Kayts is a small island off the coast of Jaffna peninsula in the North of Sri Lanka. It is surrounded on one side by the sea and on the other by narrow strip of a channel. The mission of Kayts consisted of several islands close to each other, with the exception of Delft (Neduntivu), which was about 20 miles from the main church of this mission.
The mission of Kayts was situated in 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.
According to the 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, in the mission of Kayts comprising of Delft and Punkudutivu had the catholic population of 3804. There were eight churches, of which three were built of stones, of which one was covered with tiles and two with the leaves of palms; the others an built of clay, and covered with the leaves of palms. Three of them were distant from one another by 200 paces; the others were distant from one another by one mile, two miles. Three were dedicated to the Blessed Virgin Mary, one to St James the apostle, another to the Holy Apostles Peter and Paul, another to St Sebastian, two to St Anthony. In the mission of Delft (Neduntivu) there were five churches built of clay and covered with the leaves of the palms; of which one was dedicated to the Blessed Virgin Mary, another to St John the Baptist, another to St Thomas the apostle, another to St Francis Xavier another to St Anthony. One was distant from another by one mile, half a mile, two miles, and three miles.
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 in the vicariate of Jaffna, for which they were destined to, on 10 March 1848.
Bishop Orazio Bettachini sent Fr. Semeria to India on 22 May 1848 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; and to visit and do a study on the ministry of the Jesuits at the College at Negapatam and the Jesuit Seminary at Pondicherry since the Bishop had the idea of opening up of schools in his vicariate. As a result Bishop Alexius Canoz S.J., the Vicar Apostolic of Trichinopoly, first sent his own vicar general, Fr. Castanier, S.J., to Jaffna at the end of May 1848. And then Fr. Bruni, S.J. came to the vicariate in January 1849 to replace him. In March 1849 Bishop Orazio Bettachini decided to give the missions of Kayts and Mannar to Jesuits. Thus two Jesuits were sent by Bishop Canoz to the mission of Kayts in May 1849. They were Fr. Frédéric Rapatel, S.J., and Fr. Vuillermet, S.J.; but they remained in this mission only till the end of August 1849. Another two Jesuits who came to replace them on 27 August 1949 in the mission of Kayts were Fr. Frederic Maria Cortes, S.J. and Fr. Silvain Laurent, S.J. Some others also came later but for short time until 1852 when the Jesuits withdrew all their men from the Vicariate of Jaffna. Fr. Giovanni Vistarini, an Italian secular priest, was assigned to the vacant mission of Kayts.
In the mean time in August 1855, Bishop Orazio Bettachini made a proposal to Fr. Semeria, the superior of the Oblates, to divide, so to say, the vicariate of Jaffna into two parts and to entrust one that was the Northern and the Eastern Provinces exclusively to the Oblates, while the non-Oblate missionaries would have the charge of the missions of the North-Western Province. In this arrangement the Vicar Apostolic would retain the high supervision over all the missions of the vicariate, but in the two provinces entrusted to the Oblates we would be governed by the Oblates. The superior of the Oblates would be free to dispose his men as he thought best and to obtain the new missionaries at their own expense. But, Fr. Semeria, the superior of the Oblates, was not in favour of this suggestion since it would bring division among the missionaries. Although this arrangement was not accepted Fr. Semeria was given the responsibility to assign his men as he thought best in the missions of Northern and Eastern provinces. In the Northern Province except the mission of Kayts all other missions were in the hand of the Oblates in 1855. Thus, Fr. Constant Chounavel, o.m.i., was assigned to the mission of Kayts in August 1855 replacing Fr. Giovanni Vistarini. He was the first Oblate to go this mission. But soon Fr. Joseph Vivier, o.m.i., fell ill at Mantotta and he needed a change of climate. So, Fr. Vivier was assigned to the mission of Kayts, and Fr. Chounavel was sent to Mantotta in the same month. Yet Fr. Vivier had to leave the country at the end of 1856.
In 1857 Fr. Jean Le Bescou, o.m.i., went to the mission of Kayts, where he had to face many difficulties on account the schismatics. Kayts was an important base of the schismatics in Jaffna. Some of the Padroadite Goanese 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. Rev. J. V. Viegas was a resident schismatic priest in Kayts with his group since 1852 but just left the place only few years before.
Parish grand Mission
When Bishop Semeria after his consecration on 17 August 1856 began conducting Missions in the chief centres of the Northern Vicariate, Fr. Le Bescou he joined him and played an important and fruitful role. Bishop Semeria chose first some centres where there was more urgent necessity for such Missions, especially those centres that were badly hit by schismatics in his vicariate. Bishop Semeria described his concern in his diary as “the needs were everywhere pressing and I had with me just two Missionaries to accompany me and to help me in so difficult a work. Common sense told me that I must begin with the place where the needs were the most pressing for it is those who are the most sick who need the physician very badly and immediately. Therefore I preferred the mission of Kayts to others. Since a long time this poor mission was in a truly deplorable state. The schism, which had found its way here and had lasted for one and a half years, had left in its trail very clear and profound traces. In spite of the departure of the schismatic priest, some of his adherents had not yet given any proof of a sincere conversion of heart. There was something more another schism seemed imminent. The Catholics were divided into two hostile camps.” The Mission began on 19 September 1857. The people enthusiastically welcomed missionaries; but the following day people did not show much interest in the proceedings. But, the missionaries did not lose heart; they accelerated it more. The Mission lasted full forty days, from 19 September to 29 October 1857. During this holy period, Holy Communion was distributed to more than 1200 grown-up persons; about a hundred children received First Communion while 350 persons of all ages were confirmed by Bishop Semeria. The greatest work of the Mission was the mutual reconciliation of the two hostile factions at Kayts. A list of regulations concerning the affairs of the various churches of the district was read out on the order of the Bishop and then all the people signed it in front of a Crucifix and the Holy Bible, which they invoked as a pledge of their fidelity. As a monument to the triumph of Faith and of grace a great Mission Cross was planted in front of the church. On the one side of the pedestal were engraved the words “Mission of 1857” while on the other side there was just one word “Pax”.
Fr. Le Bescou was succeeded by Fr. Jean Pouzin, o.m.i., began his long missionary career in the mission of Kayts in 1859. The mission of Kayts was then comprised of Kayts, Karampon, Mandaitivu, Naranthanai, Allaipity, Punkudutivu and Delft. Even though there had been a Parish Mission preached in Kayts by the Oblate Fathers in the previous year, with very good results, the grace of God had found resistance in some places. Fr. Pouzin visited those places first won their hearts and brought them back to God. Among the other pastors in this mission Fr. Marie-Louis Boisseau, o.m.i., was remarkable. He was sent to the mission of Kayts in 1871. When he was at Kayts, he put up a residence for the teaching Brothers of St. Joseph to take charge of the school at Naranthanai in 1873. In the same year, he also built the presbyteries at Allaipity and Mandaitivu.
According to the report sent by Bishop Semeria to Propaganda Fide on 03 September 1861 there were six churches and ten chapels with 5,930 Catholics.
The mission of Kayts is now in the Diocese of Jaffna. Bishop Semeria, in the Vicariate of Jaffna, was succeeded by Bishop Ernest Christophe Bonjean, o.m.i., 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 in the diocese. Hence, the presence of the Oblates still continues involving in various ministries in the diocese of Jaffna.
Jerome Velichor, o.m.i.