1. The arrival of the Oblates
  2. Oblates in various fields
  3. Mission with dying
  4. Education ministry
  5. Servant of the servants
  6. Great renewal in the mission
  7. Care of children

Jaffna was the head of the whole Northern or Jaffna Vicariate and the residence of the Vicar Apostolic. It was situated in the so-called peninsula of Jaffna and was separated from the island of Sri Lanka by a narrow channel. On account of the fertility of its soil and the density of its population this peninsula was superior to the other regions of the Northern Province. The inhabitants were mostly Tamils and much less Muslims. Both Tamils and Muslims spoke Tamil language.

Jaffna was the capital city of the Northern Province. The Northern Province, Eastern Province, North-western Province are the three, out of the six provinces into which the civil administration of then Ceylon was divided, formed together the Northern or Jaffna Vicariate. The Northern Province had the area of 5,427 square miles and the total population was 315,000 in 1861. Each province was divided into various missions. The mission of Jaffna was one of the three missions in the Jaffna peninsula.

According to a report on ‘The Various Missions of Ceylon’ sent on 12 February 1844 to propaganda Fide by the Vicar Apostolic of Ceylon, Bishop Caetano Antonio, a Goan Oratorian, the mission of the city of Jaffna there were 3290 Catholics, distributed in ten churches, of which seven were built of stones and covered with tiles; three were covered with the leaves of the palm. The principal church was dedicated to the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary, distant from the fort (Dutch fort of Jaffna) by about one mile. Another, dedicated to the Blessed Virgin Mary of Refuge, was 500 paces (yards) distant from the fort and 600 paces from the principal church. Another dedicated to St James the Apostle was 600 paces from the fort and 400 paces from the principal church; another dedicated to the Blessed Virgin Mary of Miracles was 200 paces from the principal church. Another dedicated to St John the Baptist was distant on the other side from the principal church by 400 paces; another to St Anthony, distant on the other side from the principal church by 400 paces; another to the Blessed Virgin Mary of the Rosary, distant from the principal by one mile and 200 paces; another dedicated to St Nicholas, distant one mile from the church of the Blessed Virgin Mary of Refuge; another dedicate St Sebastian, 400 paces distant from the church of St Nicholas; another dedicated to the Holy Apostles Peter and Paul, distant from the church of St Sebastian by four miles. There were ten very small churches, made of clay and with a thatched roof in the sub-mission of lrannadivu, which was part of the mission of the city of Jaffna; there were ten very small churches, made of clay and with a thatched roof. One was distant from another by six miles, twelve miles, eight miles, and sixteen miles. Four were dedicated to the Blessed Virgin Mary, four to St Anthony, two to St. James the apostle.

The arrival of the Oblates
It was in November 1847 the missionaries of the Oblates of Mary Immaculate arrived in Sri Lanka on the invitation of the newly appointed Vicar Apostolic of Jaffna Bishop Orazio Bettachini, an Italian Oratorian. The first band of four Oblates under the superior-ship of Fr. Étienne Semeria, o.m.i., landed Jaffna, for which they were destined to, on 10 March 1848. When they arrived in Jaffna, an enthusiastic welcome was accorded by the Catholics of the town and the neighbouring villages to the missionaries who were coming to them in the name of the Lord. Fr. Semeria, Fr. Louis Mary Keating, o.m.i., and Bro. Gaspard De Steffanis, o.m.i., remained with the Bishop at his residence. They applied themselves seriously to the study of Tamil language. Fr. Semeria helped Bishop Bettachini in writing his personal, pastoral or circular letters. Bro. De Steffanis looked after the temporal and material matters of the house.

From the day he reached Jaffna till the hour of his fatal malady, the life of Bro. de Steffanis was one of incessant toil, care and devotedness. For 31 years he was charged with the management of the temporal affairs of the Jaffna Mission – a difficult and delicate office which he fulfilled with tact and skill peculiarly his own. His character and his affable manners easily won for him the hearts of all with whom he came into contact. Apart from the vast and invaluable service he rendered to the Mission in the intelligent supervision of its temporal concerns, he was equally a champion of the cause of Christ. He wrought secretly, yet persistently and effectually, also much spiritual good. By his kindness, his good advice, counsel, exhortations and his generosity, how many had been snatched from a life of dishonour, how many sinners had been induced to change their lives and return to God.

