Mannar is the largest island, off the northwestern coast of Sri Lanka, linked to the mainland by a causeway. It lies at the eastern end of Adam’s Bridge, a chain of shoals. Mannar Island has an area of about 50 square miles (130 square km), has a length of 20 or 22 miles, and a with of one mile in some places and of one and a half miles in other places. It is a dry and barren island; the area is sandy.
There is a rather strong tradition that the Gospel was preached in the island by one Fr. Francis Xavier. The tradition says that St. Francis Xavier was invited from India by the inhabitants of Mannar, but since he could not go, he sent another priest who was known as Francis Xavier to instruct and baptize them. Around the year 1544 the King of Jaffna, called Sankily, put those who had been converted, about 650, confessing their faith in Jesus Christ, to death. The holy blood of martyrs was poured on this soil. So much so the Christians of Mannar were proud to call themselves ‘Sons and Daughters of Martyrs’.
The mission of Mannar, at the early part of the history of the Oblates in Sri Lanka, comprised of the whole of island of Mannar. It 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 Mannar had the catholic population of 6026. There were twenty-six churches, of which seven were built of stones and covered with tiles; others were covered with thatch, without walls, doors, and windows, but open in the front. The floors of these churches were covered with sand. One church is distant from another by one mile, two miles, three miles. Six are dedicated to the Blessed Virgin Mary, five to St. Anthony, two to St. Peter the apostle, two to St. Sebastian, one to St. Lucia, another to St. Nicholas, another to St. Andrew the apostle, another to St. Philip Neri, another to St. Bartholomew the apostle, another to St. Thomas the apostle, another to St. Francis Xavier, another to St. James the apostle, another to St. Paul the apostle, another to St. Lawrence the martyr, and another to St. Anne.
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, Fr. Joseph Alexandre Ciamin, o.m.i., Fr. Louis Marie Keating, o.m.i., and Bro. Gaspard de Steffanis, o.m.i., under the superiorate of Fr. Étienne Semeria, o.m.i., landed in Galle on 28 November 1847. After spending few days in Colombo, while they were heading towards North by sea with Bishop Bettachini they stopped at Mannar. There was a Goan priest in Mannar, Rev. Miguel Philip who was a schismatic, refused to obey the Bishop. The adjoining mission, Mantotte, became recently vacant due to the death Fr. Joaquim Gabriel, a Goan Oratorian, in the beginning of 1847. Rev. Miguel Philip, as a result, might have shifted his residence to Mantotte. Therefore Bishop Bettachini installed Fr. Joseph Ciamin as the pastor of the vast area of Mannar- Mantotte mission on 08 February 1848. The rest of the members of the team continued their journey and reached Jaffna, for which they were destined to, on 10 March 1848.
The schismatic priests were the some of Goan priests of Padroado system. 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. Rev. Miguel Philip and Rev. M. F. Mascarenhas were the chief schismatic priests in Mannar.
Fr. Ciamin began his missionary career in earnest, with much apostolic zeal and hope. With no knowledge of Tamil language, the only language spoken, it would have been rather difficult for the young priest to manage this extensive mission. But the Bishop gave him his own catechist to assist him. Fr. Ciamin started immediately to learn Tamil language and soon was able to give instructions and exhortations to the people.
Bishop 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 Bettachini decided to give the missions of Kayts and Mannar to the Jesuits. Thus another Jesuit, Fr. Frédéric Rapatel, S.J., was sent by Mgr. Alexius Canoz, S.J. to the Vicariate of Jaffna. And Fr. Bruni S.J. and Fr. Rapatel took up the mission of Mannar in May 1849. But, Fr. Bruni S.J. returned to India in September 1850 when he was replaced by Fr. L. Saint-Cyr, S.J. Some others also came later but for short time until 1851 when the Jesuits withdrew their men from the mission of Mannar and so in 1852 from the Vicariate of Jaffna.
