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Blessed Joseph Vaz: Part 7 – The Apostle of Sri Lanka in Puttalam


Myself . 

By T.V. Antony Raj

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Leaving behind his home, his family, the comfort of his familiar surroundings, he responded to the call to go forth, to speak of Christ wherever he was led. Saint Joseph knew how to offer the truth and the beauty of the Gospel in a multi-religious context, with respect, dedication, perseverance and humility. This is also the way for the followers of Jesus today.
– Pope Francis in his homily at the canonization of Joseph Vaz, Sri Lanka’s first saint on Wednesday, January 14, 2015.

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Image source: blejosephvaz.wix.com
Image source: blejosephvaz.wix.com

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The kingdom of Kandy comprised the interior of the island of Sri Lanka. The Dutch occupied the western coastal region with three administrative command posts in Jaffnapattinam, Colombo and Galle.

In the northeast, the island had two harbours, Trincomalee and Batticaloa, which the Dutch occupied on behalf of the king of Kandy. In fact, the king did not want the presence of the Dutch there. Nevertheless, the Dutch manned the two harbour towns to prevent any other foreign nation communicating with the king.

Puttalam was the only commercial harbour on the island that was free from Dutch control. It was under the direct control of the king of Kandy. Yet, Puttalam was constantly a bone of contention between the kingdom of Kandy and the Dutch colonialists.

In Puttalam too, Joseph Vaz had no problem of communication with the local people because most of them were conversant in Portuguese Creole.

Ceylon Portuguese Creole

When the Portuguese arrived in Sri Lanka in the early 16th century and conquered the coastal area they used a pidginized version of Portuguese – the Ceylon Portuguese Creole, for communication with the natives. By the early 17th Century, the Ceylon Portuguese Creole was in use in the Portuguese controlled littoral. It was also known in the kingdom of Kandy.

Due to the dearth of women, the Portuguese soldiers took Tamil and Sinhalese women as wives. From this union, sprang the “Portuguese Burgher” population of Sri Lanka, which soon adopted the Portuguese Pidgin as their language, which eventually Creolized. When the Dutch evicted the Portuguese in the 17th century, history repeated. The Dutch soldiers took local wives. In contrast to the time of the Portuguese, there was a semi-European nubile population available on the island, and the Dutch mainly married Portuguese Burgher women. This kind of union formed the base for the “Dutch Burgher” community.

The Dutch continued to use Creole Portuguese so that this language continued to thrive until well into the British period, which started in 1798. During the British period, Creole Portuguese was still used by the Wesleyan missionaries, who also produced some literature in the language, but it started to decline when the community switched to English or emigrated to Australia and South Africa.

Catholics in Puttalam

There were a little over one thousand Catholics in the town of Puttalam and in the villages surrounding the harbour. There was a Church constructed by the Portuguese Jesuits. The Catholics of the Puttalam region had been deprived of priests and the sacraments for almost fifty years  from the time the fort at Negombo fell into the hands of the Dutch in 1640.

In Puttalam, most of the Catholics had received baptism, but had not participated in the holy sacrifice of the Mass at any time in their life. So, they welcomed Joseph Vaz in their midst.

Unlike Jaffna, in Puttalam Joseph Vaz administered the sacraments openly without fear.  The Catholics of the surrounding villages too profited spiritually by his presence in Puttalam.

On August 15, 1690 Vaz wrote a letter to the Prefect of the Oratory in Goa about his ministry in Putalam.

Joseph Vaz often visited the villages of the Kalpitiya peninsula, which consists of 14 serenely beautiful islands. Most of the people of Kalpitiya are fishermen.

He also visited the interior villages in the district of Puttalam, inhabited by Mukkuvars and Paravars such as Manattivu, Tetapola, Manpuri.