In the meantime, Fr. Semeria proposed to the Vicar Apostolic to establish a Seminary in the Vicariate to train seminarians, catechists and religion teachers. But Bishop Bettachini was more interested in opening an English School for the Catholic children; and sent Fr. Semeria to India on 22 May 1848 to visit and do a study on the ministry of the Jesuits at the College at Negapatam and the Jesuit Seminary at Pondicherry; and to look for a possibility of getting two Jesuits who knew their Tamil to accompany him on his pastoral visitation for a year or two. As a result Bishop Alexius Canoz S.J., the Vicar Apostolic of Trichinopoly, sent his own vicar general, Fr. Castanier, S.J., to Jaffna at the end of May 1848. He was helping Bishop Bettachini in his pastoral visit, at the same time, was looking for in Jaffna an opportunity of erecting a college for Jesuits of their own. Fr. Bruni S.J. came to the vicariate in January 1849 to replace him. In March 1849 Bishop Bettachini decided to give the mission of Kayts and Mannar to Jesuits. Thus four more Jesuits came to the vicariate and worked until 1852.

Oblates in various fields
On 08 September 1848 Fr. Semeria was officially appointed Secretary, the post equivalent to that of Vicar General, of Bishop Bettachini and the pastor of the mission of Jaffna, with Fr. Keating as his assistant. When Fr. Jean Le Bescou, o.m.i., arrived in Sri Lanka newly in May 1849, he was assigned to assist in the mission of Jaffna while Fr. Keating was transferred to the mission of Batticaloa.

In the mean time Bishop Bettachini divided the old mission of Jaffna into three divisions in August 1849. The first comprised the main church of the town (St. Mary’s Cathedral), and the churches of James and St. Mary of Gurunagar, the second comprised the churches of Our Lady of Refuge, St. Nicholas of Navanturai, St. Peter of Navali, and the third comprised the churches of St. Anthony of Passaiyoor, St. John of Chundikuli, and the churches along the sea coast up to the mission of Mannar. Fr. Semeria and Fr. Le Bescou were assigned to the first and the second divisions respectively and Fr. Cesare Mola, a Lombardy-Italian secular priest, was given the third.

The Oblate missionaries were very active and worked untiringly to promote particularly the religious instruction to the children and the adults. The ignorance of the Christians in the religious truths was alarmingly big in the last decades because of the lack of regular and proper instruction. Gradually a remarkable improvement was noticed. There was more increasing attendance to Sunday mass, frequent reception of the sacraments; much public scandalous behaviour was corrected to a certain extent. Fr. Semeria wrote in 1850,’’Great good is being accomplished and will continue to be accomplished. Jaffna furnishes us with a proof of this. Formerly the most fervent Catholics confessed hardly for Easter and these fervent souls were rare; but now we have daily in our church about 30 communions. Before this time, the Blessed Sacrament was not even reserved in the church, but at present several persons pay a daily visit to the Most Blessed Sacrament. In the preceding years, when the repository was erected on Holy Thursday, Our Lord was often left quite alone and I was indignant at this; this year all throughout the day and night the chapel was almost full. Formerly it was impossible to gather together the children for catechism; for the last two years I have been successful and today even elderly persons assist at the reunions quite spontaneously. In a short time I have baptized from 60 to 70 adults.”

Mission with dying
There was an outbreak of cholera epidemic in August 1849 in Jaffna and its suburbs. Jaffna, which had been a town full of life and activity suddenly, turned into a ghost town. Work was suspended, schools were deserted, and the streets were empty. The happy homes became heart-rending scenes. Many families were totally or partially destroyed. There was hardly a family that was not affected by the dread disease. There was fear, fright, mourning and weeping everywhere. The people were helpless and desperate. Fr. Semeria in a letter to Bishop Eugene de Mazenod in October 1850 explained: “we, Fr. Le Bescou and myself, are in Jaffna in the midst or great desolation, surrounded by the dead and the dying struck by that terrible plague of God, the morbus cholera. The outbreak of this cruel disease occurred in Jaffna on the feast of the Assumption. Each and every day since then, the disease has caused a certain number of victims. Only a few of those affected by the disease have survived. Every day, we have 10, 12, 15, 18 and even 22 deaths.’’ In September 1850, in the midst of their dedicated ministry, Fr. Semeria and his assistants, Fr. Le Bescou and Bro. De Steffanis, caught the infection, but Providence came to their rescue and spared their life. The epidemic continued for five long years, and Fr. Semeria and his men continued their relief work with heroic dedication. In March 1855, Fr. Semeria exhorted the people to recourse to Mary Immaculate whose dogma was just promulgated on 08 December 1854 by Pope Pius IX, in order to obtain through her intercession, a cessation of the epidemic. He himself organized a Triduum, which was held on 05, 06, and 07 March in St. Mary’s Cathedral, Jaffna. The whole town participated and each day’s devotions closed with a gigantic penitential procession. On the last day of the Triduum, no new cases of cholera or any deaths occurred, and that was the end of the epidemic. Fr. Semeria was ever thankful to the Immaculate Virgin for this great miracle. The people of Jaffna were ever grateful to the Fr. Semeria and his missionaries for their help and sacrifice in the time of their desperation.