Therefore Fr. Ciamin was sent again to the mission of Mannar on 14 September 1851 from the mission of Mantotte where he was working with Fr. Joseph Vivier, o.m.i.. In 1852 a mutual transfer was made as Fr. Ciamin was assigned to the mission of Mantotte and Fr. Vivier was assigned to the mission of Mannar. Fr. Vivier had been in this mission until 1856. Nevertheless, in 1853 September Fr. Louis Marie Keating and Fr. Léon Jean-Baptiste Pélissier, o.m.i., was given to him and they were assigned to the vast mission of Mannar-Mantotte-Vanny, with the churches in the island of Delft and at Anuradhapura. When Fr. Pélissier was transferred he was replaced by Fr. J. B. Émile Flurin, o.m.i., in August 1855. In the same year Fr. J Vivier fell ill therefore Fr. Constant Chounavel, o.m.i., came to join the group to look after the extended mission of Mannar-Mantotte-Vanny. Fr. Vivier during his stay in this mission went through the streets Pesalai, collected its children and conducted daily the classes of religious instruction. The same was done to the adults also four times in a week. The village called Pesalai was one of the big stations in the mission of Mannar and it had approximately 1500 Catholics at this time. These missions of Mannar-Mantotte-Vanny with other neighbouring churches had been kept together until 1857. The Mannar mission was separated alone in September 1857 and had been given to Fr. Frédéric Mouchel, o.m.i., He continued to look after this mission till 1860, then Fr. Jean Le Bescou, o.m.i., and he was succeeded by Fr. Jean-Marie Le Lons, o.m.i., in May 1860. Fr. Le Lons had been in this mission for many years.
He has left us a record of what he experienced in Mannar. They made generally two mission trips in a year in Mannar. One was made during the months of June to September and the other was during November to February. When they made visits they lived with people giving religious instructions, administering the sacraments and settling social problems etc. He made a trip of this sort with Fr. Pierre Boutin, o.m.i., in 1863. They began with the visit of Sirutoppu, a village near Pesalai, on May 8. They prepared people during Lent and celebrated the Easter with them. Then they proceeded to Oleitoduvai where they celebrated the Pentecost with visiting houses and blessing the village. Then they went to visit a catholic community with the church of St. Philip Neri where there were 200 Catholics. Then they proceeded to a village called Thalvupadu that was with 370 Catholics. The people were very poor. They spent more days there in visiting and conducting religious services. Some days later they went to Talaimannar, a station in the most western part of the mission where there were approximately 600 Catholics. They celebrated the feast of Assumption of our Lady at Talaimannar. Having left Fr. Boutin in that main village for ministry, Fr. Le Lons went to visit the other villages of outer station. He visited a community with the church of Sts. Peter and Paul, Oleitoduvai, and then Tulukutti. Then they returned to Mannar. It was Fr. Le Lons was the one laid later the foundation for the new church at Thalvupadu.
In a report sent by Bishop Étienne Semeria to Propaganda Fide on 03 September 1861, the Bishop said, ‘‘there are many who care very little for their spiritual welfare, given to drunkenness, addicted to superstitious and magical practices. About 500 of them fell into schism and about 250 still persevere in it. To recall them to the way of peace and of eternal salvation, the Lord has several times sent them an epidemic of cholera. Many chose to die like pagans, not wishing to come back. A few, however, listened to the advice and the pleadings of their legitimate missionary who tried everything in his power to bring them back and to reconcile them to the Church and to the Father of mercies. In the island of Mannar the Protestants are about 250 or 300; the pagans are hardly 100; but the Mahomedans (Muslims) are 3,580’’.
According to the same report there were six churches and twenty-four chapels with 4,529 Catholics. According to this data the catholic population was less than the data given in the report on 12 February 1844. The total population of this island was recorded as 10,000 in the same year.
The mission of Mannar is now in the Diocese of Mannar, which was carved out from the diocese of Jaffna in 1981. 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, 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 Mannar.
Jerome Velichor, o.m.i.