Blessed Joseph Vaz: Part 15 – Six More Missionaries Come from India


Myself. 

By T.V. Antony Raj

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.In 1668, after the smallpox epidemic ceased entirely, life turned back to normal in the capital. Leaving Father Joseph Carvalho to take care of the Catholics of the capital, Joseph Vaz went visiting the Missions and the villages.

In 1699, Joseph Vaz went to Gurubevelle, a village to the east of Colombo. There he met Father Jose Menezes, appointed by him as the missionary of Puttalam, Negombo and its districts up to Sitawaka and Colombo. Despite the vigilance of the Dutch, Father Jose Menezes and the Catholics there had instructed their Buddhists brethren in Christianity in and around Gurubevelle. In the short space of 13 days, Joseph Vaz baptized more than a thousand.

The Dutch Governor of Colombo, on knowing what was taking place in Gurubevelle, ordered the arrest of the two priests. A company of Dutch soldiers came to the village and surrounded the house in which Joseph Vaz was staying. At that time, Jose Menezes was not there.

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Dutch soldiers do not see Saint Joseph Vaz (Source: blejosephvaz.wix.com)
Dutch soldiers do not see Saint Joseph Vaz (Source: blejosephvaz.wix.com)

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The soldiers then barged in and searched the house, and although Joseph Vaz remained all the time among them, they did not see him.

The anxious Catholics who had assembled outside the house saw Vaz in the midst of the Dutch soldiers. They expected the arrest of the priest at any moment. But the soldiers could not see him. Joseph was invisible to them. Joseph Vaz, with the box containing the requisites for Mass, passed among the soldiers, but they did not see him.

The Dutch soldiers were sure that the priest was hiding somewhere in the house and searched every nook and corner. But they did not find him nor did they find any incriminating evidence to prove that people had assembled there for a Catholic service. However, in one room, they saw a lady and were bewildered. The lady asked them whom they sought. But the officer and the soldiers seized with terror fled from her sight and found themselves outside the house.

Ashamed for having run away from a woman, they once again entered that particular room and found nobody there. And, they saw on the spot where the lady had been standing a statue of the Blessed Virgin Mary. Filled with awe, they went away without touching the statue. The infuriated soldiers returned to Colombo and reported the failure of their expedition to the Governor.

At once the news spread throughout the region that the Blessed Virgin had appeared in that house, and people came in haste to venerate the statue.

The infuriated soldiers returned to Colombo and reported the failure of their expedition to the Governor.

Joseph Vaz left Gurubevelle on a boat on the Kelani River. He went to Seethawakapura (now known as Avissawella), the capital of the Kingdom of Sitawaka. Though the Dutch territory was only a few miles away, Vaz established his headquarters there.

On knowing that Joseph Vaz had gone away from the capital, a group of Buddhists decided to take strong measures to prevent the progress of Christianity in the kingdom. They approached the King and asked him to arrest Father Joseph Carvalho and also forbid Joseph Vaz to set foot again in the Kingdom of Kandy. When they saw that the King would not give in to their demands, they threatened him with rebellion.

Since the leader of this Buddhist faction was a powerful Kandyan Chief, the King out of fear of being the cause of a rebellion yielded to their demands. He agreed to exile Father Josep Carvalho from Kandy. However, the King sent one of his Catholic officials to the priest to assure him that he would suffer no harm and that he was free to take along with him whatever he possessed.

Yet in spite of the King’s assurance, the Buddhist mob manhandled the priest. Carvalho took refuge in a country house that belonged to a Catholic named Anthony de Herta, a few miles from the capital, on the other side of the river.

Twenty-five days after Carvalho’s departure, the Buddhist mob led by their Chief, razed the church to the ground.

On learning about the events in Kandy during his absence Joseph Vaz wept.

A few days later, a dreadful malady afflicted the Chief. He was unable to move his legs. A hideous ulcer appeared on his tongue, and putrid pustules covered his entire body. People considered his fate as a just punishment from God for driving away the priest and demolishing the church after desecrating it.