Education ministry
Bishop Bettachini took much interest in catholic education of the children in his mission. It was in about the year 1850 Bishop Bettachini founded two English schools namely the Jaffna Boys’ Seminary (now it is St. Patrick’s college) and the Jaffna Female Seminary (now it is Holy Family Convent School). Fr. Semeria took much interest in it and played a key role in its establishment, and it was because of his effort the schools started receiving an annual grant of 150 pounds from the Government from 1851. This grant went a long way to improve and maintain these schools and to provide the Catholic children with better educational facilities. It was Fr. Léon Charles Mauroit, o.m.i., who became the first manager of the Jaffna Boys’ Seminary.

In January 1851, Fr. Semeria founded in Jaffna the Association of St. Joseph. The objective of the Association was to instruct the ignorant Christians, to induce lax Christians to attend Sunday Mass and approach the Sacraments, to make known the truths of Faith to non-Christians and prepare the well disposed for Baptism. In 14 September 1851 Fr. Le Bescou OMI was transferred to the other division of the mission of Jaffna. He was entrusted the churches of St. Anthony of Passaiyoor, St. John of Chundikuli, Kilaly and the churches along the sea coast up to the mission of Mannar. But, in the following year with the transfer of Fr. Le Bescou from the mission of Jaffna, Bishop Bettachini made again the mission of Jaffna together in 1852, which was divided into three in 1849. And now Fr. Semeria and Fr. Louis Mary Keating, o.m.i. made in charge of whole of the mission of Jaffna. In September 1853, the churches of Mullaitivu were also attached to the mission of Jaffna and given to a team of Oblates of Fr. Semeria, Fr. Mauroit and Fr. Victor Lacombe, o.m.i. The churches of Mullaitivu had been kept attached to the mission of Jaffna until 1857. This was the first mission to Fr. Lacombe. He was very energetic priest, always joyous and courageous. While engaged himself in learning the language he committed himself in working among the cholera-stricken people. When he was transferred to the mission of Valikamam, Fr. Léon Jean-Baptiste Pélissier, o.m.i. was sent to join the team in the mission of Jaffna in August 1855. Fr. Pélissier had been in the mission only for a year.

Servant of the servants
When Fr. Semeria was succeeded Bishop Bettachini as Vicar Apostolic of Jaffna on 26 July 1857, Fr. Mauroit succeeded Fr. Semeria as Pastor of the mission of Jaffna. He was assisted temporally by Fr. Frédéric Mouchel, o.m.i., until Fr. Jean Pouzin, o.m.i., was given in September 1857. Fr. Mauroit had been in the mission from September 1853. He was an apostle of the Sacred Heart and during his stay in Jaffna. He propagated a special devotion to the Sacred Heart among the people. It was during his stay in Jaffna that a cholera epidemic broke out in the district of Jaffna for the second time in 1862 and continued for many years. Fr. Mauroit risked his own life, and went out to the help of the poor victims. Day and night he was on the move, going from place to place attending to their spiritual and corporal needs. He heard their confessions, administered the last Sacraments, and baptized some pagan victims, without any rest or sleep. Finally, in July 1864, he himself contracted the deadly disease. Everyone thought that it was the end of him, but he recovered miraculously and continued his ministry.

Fr. Mauroit served as Pastor of the mission of Jaffna for eleven years, till 1868, when he was appointed Secretary to Bishop Ernest Christophe Bonjean, o.m.i., who had succeeded Bishop Semeria as Vicar Apostolic of Jaffna on 04 July 1868. In 1857, Fr. Mauroit was appointed Procurator of the Vicariate of Jaffna. In 1859, he went to Europe as delegate of the Oblates in Sri Lanka and to take the offerings of the people of Jaffna to the Holy Father. On his return, in addition to his duty as the Procurator, he was also appointed Manager of the Catholic Press and Vicar General, which posts he held till his death. On his return from Europe, he took up residence at St. James’ church, Gurunagar and was the Pastor of that church for several years. He was the designer and the architect of present stately church of St. James, perhaps the best in Jaffna. He laid the foundation for it on 25 July 1861. The beautiful dome was completed in 1876. The present presbytery was begun in 1889 and completed three years later.