A village called Maha Galgamuwa

On the banks of the Maha Galgamuwa tank, about 37 miles (60 km) from Puttalam via Miyellewa, was a Catholic settlement. In 1667, when the Dutch captured the coastal belt of Kalpitiya, the Catholics there feared persecution and decided to seek a place of safety to practice their faith. King Rajasinghe II of Kandy provided the freedom of worship to Catholics in his kingdom. Some Catholics from Kalpitiya, belonging to the ‘Mukkuwa‘ Community and spoke Tamil, left their villages and homes, and settled down in a small jungle area in Maha Galgamuwa close to the tank which came under the protection of the King of Kandy. The place they settled down in Maha Galgamu, is now known as Joseph-Vaz-Puram in Tamil and Juse Vaz Pura in Sinhalese. Their kinsmen still live in Puttalam and the Kalpitiya peninsula.

Route from Puttalam to Galgamuwa (Google maps)
Route from Puttalam to Galgamuwa (Google maps)

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The settlers constructed a church dedicated to Saint Anthony of Padua.

Joseph Vaz often visited this vibrant Catholic community in Maha Galgamuwa. On one occasion, the villagers complained to him about their lives and crops threatened by wild animals, especially the wild elephants and lived in constant fear of snakes. So, Vaz blessed a wooden cross made of two unpolished pieces of ebony wedged together and planted it at the entrance to the village to safeguard the village from wild elephants and venomous snakes.

The Shrine of Saint Joseph Vaz at Maha Galgamuwa

The inhabitants Maha Galgamuwa today are mostly Catholic. There is a large,  400-years-old Palu tree at the Shrine of Saint Joseph Vaz at Juse Vaz Pura, Maha Galgamuwa. According to the locals, it is under the shade of this tree that Joseph Vaz ministered to the villagers. Now, this ancient Palu tree, supported by concrete columns, is under the protection of the Peradeniya Botanical Gardens.

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The Palu tree at Maha Galgamuwa. It is under the shade of this tree that Joseph Vaz ministered to the villagers.  (Source: ceylontoday.lk)
The Palu tree at Maha Galgamuwa. It is under the shade of this tree that Joseph Vaz ministered to the villagers. (Source: ceylontoday.lk)

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The locals consider the ground under the shade of the Palu tree sacred. Also, they believe that those bitten by snakes survive after drinking water mixed with the sand. The villagers also use the sand in their homes as protection against wild animals. The elephants still come to the village at night, wading along the banks of the Maha Galgamuwa tank, but they do not harm the village.

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A video grab of the Cross planted by Joseph Vaz at Juse Vaz Pura, Maha Galgamuwa .
A video grab of the Cross planted by Joseph Vaz at Juse Vaz Pura, Maha Galgamuwa .

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The villagers have treasured the cross up to this day. Sadly, the candles lit to it by the faithful over the centuries have partly burnt the cross. Now the cross is enshrined in an altar beside the Palu tree.

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The Shrine of Saint Joseph Vaz at Galgamuwa (Source: archdioceseofcolombo.com)
The Shrine of Saint Joseph Vaz at Galgamuwa (Source: archdioceseofcolombo.com)

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The shrine also has a separate altar for the wooden Cross that Saint Joseph Vaz brought from India. It is enshrined between life-size statues Saint Joseph Vaz and Saint Francis Xavier.

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The wooden Cross that Saint Joseph Vaz brought from India, presently placed at Galgamuwa Church, in the Diocese of Kurunegala, Sri Lanka. (Source: archdioceseofcolombo.com)
The wooden Cross that Saint Joseph Vaz brought from India, presently placed at Galgamuwa Church, in the Diocese of Kurunegala, Sri Lanka. (Source: archdioceseofcolombo.com)

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The Catholics of the Kurunegala diocese celebrate the Annual Feast of Blessed Joseph Vaz at Galgamuwa Shrine on a grand scale.

Joseph Vaz visits the villages of Sath Korales

In 1597, after taking over the Kotte kingdom, the Portuguese divided the regions under their rule into four administrative divisions: Matara, Sabaragamuwa, sathara korale and sath korale.

