole sanctuary was covered with white and blue marble. In spite of travel restrictions and difficulties finding conveyance, more than 30,000 people came to the jungle shrine.

By this symbolic act, the Lady of the Wanni jungles was crowned queen of the hearts of Sri Lanka’s Catholics who had shown their devotion by repeatedly coming to Madhu on pilgrimage even from distant parts of the country, no matter the hardships they had to endure in doing so.

The crowning became the official Church recognition of a Shrine that had in a way grown from humble beginnings in the wild Wanni wilderness, at a spot which nobody at the time would have thought was a likely place for a Shrine that would attract pilgrims from all over Sri Lanka.


LANKAPUVATH - National News Agency of Sri Lanka
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