The mission of Mantotte-Vanny, at the early part of the history of the Oblates in Sri Lanka,comprised the area of Mannar main land and Vanny region. The area was very backward and full of thick jungle. The name Mantotte in Tamil, the language of the people of the place, means ‘beautiful big garden’ (Ma-tottam). It was said to be an agricultural area during the time of native Kings. A great lake, called Giant Tank, is situated in the midst of the region of Mantotte. The hinterland of the Northern Province was a vast jungle region called Vanny.
The mission of Mantotte-Vanny 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, Mgr. Caetano Antonio, a Goan Oratorian, the missions of Mantotte and of Vanny were two separate missions. But, during the early part of the history of Northern Vicariate these were either together or part of the mission of Mannar. According to the same report the mission of Mantotte had a catholic population of 5090; and the mission of Vanny had 1050 Catholics.
According to this report in the mission of Mantotte there were 38 churches, of which seven were built of stones and covered with tiles; the rest are of clay, and covered with straw, without doors or windows, open to the full width of the front. Eleven were dedicated to the Blessed Virgin Mary; ten to St. Anthony; four to St. Sebastian; two to St. Anne; two to St. Joseph; two to St. Philip Neri; two to St. James the apostle; two to Saints Peter and Paul; two to St. Thomas; one to the Holy Cross. One was distant from another by two miles, three miles, four miles, and five miles. From the mission of Kalpity-Puttalam, which was the southern neighbouring mission, as far as Mantotte the intermediate space was very deserted and full of jungle. In the mission of Vanny there were eighteen churches, all covered with straw. Without walls, doors, and windows, but enclosed with straw itself, and thin sticks, and open in the front, and surrounded on the outside for a space of ten or eight cubits with wooden posts, so that elephants and other animals do not come into them. The first church of this mission was distant from the last church of the mission of Mantotte on the east by ten miles; another which was distant from the last church of Mantotte to the north by fourteen miles. The space in between was full of forests. Other churches of the mission of Vanny were distant from one another by two miles, eight miles, twelve miles, and sixteen miles. The intermediate space was full of forests and wild animals. Nine churches were dedicated to the Bless Blessed Virgin Mary, seven to St. Anthony, two to St. Anne. These churches of the mission of Vanny, just as several of the missions of Mantotte were not permanent. In a case of famine due to lack of rain or when tanks dried up and there was no possibility of irrigating the fields the Catholics of those places sometimes moved to other places taking the statues with them and constructed other churches.
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 superior-ship 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. Therefore Bishop Bettachini installed Fr. Ciamin as the pastor of the vast area of Mannar-Mantotte-Vanny 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.
Rev. Miguel Philip, a Goan Oratorian priest, who was interdicted by the Bishop on account of his evil behaviour and his disobedience, declared himself a schismatic and carried away with him at least half of those Catholics during this time in the Mannar-Mantotte-Vanny mission. Rev. M. F. Mascarenhas, Rev. Francisco Joao and few other priests also supported him. These 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. But after some time except a few, others came to join the main catholic flock. These schismatic priests continued to minister those people who took side with them.
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. In Mantotte Rev. Miguel Philip still was holding on some churches refused to hand over those to Fr. Ciamin. But, Fr. Ciamin continued his ministry in Mantotte while staying at Vankalai for some time. In September 1849, Fr. Ciamin went to the Jaffna mission for a year. In 1850 the mission of Mannar was separated from the Mantotte-Vanny mission and was given to the Jesuits.
