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
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.
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
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.
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.
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
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.