Joseph Vaz had contact with the villages of Sath Korale, the seven districts lying between the coast of Puttalam and Kammala where the command of Colombo commenced. There were more Catholics in these villages than in Puttalam, but they were without a priest after the fall of Negombo into the hands of the Dutch in 1640.

Ten years later, around 1650, two Jesuits, tried to help the Catholics in secret from Jaffna. But the Dutch apprehended them. One of the priests fled and the other was imprisoned. The Dutch then passed strong legislation banishing all Catholic priests, especially the Jesuits from entering the island.

Joseph Vaz was the first priest to have contacted these Catholics after 40 years. He understood their sad plight and furtively administered the sacraments.

Joseph Vaz visits Madhu
The Shrine of Our Lady of Madhu is a Roman Catholic Marian shrine in Mannar district of Sri Lanka.  (Source: Lakpura Travels)
The Shrine of Our Lady of Madhu is a Roman Catholic Marian shrine in Mannar district of Sri Lanka. (Source: Lakpura Travels)

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During the first half of the 16th century, the Portuguese missionaries from India, especially under the authority of Saint Francis Xavier brought Roman Catholicism to the Kingdom of Jaffna. Catholicism soon spread southward in the coastal regions.

Manthai, historically known as Maanthottam in Tamil (“Garden of the Deer”) is a coastal town in the Mannar district of the Northern Province of Sri Lanka. It is about 9 miles (14 km) from Mannar. In the ancient days, there was a harbour in Manthai, but it is now buried in the sand.

Madhu, then a small hamlet, in the Mannar district is 18 miles (29 km) from Manthai as the crow flies.

In 1670, to escape the persecution of the Catholics by the Dutch, 20 families from Manthai came over to Madhu. They brought along with them the statue of Mary installed in their church. About the same time, around 700 Catholics migrated from Jaffna peninsula into the Wanni forests. After these two communities met in the jungles, they built a shrine in the forest for Mary’s statue.

In the late 17th century, Joseph Vaz, and later the Oratorian priests who came from Goa expanded the small shrine in the forest into a Church.

In a corner, inside the present Madhu Church is a pit containing the blessed soil of Madhu, known in Tamil as “Madu mannmann” (Tamil: மடு மண்) which the faithful take home. It is believed that applying the soil on the affected areas of the body will cure the maladies of the afflicted. It is held that when Joseph Vaz arrived first came to that location he planted a cross about 100 metres away from the church and blessed the soil. The place is known in Tamil as metres away from the church and blessed the soil. The place is known in Tamil as Siluvai Sumantha Veli (Tamil: சிலுவை சுமந்த வெளி)  and it is from here that the soil is taken and placed in the pit.

Joseph Vaz leaves Puttalam for Kandy

In 1687, Pascoal da Costa Jeremias to whom Joseph Vaz relinquished his duties of Superior of the Goan Oratory died. Father Custodio Leitão took charge as the new Superior.

Many businessmen from the Kingdom of Kandy frequented the Puttalam port. A Catholic businessman of Portuguese descent named Antonio Sottomayor, met Joseph Vaz. He said that there were many Catholics in the Kingdom of Kandy and they wanted a priest to minister to them. Sottomayor further said that he had a relative in the court of Kandy and through his influence he could obtain the necessary permission for Vaz to enter the Kingdom.

At that time, Joseph Vaz met a Portuguese priest named João de Braganza. He had entered Puttalam directly from India and was ministering to the Mukkuva community in and around Puttalam. Vaz consulted Braganza about going to Kandy. He wanted Braganza to explore the possibilities of securing an entry into Kandy for him. When Braganza showed interest on going himself to the Kingdom of Kandy, Vaz gave in to his wishes. Unfortunately, Braganza fell ill and returned to Goa.

After Braganza’s departure, Vaz wrote a letter on August 15, 1690 to the Prefect of the Oratory in Goa asking him whether he should continue his apostolate in Ceylon or return to Goa. In that letter, he mentioned Father Braganza:

“… in case any letter or order is to be sent, it should be done in a way Fr. Joao de Braganza will tell and he will give other particulars of this mission”.

