A sanctuary of miraculous healing | Sunday Observer
The holy shrine of Our Lady of Madhu

A sanctuary of miraculous healing

16 August, 2020

The renowned Shrine of Our Lady of Madhu has been a place of adoration for devotees of all faiths for nearly 400 years. Catholics in Sri Lanka believe it to be a shrine of miraculous healing power that has bestowed blessings on millions in misery, the destitute and the sick. History has shown that the Shrine of Our Lady of Madhu could widen ethnic harmony and amity with certainty. The shrine has been a symbol of unity not only between the Sinhalese and Tamils but also between the people of different religions. The Bishop of Mannar, Dr. Emmanuel Fernando has made elaborate arrangements for the convenience of pilgrims visiting the holy sanctuary during the August 2020 Madhu Season despite the Covid-19 constraints.

In the liturgical calendar of the Catholic Church, five important feasts that mark important milestones in Blessed Mother Mary’s life are celebrated annually. March 25 is the Annunciation of the Lord when the Angel Gabriel met Mary. July 2 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 the August feast is the most popular at Madhu and the period is known as MadhuSeason.

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 It was she 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.

In 1995, Malcolm Cardinal Ranjith, the Cardinal Archbishop of Colombo preaching at the August Feast said, “the unfortunate battle against terrorism, 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 thus 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.”

In 2001, the Miraculous Statue was taken on a penitential tour to the parishes in Sri Lanka in a spiritual effort to encourage Catholics to pray for peace and an end to the battle against terrorism. Finally, the much-awaited peace dawned in our Motherland in 2009.

Although, the battle against terrorism that has been raging in the country stopped the flow of devotees to the sylvan shrine in the ’80s and ’90s, it nevertheless remained in the hearts of the faithful. In 2010, lights in the Madhu Shrine flickered after many years of darkness and the feasts were celebrated with the usual grandeur.

Powerful symbolism

In 2015, in an act of powerful symbolism, His Holiness Pope Francis visited the revered Shrine. Thousands turned up to greet the Pope and they lined the route as he drove in an open pope mobile, blessing and kissing children on the way.

On entering the shrine, Pope Francis led a prayer service, interspersed with music and hymns. Then, in a brief homily, he said, “every pilgrim can feel at home” at the shrine because “here Mary brings us into the presence of her Son Jesus.”

All Sri Lankans, Tamil and Sinhalese alike, come here “as members of one family” and entrust their hopes to the Mother of Jesus, he said, because “In her home, they feel safe. They know that God is very near; they feel his love; they know his tender mercy.”

He said that there were families present that “suffered greatly in the long conflict which tore open the heart of Sri Lanka,” and in which “many people, from north and south alike, were killed in the terrible violence and bloodshed.” He told them, and his wider audience following on TV, that “No Sri Lankan can forget the tragic events associated with this very place, or the sad day” when the venerable statue “was taken away from her shrine.

”Nevertheless, he said, “Our Lady remained always with you. She is the Mother of every home, of every wounded family, of all who are seeking to return to a peaceful existence.” She never forgets her children, and “just as she never left the side of her Son on the Cross, she never left the side of her suffering Sri Lankans.”

Pope Francis, who had fixed his eyes on the statute several times during the service, told them he wanted to thank Our Lady because “In the wake of so much hatred, violence and destruction, she continues to bring us Jesus, who alone has the power to heal open wounds and to restore peace to broken hearts.”

He asked Our Lady at Madhu “to implore for us the grace of God’s mercy.” At the end of the prayer service, he blessed the people with the revered statue and later placed his own rosary around the neck of Our Lady. He looked visibly moved when at the end of the service the Bishop gave him a wooden replica of that same statue. He took it back to the Vatican as a visible reminder of the sufferings of Sri Lankans from the battle against terrorism, just as he took back from Korea a crown of thorns made from the wire on the fence that divides that peninsula.

Origin of the Madhu Shrine

The growth of the Madhu church is uniquely interesting. Even before the arrival of the Dutch, the Catholics of Mannar underwent oppression at the hands of King Sankili of the Jaffna Kingdom. In 1544, Sankili at Thottaveli in Mannar put more than 500 Catholics of the Kadayar community to the sword.

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, made their way through the thick jungles, and hid the statue in the hollow of a giant palu tree.

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 trees near the Palu tree where the statue was hidden. Madhu means stream and so the area in the thick jungle became known as Marutha Madhu. Soon, it became simply known as Madhu and a spate of miracles associated with the Our Lady of Madhu church began.

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. In addition, 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, Vailankanni or Madjogorie.

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 the Shrine during Madhu seasons.

Therefore, 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. The overarching feeling of being Catholic overwhelmed linguistic identities of the Sinhalese and Tamils and Madhu was one place where the ethnic divide was virtually non-existent.

Background and the humble beginning

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 missionaries introduced Catholicism into the country 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.

Around that time, some Catholics of the West 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 (now St. Joseph Vaz) heard of the sad plight of Sri Lanka’s Catholics, he decided to come to their help. Disguised he came to the island secretly 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 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 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. He had probably 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 Northwestern 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. Moreover, 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 and development of the Shrine

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 the Indian priests who worked in Sri Lanka. It is reported that an Indian missionary, Fr. Antonio de Tavor, rebuilt the church built by Fr. Ferrao at Madhu.

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 near and far to come on pilgrimage to the shrine. The Oblate Bishops of Jaffna who came after the first Bishop Bettacchini, namely, Bishop Stephen Semera (1857-1868) and Bishop Christopher Bonjean (1868-1883) took a special interest towards the growth of the shrine.

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 Theophilus Andrew Melizan (1893-1919), and was completed by his successor, Bishop Henry Julain (1893-1919) with a facade, a 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 Fr. Vaz, Oratorian priests expanded the small shrine in late 17th century. With the arrival of the British to the island, the persecution ceased, but the number of Catholics remained just 50,000 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.

Coronation of Our Lady and the consecration

In 1920, the Bishop of Jaffna, Jules-Andrew Brault (1919-1923) who had a very special devotion to Our Lady of Madhu, obtained the Pope’s sanction for the 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 Sacred Congregation of Propaganda presented the request to the Holy Father who in his audience of April 7, 1921, granted this favour. 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, His Lordship John Alfred Guyomar (1924-1950) the Madhu image was solemnly crowned by the Archbishop of Colombo, Anthony Coudert, officiating as Papal Legate appointed for the occasion by Pope Pius XI.

The crowning became the official Church recognition of a Shrine that had in a way grown from humble beginnings in the 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 for centuries.

In preparation for the consecration, a marble altar replaced the old wooden structure, the whole sanctuary was covered with white and blue marble,and the ceremony took place in 1944.

In spite of travel restrictions and difficulties in finding conveyance because of World War II, more than 30,000 pilgrims trekked to the jungle to grace the occasion.Surely, for centuries, Our Lady of Madhu has touched and healed many Sri Lankanswho flock around her Miraculous Statue seeking solace and respite. May she continue to bless our resplendent isle!

(The author holds a PhD, MPhil and double MSc; his research interests encompasses Olympic Education, Sports and variety of subjects; recipient of National and Presidential Accolades for Academic pursuits; his byline appears regularly since 1988)