Great renewal in the mission
With the beginning of the year 1859 the mission of Jaffna was born again by a great renewal. The mission band, which was comprised of great and energetic missionaries Bishop Semeria, Fr. Bonjean and Fr. Constant Chounavel, o.m.i., inaugurated the great Parish Mission on 26 December 1858. Thus Bishop Semeria recorded it: “The dawn of the New Year saw the Grand Mission, inaugurated at Jaffna on the 26 December under the auspices of my glorious Patron, St. Stephen, in full swing. Having been a missionary in this town for nearly eight years, I was well aware of all its needs of which one can form an idea by just casting a glance at what I have already written on the subject. Even though the spiritual needs which I noticed at Jaffna were great and of such a nature as to incite me to begin our ministry of preaching Missions with the capital of the Northern Vicariate, nevertheless, owing to difficulties of all sorts of which I was equally aware, I thought it more expedient to put it off for some time. I wished the Catholics of the town to see for themselves the immense good accomplished by the Missioners in other places and thus demand from us quite spontaneously the same great grace for themselves.” Fr. Christophe Bonjean explained his own experience in the mission of Jaffna as “what was not then our surprise – what was not our joy to see the people participating with a most remarkable enthusiasm in all the exercises of the Mission! This enthusiasm was all the more edifying for us and the more meritorious for our Catholics because very heavy showers of rain, such as could be seen only in the tropics, fell almost without any interruption during the last days but they did not by any means succeed in cooling down the zeal of the people. From all sides the faithful were seen hastening under a beating rain and then remaining in the church in spite of their wet clothes. One day it rained so heavily after the morning exercises that it was absolutely impossible for the people to leave the church; they wished to have another sermon but, as the Fathers had already retired to their cells, they spent the time in an excellent manner in making the Way of the Cross. We had ordinarily more than 1,000 and at times 1,500 people very remarkable figure if only we were to bear in mind that many persons were able to come for the Mission only alternatively as someone was needed to stay at home to guard the house. Moreover the majority of our Catholics are poor fishermen, depending on their daily work for their bread; a day without a catch of fish meant for them a day of complete fast.” The Mission was successfully completed on 27 February 1859.

Care of children
Bishop Semeria after the taken charge of the vicariate inaugurated the policy of entrusting schools to Religious Orders or Congregations in 1859 – a measure that made not only for the increased efficiency of the schools but also for their future stability. This policy was inaugurated when the Oblates themselves took charge of the Jaffna Boys’ Seminary with Bro. Joseph Brown, o.m.i., as its Principal in 1859. He was assisted by Bro. Robert Byrne, o.m.i., Bishop Semeria got down these two Oblate Brothers from the Oblate Province of England for the teaching staff of the Jaffna Boys’ Seminary. In 1862, two more Brothers Patrick Conway, o.m.i., and Roland Dowling, o.m.i., joined the teaching staff of the Seminary. In regard to Catholic Girls’ Seminary, Bishop Semeria got down, on 2 November 1862, the Religious Sisters of the Congregation of the Holy Family of Bordeaux, France, who took charge of the Female Seminary and the Orphanage, which had been managed by Mrs. O’Flannagan. This was the first time in the history of Sri Lanka that a community of Religious Sisters came to serve in the country. With regard to vernacular education, Bishop Semeria set up the ideal that to every church there should be attached a vernacular school, or rather two: one for boys and one for girls. In order to provide these schools with good teachers and to better ensure their stability and Catholic character, Bishop Semeria took the initiative and established two Diocesan Congregations of Sri Lankan men (on 17 April 1864), and women (on 27 January 1865) to undertake teaching in vernacular schools. The nuns of the Holy Family took charge of the formation of the Sri Lankan Sisters (the Sisters of St. Peter), while the Oblate Fathers themselves assumed the direction of the community Sri Lankan Brothers (the Brothers of St. Joseph).