In 1691, after four years of missionary work Joseph Vaz was almost captured by the Dutch. He decided to go to Kandy to avoid the vigilant Dutch from Colombo and to take refuge there.

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Next → Part  8:  The Apostle of Sri Lanka Arrested at Weuda on the Way to Kandy

← Previous: Part 6:  The Apostle of Sri Lanka in Jaffnapattinam

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The Story of Kateri Tekakwitha – the First North American Indian Saint: Part 4


 

Myself . By T.V. Antony Raj

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Statue of Saint Kateri Tekakwitha at the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception, Washington D.C. (Photo: T.V. Antony Raj)
Statue of Saint Kateri Tekakwitha at the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception, Washington D.C. (Photo: T.V. Antony Raj)

Last moments of Kateri Tekakwitha

At the end of 1679, Kateri fell ill. Her afflictions increased day by day. Whenever she was able to leave her cabin, she would go to the chapel and rest on the benches and pray, and when she could support herself she would kneel before the altar.

During the Holy Week of 1680, Tekakwitha’s health was failing overcome by migraine headaches, fever and severe stomach pains accompanied with frequent vomiting.

On Tuesday, April 16, 1680, her friends knew she had, but a few hours left to live. They and the villagers gathered at the longhouse. Kateri was too weak to be moved to the chapel. Father Chauchetière and Cholenec hurried to the longhouse. Father Cholenec gave her Holy Viaticum. Until then, carrying the Blessed Sacrament to a longhouse was unheard of in the village for it was the custom for the sick to be carried on a board of bark to the chapel.

In the morning of Holy Wednesday, April 17, 1680, Kateri’s illness became worse and Father Cholenec administered the last rites – Extreme Unction.

Kateri Tekakwitha died around 3 pm in the arms of her friend Marie-Therèse. Father Chauchetière reports her final words were: “Jesos Konoronkwa” (“Jesus, I love you”).

Death of Kateri Tekakwitha (Source: Blessed Kateri Tekakwitha by Anne E. Neuberger)
Death of Kateri Tekakwitha (Source: Blessed Kateri Tekakwitha by Anne E. Neuberger)

After her death, the people noticed a physical change in her. Father Cholenec later wrote:

Then she had a slight spasm at the right side of her mouth. She died as if she was falling into a light sleep and we were for along time not certain of her death. Sometime before 4 o’clock, her face had suddenly changed and became in a moment so beautiful, smiling and white. Her face had an appearance of a rosy colour, which she never had and her features were not the same. I saw this immediately, because I was praying beside her and cried out for my astonishment. Her face was so scarred with smallpox from the age of four years old, and with her infirmities and mortification contributed to ruin her even more. And before her death she had taken a darken complexion. Her face appeared more beautiful than when she had been living. I will admit openly of the first thought, which came to me that Kateri might have entered into Heaven at this moment. After reflecting back in her chaste body a small ray of glory she had gone to possess.

The day Kateri died, the villagers passed it with an extraordinary devotion. Kateri’s simple compatriots kissed her hands and passed the evening and stayed the rest of the night near her to admire her face that exuded devotion even though her soul was separated from her.

They placed her body in the coffin with a cross in her hands. They did not cover her face until she was buried because of the pleasure people had looking at her.

Appearances after death

In the weeks after her death Kateri Tekakwitha has been said to have appeared before three persons: Kanahstatsi Tekonwatsenhonko (her mentor), Wari Teres Tegaiaguenta (her spiritual companion) and Father Claude Chauchetière.

Kanahstatsi said that, while crying over the death of her daughter, she looked up to see Catherine “kneeling at the foot” of her mattress, “holding a wooden cross that shone like the sun“.

Wari Teres reported that she was awakened at night by a knocking on her wall, and a voice asked if she were awake, adding, “I’ve come to say goodbye; I’m on my way to heaven.” Immediately, she went outside, but saw no one; then, she heard a voice murmur, “Adieu, Adieu, go tell the father that I’m going to heaven.