At the end of 1699, Joseph Vaz returned to Mahanuwara with Father Joseph Carvalho, who had been expelled from the capital at the instigation of Buddhist Bhikkus. The two priests constructed a new church. Joseph Vaz then went into service for the king, translating Portuguese books into Sinhalese. From this vantage point, Vaz intensified his ministry and converted some Sinhalese nobles to Catholicism.

Joseph Vaz declines the office of
the Vicar Apostolic of Ceylon

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Saint Joseph Vaz, Cong. Orat., Priest and missionary. The Apostle of Sri Lanka.
Saint Joseph Vaz, Cong. Orat., Priest and missionary. The Apostle of Sri Lanka.Orat., Priest and missionary. The Apostle of Sri Lanka.

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Pope Clement XI received news of the Apostolate of Joseph Vaz conveyed from Goa. The Pope, sent a Papal Legate, Monsignor Charles Thomas Maillard de Tournon, Patriarch of Antioch (and afterwards Cardinal), with instructions to make inquiries about the work of the indefatigable Joseph Vaz in Ceylon and the Mission he founded and render him every assistance.

In December 1703, Maillard de Tournon arrived in Pondicherry, India. Deputed by the Bishop of Mylapore, Father Paulo de Sa, the Parish priest of Kodulur, welcomed him. The Papal Legate inquired from the priest about Joseph Vaz and his Apostolate work in Ceylon. Impressed by what he gleaned, the Papal Legate proposed to make use of his extensive powers to appoint Joseph Vaz the Vicar Apostolic of Ceylon.

The Papal Legate sent a letter to Joseph Vaz through Father Francisco da Cruz, an Oratorian priest stationed in Tamilnadu. The latter sent a courier to Joseph Vaz along with a beautiful crucifix inlaid with silver sent by the Papal Legate as a present to Joseph Vaz.

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The ebony cross with the image of Christ of ivory and the crown of thorns and nails of silver is presently exposed for public veneration in the Oratory Room of Saint Joseph Vaz at Sancoale, Goa, India. The only relic in India. The Oratory Room (over 400 yrs old) is being visited by thousands of devotees from all over the world. (Source - joegoauk.blogspot.in)
The ebony cross with the image of Christ of ivory and the crown of thorns and nails of silver is presently exposed for public veneration in the Oratory Room of Saint Joseph Vaz at Sancoale, Goa, India. The only relic in India. The Oratory Room (over 400 yrs old) is being visited by thousands of devotees from all over the world. (Source – joegoauk.blogspot.in)

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The Oratory room, Sancoale, Goa (Source: joegoauk.blogspot.in)
The Oratory room, Sancoale, Goa (Source: joegoauk.blogspot.in)

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Being a humble person, Joseph Vaz had not taken pains to describe much about his Apostolate work and had avoided taking the credit for himself. So, he deliberated over what this appointment could lead to. He had seen enough of the ecclesiastic squabbles that resulted from the appointment of the Vicars Apostolic in the Padroado regions. Since his Mission in Ceylon belonged and had its seat in Padroado territory of Goa, he feared that accepting  the Papal Legate’s nomination would mean the ruin of the Church in Ceylon, which he had planted and nurtured with great personal sacrifice.

Replying to the letter of the Papal Legate, Joseph Vaz said he was confused when he received the letter, which in his humility he felt unworthy of and signed his reply as an unworthy servant. He excused his delay in replying saying that he was not worthy of corresponding with persons of so high dignity and submissively thanked him for the crucifix.

On receipt of the reply from Joseph Vaz, Monsignor Maillard de Tournon wrote to the Sacred Congregation of the Propaganda Fide that he had proofs of the virtues the humble priest and the “modesty with which be brushed aside some miracles which are said to be operated by God through him“.

This explains why Saint Joseph Vaz is commonly portrayed in a simple surplice with a bishop’s mitre and crozier beside him.mitre and crozier beside him.

Six more Missionaries come from India

In 1705, the Superior of the Goa Oratory sent six more priests to Ceylon. They were: Pedro de Saldanha, Manoel de Miranda, Joseph de Jesu Maria, Miguel Francisco Ignatius de Almeyda, Basil Baretto and Jacome Goncalvez.