The shrine of Our Lady of Madhu
In the area that came under Vanny mission, in a place, that was completely wild, there was a small chapel called Madhu, dedicated to Our Lady of the Rosary. This chapel later became a famous shrine of Our Lady of Madhu, which attracted the pilgrims from all over the country. During the colonial period of Portuguese there was a church situated in Mantai, a village on the mainland of Mannar and about six miles from the island of Mannar. This church was the original home of the statue of Our Lady of Madhu, which at that time was called Our Lady of the Rosary. The conquest of Sri Lanka by the Dutch in 1658 opened an era of cruel persecution against the Catholics. Thus the faithful of Mantai were forced to consider seriously the desirability of removing the statue of Our Lady of the Rosary to a haven of safety. There were no priests to give them any spiritual support or strength. With the consent of the people twenty devoted families, in the year 1670, migrated with the statue of Our Lady of the Rosary into the Kandyan territory, where they hoped to save the statue from profanation and themselves from persecution. Under the protection of the Heavenly Mother the little company wandered hither and thither in the thick forest of the Vanny in constant fear of the enemy. Guided by Divine Providence, they reached a hamlet by the side of an ancient tank where there was a customs house belonging to the Kandyan king. The hamlet was called Maruthamadhu; and there the Mantai Catholics for the first time planted the seed of Catholicism. There a little church dedicated to Our Lady of Madhu was built. In the calm and serene atmosphere of Maruthamadhu the seed grew under Our Lady’s protection, while persecution raged throughout Jaffna Kingdom. It is said in a tradition that during the time of Goan Padroado missionaries there was a holy and austere priest Fr. Pedro Ferrao who was called by the people ‘Sammanasu Swami’ (i. e. Angelic Father), who was in charge of this mission blessed the village and rendered the snakes harmless while the people found it difficult to go for worship at Madhu, since the jungles were infested with poisonous snakes.
In September 1850, Fr. Ciamin was sent again to the mission of Mantotte-Vanny. By this appointment he became the first Oblate Administrator of the Shrine of Madhu. In the same year Fr. Joseph Vivier, o.m.i., newly arrived in the country, and he received the obedience to assist in the mission of Mantotte-Vanny. Both looked after the mission as well as the shrine. The Jesuits who had been in the mission of Mannar returned to India in 1851. Therefore Fr. Ciamin and Fr. Vivier were given charge of the extended mission of Mannar-Mantotte-Vanny. Once in April 1851, while Fr. Ciamin was away in another church, a schismatic priest, Rev. Francis Joao, together with a party of his followers, forcibly took possession of the Madhu church on 25 April 1851. The Moopu (the lay headman) of the Madhu church immediately informed Fr. Ciamin of the violent proceedings of Rev. Francis Joao and he returned to Madhu immediately. But they prevented him from entering into the church. Fr. Ciamin made a complaint before the court of justice.
In September 1851 the mission of Mannar was carved out of the extended mission of Mannar-Mantotte-Vanny and Fr. Ciamin was assigned to it while Fr. Vivier continued to look after the mission of Mantotte-Vanny. In 1852 a mutual transfer was made as Fr. Ciamin was assigned to the mission of Mantotte-Vanny and Fr. Vivier was assigned to the mission of Mannar. His struggle with the Schismatic priest Rev. Francis Joao for the possession of Madhu Shrine continued. He prepared meticulously all the documents and papers required for the Court Case. But the Case never proceeded with as Fr. Ciamin, the plaintiff, worn out by all the persecutions he had to suffer, fell sick; he spat blood and was recalled to Jaffna at the end of 1852 by Fr. Semeria who was then administering the Vicariate in the absence of Bishop Bettachini then away in Europe. Fr. Vivier who was an assistant to him thus succeeded him as the Pastor of the mission of Mantotte-Vanny. The church of Madhu was finally declared the possession of the Vicar Apostolic by the Supreme Court of Ceylon in 1875. In Jaffna the condition of Fr. Ciamin became worse. He received the last Sacraments administered by Fr. Semeria. At the end he succumbed to his illness and passed away peacefully to his eternal reward on 10 November 1853. He was the second oblate to die in Sri Lanka.
In September 1853, the mission of Mannar, Mantotte, Vanny together with the churches in the island of Delft and at Anuradhapura were made a single unit of mission and was given to the charge of Fr. Vivier Fr. Keating, and Fr. Léon Jean-Baptiste Pélissier, o.m.i. This system was being continued until 1857. When Fr. Pélissier was transferred he was replaced by Fr. Jean-Baptiste Émile Flurin, o.m.i., in August 1855. In the same year Fr. 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. Flurin succeeded Fr. Vivier as the pastor of Mantotte-Vanny mission and as the administrator of the Shrine of Madhu in early part of 1856. He organized a grand Corpus Christi celebration at Madhu in June 1857.
