50 Stars of Christmas : Velankanni – The Very Indianised Church
When it comes to naming a church in south India, the first name that predominantly strikes anybody is Velankanni Church in Tamil Nadu. Located in the coastal town Nagipattanam, this church is very famous among all the people irrespective of they being Christians or not. It is popular as Basilica of Our Lady of Good Health and fondly known as the ‘Lourdes of the East’ because like Lourdes in France, millions of pilgrims visit the Shrine throughout the year, praying to Our Lady for various needs and thanking her for the favors received through her intercession.
Tradition recounts that Mother Mary appeared with the Infant Jesus in this small hamlet at the end of the 16th or in the early 17th century. Ever since, Velankanni is the most important destination and almost the synthesis of all Marian Sanctuaries for the pilgrims of the world. The crowds of pilgrims come here regardless of creeds and languages. Our Lady of Velankanni devotions down through the centuries have proved the Shrine to be of divine origin and has assumed international character. Mary, the focus of unity at Velankanni, is a clear proof of international, multicultural, and religious harmony.
History of Velankanni
The first person to refer to Velankanni in historical documents is Fr. Paulo de Trinidad an OFM priest. In his chronicle in the year 1630, he writes:
“… And two leagues (about six miles) from Nagapattinam in the direction of Mannar (i.e. towards South), we have another Christian settlement, of which one of our Religious has charge and the Church is under the Patronage of our Lady of Health…” (Paulo de Trinidad, 111, 68).
In 1771 Fr. Antonio de Rozario, the last Parish Priest of the church of the Immaculate Conception, was appointed as the first Parish Priest of Velankanni, which was then raised to the status of an independent parish. Till then, the parish of Velankanni was a substation of the parish of Nagapattinam, and Nagapattinam had always been under the ecclesiastical jurisdiction of the Bishop of the Diocese of Mylapore. During that period the Diocese of Mylapore was administered under the Portuguese ‘Padroado’ (patronage). Under the Padroado system, the king of Portugal in Europe met all the expenses incurred by the Diocese of Mylapore, which remained under the ecclesiastical jurisdiction of the Roman Pontiffs.
Until 1847 the priests of St. Franciscan Missionaries who had looked after the province of Goa and Mylapore also looked after Nagapattinam and Velankanni. The Franciscan origin and ownership of the Shrine was also perpetuated, by giving the place of honor to two Franciscan saints, St. Anthony of Lisbon and St. Francis of Assisi, on either side of the miraculous image of ‘Our Lady’, on the High Altar until 1961. Besides the last parish priest, Miguel Francisco Fernandez, who was of the Franciscan order, controlled the parish of Velankanni till 1889.
In the year 1949 this dual system came to an end: the Portuguese patronage of the Diocese of Mylapore was ended and placed under the direct control of the Roman Pontiff.
The Diocese of Mylapore was in charge of the mission in this area until 1952. It was in that year that Thanjavur, a Cauvery-fed basin, became a new and independent Diocese called the “Diocese of Thanjavur.” Thanjavur town was chosen to be the headquarters of the new Diocese. In November 1952, when the new Diocese of Thanjavur came into being, the Diocesan Priests of Thanjavur became the custodians of the Shrine Velankanni. The administration of the new Diocese was temporarily placed under the apostolic administration of the Rt. Rev. Dr. Louis Mathias, S.D.B., who was then the Archbishop of the new Archdiocese of Madras-Mylapore.
On March 19, 1953, His Excellency the Rev. Dr. R. Arokiasamy Sundaram, DD., L. C. L., M. A., a priest of Mylapore Archdiocese was appointed as the first Bishop of the new Diocese of Thanjavur. He assumed charge of his Diocese on March 24, 1953.
Velankanni being situated in the Thanjavur District came under the jurisdiction of the Diocese of Thanjavur. The Rev. Dr. R. Arokiasamy Sundaram showed keen interest in the development of Velankanni Shrine and granted special spiritual privileges. ‘Our Lady of Health Velankanni’ became the second patroness of our newly erected Diocese.
One of the oldest Catholic institutions here, the Church of Our Lady of Lourdes was built in the 19th century to cater to the needs of the growing Tamil Catholic community in colonial Singapore.
Its neo-Gothic design was heavily influenced by the architecture of its European counterpart, the Basilica of the Immaculate Conception in Lourdes, in France.
Former parish priest Ignatius John Aloysius said the structural likeness reflects the basilica, built to commemorate a series of 18 miracles that transpired in Lourdes over a five-month span in 1858.
Lourdes is geographically distant and few Catholics are able to ever make the journey there. So the French missionaries probably thought it would be a good idea to have a church dedicated to Lourdes here.
The church opened its doors to its 400-strong ethnic Indian congregation in 1888, and also provided education and welfare services to poor and needy Indians.
Although the church is now for all Catholics… it still has a special place for the Tamil-speaking Catholics because of its rich history.
Its location near Serangoon Road was deliberately chosen as the area had been an enclave for Indian immigrants since the 19th century. In 1974, the church authorities opened it to Catholics of all ethnicities and languages.
The Indian influence on this church, however, is apparent as religious services are still conducted in both Tamil and English – with weekly Tamil masses held on Sunday at 9.30am and 6.30pm. Although the church is now for all Catholics irrespective of their race or nationality, it still has a special place for the Tamil-speaking Catholics because of its rich history spanning over 120 years.
Local shrines play an especially important and visible role in Indian Catholic towns, and parish feasts can attract visitors from some distance. In addition to these many local sites, there are several important pilgrimage sites that draw pilgrims from a distance. The most important of these is Our Lady of Velankanni (or Vailankanni), an enormous basilica shrine referred to by many Indians as the “Lourdes of the East,” which is said to draw millions of visitors a year, especially at Christmas and during the shrine’s feast in the nine days leading up to September 8. Pilgrims come in parish groups or as families, to make or fulfill vows, to offer penance or seek a miracle, or simply, as many say, to “find peace” and to connect with “mother Mary.”
Velankanni is “Our Lady of Health,” and devotees claim that miracles from her continue today. Like most Indian shrines, there is a “museum” of gifts and plaques left behind as offerings to attest to miracles received there. Silver ex-votos there symbolize healing of hearts, eyes, legs and more. Stethoscopes with notes thank the Virgin for help passing medical school exams, and a small silver airplane accompanies a thank you note for passing a pilot’s exam. Many small replicas of houses thank her for help finding a house, and pictures and silver cradles give thanks for a suitable marriage or for the birth of a child. One woman interviewed at the shrine, a frequent visitor, said she witnessed to an occasion when an elderly lame woman was able to get up and walk, and another time when a deaf girl had an apparition and was able to hear again.
Timeline of Velankanni till date
- The history of Our Lady of Good Health, Vailankanni, dawned in the 16th century
- In September 1771, Vailankanni which had been a substation of Nagapattinam Parish, was raised to the status of a Parish.
- The majestic Shrine facing the East, was renovated twice in 1920 and 1933.
- His Holiness Pope John the XXIII, raised the Shrine to the status of ‘Basilica’ on the 3rd November 1962. The apparitions of Our Lady, the Miraculous statue of Our Lady, the countless miracles, the magnificent architecture and beauty of the Shrine, were the motives for this Shrine to become a Basilica.
- The storeyed extension Basilica was blessed and opened in 1975.
- In 1985, the little Chapel at Our Lady’s Tank, was built a new and blessed.