Blessed Joseph Vaz: Part 6 – The Apostle of Sri Lanka in Jaffnapattinam

Myself . 

By T.V. Antony Raj


Blessed Joseph Vaz was our beloved Apostle. In many ways, he was a pioneer in the history of our country and the Christian faith. In fact, after Dutch persecution, which lasted 150 years, there would be no priest on the island without him.
– Bishop Vianny Fernando, President of National Joseph Vaz Secretariat.


Entrance of Jaffna Fort built in 1618, by Portuguese Philip de Olivera (Photo:
Entrance of Jaffna Fort built in 1618, by Portuguese Philip de Olivera (Photo:


In 1591, André Furtado de Mendonça led the second Portuguese expedition to the Jaffna kingdom. The capital of the Jaffna Kingdom, also known as the Kingdom of the Aryacakravarti was Nallur. During that expedition, the King of Jaffna, Puviraja Pandaram (Tamil: புவிராஜ பண்டாரம்) was killed.

The Portuguese then installed the dead king’s son Ethirmanna Cinkam (Tamil: எதிர்மன்னசிங்கம்) as the King of the Jaffna kingdom. This arrangement gave the Catholic missionaries freedom to propagate the Christian faith. However, the incumbent king, resisted the missionary activities. In 1595, the King of Portugal ordered to remove him from the throne. But colonial authorities in Goa did not oblige as Ethirimanna Cinkam was not overly disruptive to their colonial interests.

In 1617, Cankili II (Tamil: சங்கிலி குமாரன்) a tyrant, came to the throne after a bloody massacre of the royal princess and the regent Arasakesari. The Portuguese colonists in Colombo rejected his regency. He then invited military forces from Thanjavur Nayaks and Malabari Corsairs to help him fight the Portuguese.

In 1618, Phillippe de Oliveira built the Portuguese Fort in Jaffna.

Phillipe de Oliveira moved the center of political and military control from Nallur to Jaffnapatao (Jaffnapattinam).

The subsequent rule by the Portuguese deployed forced conversion of the population to Roman Catholicism. Most people fled the core areas of the former Jaffna kingdom due to excessive taxation.forced conversion of the population to Roman Catholicism.

After a three-month siege, the Portuguese lost their last stronghold in Ceylon, Fort of Our Lady of Miracles (Fortaleza de Nossa Senhora dos Milagres de Jafanapatão) to the Dutch East India Company (VOC) on June 24, 1658 . With the fall of Fort at Jaffnapattinam, the Dutch took Portuguese as prisoners of war and expelled all Portuguese from Ceylon.

Joseph Vaz in Jaffnapattinam

Joseph Vaz presumed that like in Mannar, there ought to be Catholics in  Jaffnapattinam too. Cured of dysentery, Vaz wanted to find the Catholics in  Jaffnapattinam and begin his mission. So, he wore a rosary around his neck and started begging for food, all the while observing and studying the reactions of the natives. He was fully aware that if the Dutch or any native Calvinist knew that he was a Catholic he would be subjected to ill-treatment, and death would soon follow.

Dom Pedro of  Jaffnapattinam

One family in particular treated him well and he guessed that they were Christians. One day he asked the head of that family, whether he would like to see a priest and receive the sacraments. The man froze. The next time Vaz went to beg at that house, the man took him to the house one of his friends, a young man named Dom Pedro.

Dom Pedro belonged to the Tamil Vellalar caste, a dominant group of agricultural landlords who migrated from the neighbouring Southern Tamil kingdoms in India since the 13th century. He was rich and his family members, all Catholics, were held in esteem by the Tamils of Jaffna.

In the hope of getting an appointment to a high Government position under the Dutch, he had renounced the Catholic Faith and had become a Calvinist. However, a few years later, Emmanuel de Silva, an old friend of his father, made him realize the enormity of his defection from the Catholic faith. Troubled by his apostasy, Dom Pedro disavowed Calvinism. He did severe penance and reconciled with the Catholic Church.

Joseph Vaz then understood through his friend that though Dom Pedro was on good terms with the Dutch, he was, in fact, a fervent Catholic, but behaved as if he were not, to hoodwink the Dutch.

After the preliminary introductions, Vaz revealed his identity to them. He showed his credentials as Vicar Forane of Kanara, which he had conscientiously brought with him.

The apostleship of Joseph Vaz began that night when he celebrated the first Mass in Jaffna. The Catholics were happy because for more than 30 years they did not have the privilege to attend Mass. The young members of the community had never seen a priest. They had been baptized and instructed in the Catholic Faith by their parents.

From then on the Catholics of Jaffnapattinam met in Dom Pedro’s house in secret for some time. Dom Pedro and his friends told Vaz that  Jaffnapattinam being the headquarters of the Dutch command in the north of Ceylon, it was dangerous for him to remain there. They advised him to go to Sillalai, a hamlet ten miles away from Jaffna.

Joseph Vaz in  Sillalai

Rich in vegetation, and surrounded by paddy fields in the North and West and villages in the South and East, Sillalai got its name from a ‘small oil mill’ (Tamil: ‘siria aalai‘) in the area which extracted oil from gingelly seeds, margosa (neem) seeds and the seed of the honey tree or butter tree (ill upai). Over time, ‘siria aalai‘ became Sillalai.


Kathirai Matha of Sillalai, Jaffna District, Sri Lanka.
Kathirai Matha of Sillalai, Jaffna District, Sri Lanka.


The villagers (even now), venerated the statue of ‘Kathirai Matha‘ (‘Chair Mother’) – a rare depiction of Mother Mary seated on a chair holding baby Jesus on her lap. The Portuguese who landed at the small port of Sambil, about three to four kilometres west of Sillalai brought the statue to the hamlet.