Bishop Semeria, in 1859, opened the first catholic parish library in Jaffna. This library had two sections: one with English books and the other with Tamil books. Its purpose was to satisfy the great desire for reading English books manifested by the natives and at the same time to prevent the reading of heretical books published and spread by the Protestant societies. In 1861, he established the Orphanage of St. Joseph with the help of the Society of the Holy Childhood, for the benefit of the orphan children of Catholic and non-catholic. At the end of the Grand Mission preached at Jaffna in 1859, there were many non-Catholics, moved by the grace of God, wanted to join the Catholic Church. Among them were many young boys and girls. The Society of the Holy Childhood became the mother of these poor children. In April 1860, Fr. Bonjean took charge of those boys, while Mrs. O’Flannagan took charge of those girls. Thus an orphanage for boys and another for girls were opened in Jaffna to cater to the need of these poor children. The beginning was a humble one: small huts made out of coconut leaves. The children themselves, with the help of some elders, put up the huts. Prayer, study, work and recreation were the main programme for the day. Then Fr. Christophe Bonjean introduced little, little trades, such as rolling cigars, making rosaries, making candles, binding books, gardening etc. These industries brought regular income for the maintenance of the orphans. Very soon there were noticeable changes in the manners, conduct, morality and life of these children. The happiest days for Fr. Bonjean were the days when these children received Baptism and First Communion. As the number of the children in the orphanage increased daily, Fr. Bonjean with the help of the Society of the Holy Childhood bought a beautiful property of 14 acres at Colombuthurai (Colombogam), along the seashore. The girls were taken by the Holy Family Sisters to their Convent and the boys were taken to Colombuthurai in 1863. Thus Fr. Bonjean became the Founder-Director of the Colombuthurai Orphanage. It was placed under the management of the Brothers of St. Joseph. When Fr. Bonjean was in charge of the orphanage, he took Bro. Patrick O’Flannagan, o.m.i., with him at Colombuthurai. Fr. O’Flannagan was later ordained on 19 December 1871. Then in 1874 he became the director of St. Joseph’s Orphanage, Colombuthurai.

During the third quarter of the 19th century, a remarkable Irish family was rendering great service to the Church in the Jaffna Vicariate. Warrant Officer O’Flannagan was posted to Trincomalee in 1848, possibly with H.M. 37th Regiment of Foot. He died not long after his arrival, leaving his wife, Mary Anne, and at least two children. Later Mrs. O’Flannagan, on the invitation of Bishop Bettachini went to Jaffna and started a school for girls. Then the Holy Family Sisters took charge of this school in 1862. Meanwhile her son, Patrick O’Flannagan, had joined the Oblate Congregation in 1862, and her daughter, Catherine O’Flannagan, the Holy Family Sisters in 1863, becoming Sister Marie-Louis.

When Bishop Semeria and Fr. Bonjean went to Rome to attend the General Chapter in 1867, Fr. Marie-Louis Boisseau, o.m.i., was recalled to Jaffna and sent to the Colombuthurai Orphanage to replace Fr. Bonjean on the 15 April 1867. It was under him that the first Catholic Printing Press was set up at Colombuthurai.

The mission of Jaffna also faced threats from the schismatic Goan priests during the period of 1853 – 1860. Some of the Padroadite Goan priests did not accept the transfer of the Church of Sri Lanka from the Padroado system to Propaganda by Pope Urban VIII and establishing it as an Apostolic Vicariate, detached from Cochin and coming under the direct jurisdiction of the Congregation of Propaganda Fide. The conflict between Padroado and Propaganda developed into a Schism in Sri Lanka and did immense harm to the Catholic Church. Some of the Padroadites returned to their country but some others remained and gave endless troubles to the missionaries sent by the Propaganda. These priests made some contacts with the Catholics at St. Anthony’s Church, Passaiyoor, St. James’ Church Jaffna, and the church of Our Lady of Refuge, Jaffna and created immense disturbances to the mission.

According to the report sent by Bishop Semeria to Propaganda Fide on 03 September 1861 there were seven churches and thirteen chapels with 7,100 Catholics of whom many live a good Christian life. There were in Jaffna two English schools. The boys’ school, which was under direction of Brothers Oblates of Mary Immaculate, had 89 boys, of whom 10 were boarders. In the girls’ school there were 33 girls, of whom 12 were boarders. Beside these schools there were six vernacular schools attached to the other churches in the mission. According to the same report, to the Mission of Jaffna belonged four very small Catholic communities living close to the sea along the road from Jaffna to Mantotta. To this mission belonged also the small island of Iranaitivu, about 25 miles from Jaffna. All were Catholics in it, but were simple and good but very poor. The Catholics were about two hundreds.

In the Vicariate of Jaffna Bishop Semeria was succeeded by Bishop Ernest Bonjean in July 1868. The oblate succession continued until the time Bishop Jerome Emilianus Pillai, o.m.i., who passed away on 17 July 1972. He was the last Oblate Bishop. Hence, the presence of the Oblates still continues involving in various ministries in the diocese of Jaffna.

Jerome Velichor, o.m.i.