In the Eastern Province of Sri Lanka there were two vast barren and abandoned regions. The regions that were inhabited were those which were along the coast or not very distant from the sea. There we had only two missions, which are so distant from one another and from the other missions as well. The two missions are at Trincomalee and at Batticaloa. In the area the people were generally Tamils. Every Sunday there, sermons both in English and Tamil, were given.
In Batticaloa there were also Protestants, Non-Christians and Muslims. Besides, there were, in the hinterland of this province there was a tribe called Veddas. These people have no fixed abode but move about in a vast region called Bintenne. They generally support themselves by hunting.
According to the geographical map of Sri Lanka Batticaloa were 232 miles from Jaffna and 105 from Trincomalee.
Batticaloa proper is a small island in the midst of a salty lake, which is connected with the sea through a channel about three miles long and one fifth of a mile broad and with beautiful banks. The island has a circumference of about three miles. When the Oblate Missionaries went for the first time in 1848, this was the main mission station from where pastoral needs of surrounding areas were looked after. The mission of Batticaloa then consisted of seven churches with about 1,500 Catholics. The old mission of Batticaloa had not enjoyed a good reputation among early missionaries. Some of them had to shake off the dust of that town from their feet and leave for more peaceful pastures. Factional disputes were the main trouble in the mission. There were also other sources of annoyance, and problems. The place was remote and isolated, communications were difficult, and the area was sparsely populated.
The first band Oblate missionaries under the leadership of Fr. Étienne Semeria arrived Sri Lanka, then Ceylon, in 1847; and when they landed in Jaffna on 1 March 1848 Fr. Louis Marie Keating, after a short break to learn Tamil language in Jaffna, was assigned to the mission of Batticaloa. When Fr. Frédéric Mouchel arrived, he was sent to assist Fr. Keating. At that time the missionaries were new to the country and knew little of its ways and idiosyncrasies. Hence, they could not remain there for long.
Fr. Constant Chounavel reached Batticaloa on 4 April 1953, seven months after his arrival in Sri Lanka. Seven months during which he had, so to say, been specially trained for Batticaloa. It is said that he was received with some scorn by the good folk of the place. “We wanted a priest, and they have sent us a mere boy”. But they had to change their mind very Soon.
Fr. Chounavel has left us a record of what he found in Batticaloa. Within the town, Puliyanthivu, itself there were two churches: St. Mary’s and St. Anthony’s, a third, with about 50 Catholics, stood about seven or eight ‘leagues’ away; two hours further on was to be found a fourth church dedicated to St. Joseph, in a somewhat dilapidated condition. Closer to Batticaloa, in another direction, were three other churches: St. Anne’s with 50 Catholics, Our Lady of Dolours, and another to which were attached a few families.
Ignorance, indifference and drunkenness had become chronic and were widely prevalent. The two churches of Batticaloa town were concrete evidence of lack of Christian unity.
Fr. Chounavel, writes Bishop Stephen Semeria, brought to his ministry “an admirable patience, a rare prudence and a zeal that was as active as it was enlightened.” Every Sunday, besides preaching the morning sermon, he conducted two Catechism classes in the afternoon: one for grown-ups and one for children of whom about 200 attended the class regularly.
During his time, a young girl of Batticaloa heard the call to the religious life. She went to India, and received the habit of the Sisters of St. Joseph of Cluny, at Carical.
In the month of May 1854 Batticaloa, perhaps for the first time, saw the church crowded for the evening devotions. Festivals were celebrated with greater pomp, especially the feast of Corpus Christi, introduced by Fr. Constant Chounavel. Several young men acquired the habit of frequenting the Sacraments. Many scandals ceased to exist. Old-standing quarrels were settled. Forty disorderly unions were regularised. A considerable number of persons, who had not approached the Sacraments for years, were led to perform their Easter duties. A Catholic school was established to draw away Catholic children from non-catholic schools. Several Protestants and non-Christians were brought to the bosom of Holy Church. And such was the esteem the new Missionary won from those who had once been inclined to despise him as a greenhorn that whenever a more than usually serious factional dispute arose he had but to threaten to leave Batticaloa, and the disputants would arrive at a settlement. On one occasion when he made the threat the people went so far as to send a petition to Fr. Semeria, the superior, begging him not to remove Fr. Chounavel from Batticaloa.
The work of spiritual renovation thus begun by Fr. Constant Chounavel in 1853 was consolidated and perfected by the great mission preached by the Oblates at Batticaloa in July 1858, at which Fr. Constant Chounavel himself was one of the preachers.