When Bishop Bettachini died on 26 July 1857, Bishop Étienne Semeria, o.m.i., succeeded him as the Vicar Apostolic and assumed full charge of the Vicariate of Jaffna. Hence the shrine of our Lady of Madhu came directly under the Oblates of Mary Immaculate. Towards the end of 1857, Fr. François Gouret, o.m.i., who had come only recently to the Oblate Mission in Sri Lanka, was sent to assist Fr. Flurin. But in September 1857 the missions of Mannar and Mantotte-Vanny were divided and the Mantotte-Vanny mission was made as separate unit of mission. In 1859, Fr. Flurin was called to Jaffna due to his ill health and Fr. Gouret succeeded him and had been as pastor of Mantotte-Vanny mission and as the administrator of the Shrine of Madhu until 1862.
Once Bishop Semeria assumed his duties as Apostolic Vicar, he began implementing the long awaited project of ‘a renewal through Parish Mission’. Thus, the Oblate band of Mission Preachers, Bishop Semeria, Fr. Chounavel and Fr. Ernest Christophe Bonjean, o.m.i., conducted a Mission in the mission of Mantotte in 1859. In his journal Bishop Semeria wrote, “On 03 June 1859 we (the Frs. Chounavel and Bonjean and I) left for Mantotte where we had for a long time desired to labour in order to confirm the poor Catholics in the unity of the Holy Church and especially to lead back to the fold of Jesus Christ the many unfortunate schismatics who were still to be found in this district since the time of the revolt (i.e., in 1849) of the unworthy priest Miguel Philip. Great courage was certainly needed to undertake such a Mission and, in fact, it has been the most difficult one, which we have so far preached, both from a physical and a moral point of view.” But truly, apostolic zeal of the Missioners was blessed abundantly by the Almighty. As a result as Fr. Bonjean wrote “no less than 251 schismatics were reconciled to the Church at the close of the Mission” and the mission became calm and tranquil to certain extent since the schismatics lost their many field.
In 1862 Fr. Boniface Gourdon, o.m.i., was sent to the mission of Mantotte-Vanny. There he had to struggle against a schismatic priest who tried to grab control over the two churches under the jurisdiction of Vicar Apostolic. He visited all the faithful of those churches encouraged them and strengthened their faith. He also made effort with patience and prudence to win back the schismatics. Fr. J. Laclau-Pussacq, o.m.i., was sent to the mission of Mantotte-Vanny when he arrived in the country newly. He worked with Fr. Gourdon and succeeded him in 1864. During his time the cholera epidemic broke out in the mission. He worked hard among the sick and dying together with Fr. Pouzin who came to assist him in 1864. Fr. Laclau-Pussacq fell ill, and then Fr. Pouzin took over the mission in 1869. He continued his hard work in the mission. The people began to love him so much. In 1872, he was appointed the Religious Superior of the Mannar- Mantotte-Vanny mission. As Superior of the district, he was also the administrator of the Shrine of Madhu. He was considered as the chief promoter of the development of the Shrine. It was he, with the permission of Bishop Semeria shifted the feast of Our Lady of Madhu to 2 July. He himself attended alone to all the arrangements for the feast and supervised everything. He was the one who planted the cross that is found even now in front of the church. He did much renovation in the shrine premises. He had been in the mission until 1875.
Fr. Marie-Louis Boisseau, o.m.i., came to the mission of Mantotte-Vanny in July 1873 as an assistant to Fr. Jean Pouzin, o.m.i., and then succeeded him. As a pastor of mission he also was in charge of the Shrine of Our Lady of Madhu. It was during his time that Bishop Bonjean crowned the statue of Our Lady of Madhu with a golden crown on 02 July 1876. From that memorable day onwards the Sanctuary of Madhu developed rapidly and became a rallying point of pilgrims.
The building of the church which was begun in 1872 continued under the supervision of Fr. Boisseau and about 32 acres of land around the church were acquired from the Government for the sanctuary. Fr. Boisseau also put up a new presbytery and the kitchen with bricks.
According a report sent by Bishop Semeria to Propaganda Fide on 03 September 1861, in the mission of Mantotte- Vanny, there were twenty churches and thirty permanent chapels with 5,200 catholic populations.
The mission of Mantotte and a portion of Vanny mission including the Shrine of Our Lady of Madhu are 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 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 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.