Chauchetière reported seeing Catherine at her grave; he said she appeared in “baroque splendour; for two hours he gazed upon her” and “her face lifted toward heaven as if in ecstasy.

Tomb of Kateri Tekakwitha (Source: kateritekakwitha.org)
Tomb of Kateri Tekakwitha (Source: kateritekakwitha.org)

Chauchetière had a chapel built near the site of her grave.

The settlers of New France spoke in whispers that a saint had been living among them. The Jesuits ground her bones to dust and placed it in the newly rebuilt mission chapel to symbolize her presence on earth. By 1684, pilgrims started coming to Kahnawake to honour Kateri Tekakwitha. Miracles were attributed to her intercession.

Kateri’s physical remains such as the crucifix she wore, the utensils she ate with, and even dirt from her grave, were all known to affect cures and were used as holy relics for healing.

Father Chauchetière was convinced that he had been in the presence of holiness. He told settlers in La Prairie to pray to Catherine for intercession with illnesses. He wrote the first of his many biographies of Kateri Tekakwitha in 1695. He was followed in 1696 by the equally prolific Father Pierre Cholenec. Through their writing, the legend of Kateri Tekakwitha, the Miracle Worker of the New World, reached across the sea to France and from there to the Vatican. Even the Jesuits in China and their converts, came to know about Kateri’s fame through Father Chauchetière’s writings. At least 300 books have been published in more than 20 languages on the life of Kateri Tekakwitha based on the accounts written by the two Jesuit priests who knew her.

The Jesuits ground her bones to dust and placed it in the newly rebuilt mission chapel to symbolize her presence on earth. Her physical remains were sometimes used as holy relics for healing.

Because of her singular life of chastity, she is often associated with the lily flower, a traditional symbol of purity among Roman Catholics and one often used for the Virgin Mary. Religious images of Tekakwitha are often decorated with a lily and the cross, with feathers or turtle as cultural accessories. Colloquial terms for Tekakwitha are The Lily of the Mohawks, the Mohawk Maiden, the Pure and Tender Lily, the Flower among True Men, the Lily of Purity and The New Star of the New World.

Kateri Tekakwitha’s tribal neighbors praised Kateri Tekakwitha as “the fairest flower that ever bloomed among the red men.” Now, reverence of Kateri Tekakwitha transcends tribal differences. Indigenous North American Catholics have taken her to heart and identify themselves with her by portraying her in their art, and in their own traditional clothing.

Many consider her virtues as an ecumenical bridge between Mohawk and European cultures.

The Canonization of Kateri Tekakwitha

After her death, Tekakwitha became an honorary yet unofficial patroness of Montreal, Canada, and Indigenous peoples of the Americas.

The process for Tekakwitha’s canonization was initiated by the United States Catholics at the Third Plenary Council of Baltimore in 1884. It was followed by the Canadian Catholics.

On January 3, 1943, Pope Pius XII declared her venerable.

She was beatified as Catherine Tekakwitha on June 22, 1980, by Pope John Paul II.

On December 19, 2011, the Congregation for the Causes of Saints certified a second miracle through her intercession, signed by Pope Benedict XVI, that paved the way for her canonization.

On February 18, 2012, Pope Benedict XVI decreed the canonization of that Tekakwitha. Speaking in Latin, he used the form “Catharina Tekakwitha” while the official booklet of the ceremony referred to her in English and Italian, as “Kateri Tekakwitha”.

Kateri Tekakwitha was canonized on October 21, 2012 by Pope Benedict XVI. In the official canonization rite booklet, “Catherine” is used in the English and French biographies and “Kateri” in the translation of the rite itself.

Kateri Tekakwitha is the first Native North American saint and the fourth Native American to be venerated in the Roman Catholic Church after Saint Juan Diego Cuauhtlatoatzin – canonized on July 31, 2002, at the Basilica of Guadalupe, Mexico City by Pope John Paul II, and two other Oaxacan Indians.

 

← Previous – The Story of Kateri Tekakwitha: Part 3

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