The villagers took great pains to protect the statue from the Dutch. They moved it from place to place and hid it in deep wells and abandoned huts.

As advised Vaz went to Sillalai. The Moopar (local catechist) provided a walled house for Vaz and John. The villagers built a hut nearby and Vaz used it as the church. From then on, Sillalai became the headquarters of his apostleship. From Sillalai, he visited Jaffnapattinam and the surrounding villages. Wherever he went, the Catholics hid him in their houses.

To avoid suspicion, he performed his apostolate at night with small groups of Catholics in attendance. He would walk from Sillalai to Jaffnapattinam at night to avoid the Dutch.

In Sillalai, if anyone gave him any gift or money he would send that person to his host, the Moopar. He distributed the entire collection of money among the poor.

The “sammanasu swamy”

Joseph Vaz lived a simple life. He always ate sitting on the ground with rice served on a banana leaf. He slept on a grass or bamboo mat spread on the floor. His life of poverty can be summarized in his own words from a letter written to his nephew:

“Be content with what you are provided in the Community; be it in the refectory, or in the infirmary or in the wardrobe or in the cubicle, do not desire anything more by any other means, take the things assigned to you as the best in these places.”

Joseph Vaz a model of chastity. He was a modest, well composed, grave, cautious and reserved person. In the confessional, his eyes were always low and would never raise them to stare at the ladies confessing to him. In a letter to his nephew, Joseph Vaz wrote:

“Grid us Lord with the girdle of purity and extinguish in our loins the fire of lust, so that the virtue of continence and chastity may abide in us”.

The people admired Joseph Vaz. Because of his virtues they called him “sammanasu swami” (Tamil: “சம்மனசு சுவாமி”) meaning the “angelic priest”.

Guided by the catechist, Joseph Vaz traveled throughout the Jaffna peninsula. He found the task of caring for the flock, was a bit burdensome for one priest. On December 14, 1688, Vaz wrote his first letter from Ceylon to the Provost of the Oratory requesting him to send a helper.

At that time, Laurens van Pyl was the Governor of Dutch Ceylon. The Dutch commander of Jaffna region was forcing the people to follow Calvinism. He was annoyed to note many people believed to be apostates of the Catholic Church and enjoyed the favours of the Dutch authorities were no longer frequenting the Calvinist Kirk. Dom Pedro, in particular, was one such person.

The Commander imputed the change in the Catholics of the Jaffna peninsula to the Jesuits of Manapad in South India, who, he believed, had succeeded in coming over to Ceylon in secret.

The Dutch arrested many people they believed to be Catholics. He tortured them to denounce the person or the Jesuit priests responsible for bringing about this situation. The Commander then announced a reward for the head of the Catholic priests. But the faithful Catholics watched over Joseph Vaz.

On Christmas night of 1689, Dutch soldiers surrounded the house where the congregation was celebrating the midnight liturgy with Joseph Vaz administering the sacraments. On entering the house, the soldiers arrested those inside. They desecrated the sacred images and divested the women of their clothes. They rounded up around 300 Catholics that night in and around the neighbourhood. But to their dismay, the priest was not among the prisoners. The soldiers wondered how he could have escaped.

In 1690, Father Andre Freyre, the Jesuit Provincial of Malabar, gave an account of this incident in a letter he wrote from Manapad to Dom Miguel de Almeida, the Portuguese Governor of Goa. He wrote:

“Fr. Joseph Vaz, a Brahmin, who was sent from Goa to take charge of the Christians at Jaffna, discharges his duties with such devotion, that all consider him a saint. He not only looks after the natives but after the Europeans too. Although the heretics search everywhere for him, they can never come upon him, for, like another Proteus, he escapes them under a variety of disguise.”

In the morning, all the arrested people were brought before the Commander of Jaffnapattinam. He let off the women and children. He retained eight rich and influential men, including Dom Pedro and Emmanuel de Silva. He let the others go after imposing heavy fines.

The Commander ordered them to abjure the Catholic Faith or face death. All said that they were ready to die for their faith. Thinking that the sight of torture would denounce their Faith. the Commander ordered Dom Pedro, the youngest among the eight, to be beaten with rods, until he should abjure Catholicism or die under the blows. Dom Pedro bore the torture unflinchingly. When the young man lost consciousness, the Commander ordered his bloody body to be thrown into prison with the other seven. When Dom Pedro regained consciousness, he beseeched his companions to persevere in their Faith with courage, and then died peacefully.

The Commander, then confiscated the properties of Emmanuel de Silva and the six others and condemned them to hard labour for life.

The Commander, then confiscated the properties of Emmanuel de Silva and the six others and condemned them to hard labour for life. He sent them to a fortress, which the Dutch were then restructuring, as labourers. None of them even thought of escaping this torture by renouncing the Faith. Eventually, they all died martyrs. The martyrdom of Dom Pedro and of his seven companions was the most glorious fruit of the apostolate of Joseph Vaz at Jaffna.

Joseph Vaz fled Jaffnapattinam and went deep into the jungle to escape from the Dutch. He crossed to Vanni, the mainland area of Northern Sri Lanka. From there, he reached Puttalam, then, a part of the Kandy kingdom, ruled by King Vimaladharma Surya II, who had ascended the throne in 1687, the same year that Joseph Vaz had entered Ceylon. He was the son of King Rajasimha II (1635  – 1687).

With the help of some Catholics, he continued his apostolate in Puttalam.


Next → Part  7  – The Apostle of Sri Lanka in Puttalam

← Previous: Part 5 – Travel to Ceylon (Sri Lanka)








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