After reaching Ceylon and meeting Joseph Vaz, Father Jacome Goncalvez wrote to his Perfect in Goa:

“That ejaculation ‘Oh my Jesus‘ which he used in his sermons in Goa to excite fervour in our hearts, I have now heard many times repeated by him by day and night…

He always carries with him a piece of white cloth to wipe his face for he often sweats due to fatigue or has tears of compunction…

He is always absorbed in God and forgets himself…

At the first sermon we heard from him in Tamil, we saw the people crying because they understood him. Even though we could not understand him, we felt also like crying because the way he was preaching he was moving our hearts..

During the journeys, he always holds fast to the beads of the rosary and recites it alternately with his companions with great devotion.”

Of these six priests, we have more information about Father Jacome Goncalvez than the other five priests.

Father Jacome Goncalvez
Father Jacome Goncalvez (Source - sundayobserver.lk)
Father Jacome Goncalvez (Source – sundayobserver.lk)

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Jacome Goncalvez was the eldest son of Thomas Goncalvez and Mariana de Abreu. They lived in the parish of Our Lady of Piety (Piedade), Divar, Goa. Though the Goncalvez were Konkani Brahmins, they had been Christians for more than two generations. They were among the first converts at the beginning of Portuguese rule in Goa.

Jacome studied at the Jesuit College of Goa. He enrolled in the University of Goa, probably Collegio São Paulo, and obtained the degree of Bachelor of Arts. In 1696, he joined the Academy of Saint Thomas Aquinas in Goa to study theology. He also held the post of an organist, and this led him to appreciate poetry, prose and music.

In 1700, Jacome Goncalvez was ordained a priest of the Oratorian Order in Goa, India.  On January 1705 he was appointed to the chair of philosophy at the Collegio São Paulo,  but he relinquished it the same year to go to Ceylon.

Father Jacome Goncalvez left Goa on May 9, 1705 and arrived at Talaimannar, Ceylon on August 39, 1705. At the time, he knew Konkani, Portuguese, Latin and Spanish.

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Ola leaf (Palm leaf) manuscripts
Ola leaf (Palm leaf) manuscripts

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During the long journey from Goa to Talaimannar, he studied Tamil. He improved his knowledge of Tamil by reading Tamil classics written on ola leaf (palm leaf manuscripts).

There were now ten Oratorian Missionaries in Ceylon, all natives of India. Joseph Vaz was now able to organize the Catholic Mission in Ceylon. He divided the Ceylon Mission into eight districts and appointed a priest to each, to serve the needs of the Catholics. Soon, the number of adherents to Catholicism grew rapidly.

Father Jacome Goncalvez mastered the Tamil language during his first assignment on the islands of Mannar, Arippu, Musali and other places in the Mannar district. He also learnt Dutch. Joseph Vaz then sent him to Mahanuwara to learn Sinhalese in the Malwatta Chapter, known for their high and elegant mastery of the Sinhalese language. He also studied Sinhalese under the tutelage of educated laymen like Gaskone Adikaram.

Joseph Vaz and Jacome Goncalvez worked on the creation of Catholic literature comparable to that of the Buddhist literature.

Jacome Goncalvez, became a specialist in Tamil and Sinhalese languages. He won name and fame in the literary history of Sri Lanka, as a classical poet in Sinhalese and as a writer of about forty books. He is rightly called “the creator of Catholic literature in Ceylon”. He wrote many of his works at Bolawatta, near Negombo. Since there was no printing press, he employed 12 Sinhalese clerks to copy his works.

S.G. Perera, in his book “Life of Blessed Joseph Vaz Apostle of Sri Lanka” says:

“[Jacome Goncalvez has been called] the most successful missionary that this island [Sri Lanka] ever had, the creator of Catholic literature in Ceylon, whose name is still held in benediction and whose literary works in Sinhalese and Tamil are still in daily use in the church of this island.”

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Next → Part 16 – The Return of the Apostate Sparks Accusation of Baptism with Blood

← Previous: Part 14 – Smallpox Epidemic in Kandy

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