Besides being a powerful preacher, a tireless hunter of souls and a fine organizer, he was also an author, a musician, a sculptor, a painter, an architect, and a mechanic. He provided his poor churches with statues and Stations of the Cross. He composed a collection of Tamil hymns that were in use for a long time. He translated a large portion of the Bible, the history of the Church and books of devotion in Tamil and composed a grammar for the use of the missionaries. In the spirit of Jules Verne, he had even constructed a “magic lantern” all and a tower clock. Fr. Constant Chounavel continued his ministry until he was transferred to Manna mission in 1856.
Fr. Auguste-Marie Rouffiac, another great Oblate missionary of Batticaloa arrived to this mission in 1857. He arrived to Sri Lanka to Jaffna on 22 June 1853; having served at Valigamam for four years came to Batticaloa and rendered his service for 10 years. Fr. Rouffiac turned his attention particularly to the fate of orphans. He built an orphanage where he looked after the needs of the poor children. This was the first establishment of this sort and its realization roused much hope. Bishop Semeria and Fr. Bonjean who was responsible for the work of the Holy Childhood in the Jaffna Vicariate repeatedly congratulated him on what he was able to create for the welfare of the children. During his stay in Batticaloa, Fr. Rouffiac also sought contact with the Veddas, the aboriginal inhabitants of Sri Lanka who lived in the forest of Bintenne, between Kandy and Batticaloa. They were illiterate and uncivilized nomads who lived from hunting in the central mountains. Though he did not have much success in his first attempt, he continued his evangelisation activities among them with hope and optimism. Fr. Rouffiac is considered as one of the great missionaries of Batticaloa. The missionaries of the United Society for the Propagation of the Gospel were astonished at the intense zeal of this Catholic priest in Batticaloa and the surrounding region.
Among those who did pioneer works before 1861, other than Fr. Keating, Fr. Mouchel, Fr. Chounavel and Fr. Rouffiac, Fr. Joseph Laclau-Pussacq, in 1858-1860, Fr. Jean-Marie LeLons in 1860 and Fr. Yves LeCam in 1860, and 1863 were praiseworthy. There were other Oblates Fr. Adrien Saint-Geneys, Fr. Gabriel Joseph Salaün and Fr. Joseph-Marie Ghilini also had been in the mission for short time.
During this period they built six churches for the new communities they established. They also replaced some of the old churches with new ones, notably St. Mary’s Puliyantivu, and the church of Our Lady of Dolours at Thandavanveli, a historic spot associated with the name of Blessed Fr. Joseph Vaz and believed to be the cradle of Catholicism in Batticaloa District.
St. Mary’s Puliyantivu was first built by Paschal Mudaliyar on land donated by him in 1808. This was a very small but substantial building that is now incorporated in the present St. Mary’s as a sacristy. At one time it was used as a girls’ school. In 1867 Fr. Rouffiac added to this old church. He also bought Celestine Odear’s Garden and put up a temporary school. And he built the presbytery of St. Mary’s Church. In 1870, Fr. Francis Xavier, a secular priest, made some repairs to the old church and provided a new altar for it. In 1874 the new St. Mary’s church was begun, Fr. Francis Xavier officially delegated by Bishop Bonjean, laying the cornerstone on July 19, assisted by Fr. Léon Jean-Baptiste Pélissier. Fr. Francis Xavier demolished part of the old church and moved the bells to a new tower built near the apse. There was a clock in this tower, which was made by Fr. Chounavel. In 1890 Fr. Auguste Roux built the two lower walls of the actual church. The church of St. Anthony at Puliyantivu seems to have been built some time before 1800. It is also in the Old Dutch style of construction, with thick walls of random rubble and clay. The original church was a very plain building, which during the time of the Oblate Fathers was embellished with verandas: a sacristy and a room for the mellingy were added.
St. Michael’s College and St. Cecilia’s School, Batticaloa, had their origin under the Oblate regime. Ceylon’s first secular priest, Fr. Francis Xavier, a native of Jaffna, was a truly exceptional person. A son of the soil and fully conversant with the language and customs of the people, a man of great energy and enterprise, he was the founder of St. Michael’s Boy’s English School, St. Cecilia’s Girls’ English School and St. Mary’s Tamil School.
Oblates handed over the mission of Batticaloa to the Congregation of the Society of Jesus with the decree In hac beati Petri issued on 25 August 1893 by Pope Leo XIII setting up two new dioceses in Sri Lanka, Galle and Trincomalee-Batticaloa; both of them were entrusted to the Society of Jesus.
According to the report sent by Bishop Semeria to Propaganda Fide on 03 September 1861, the whole area of Eastern Province of Sri Lanka was 5400 square miles and its total population was about 300,000 in 1860. There were two missionaries in five churches and two chapels with 1992 Catholics in the mission of Batticaloa in 1861. There was a good English school and two vernacular schools.
Jerome Velichor, O.M.I.