The Western Province of Sri Lanka is now the most densely populated province of Sri Lanka. It is home to the legislative capital Sri Jayawardenapura as well to Colombo, the nation’s administrative and business centre. The western province of Sri Lanka in 1861 had the area of 3,820 square miles and its inhabitants were 595,000. The mission of Negombo was in the Western Province, one of the six administrative provinces in then Ceylon. The Apostolic Vicariate of the South or of Colombo comprised of the Southern, Western, and Central Provinces in 1861.
The mission Negombo was a vast area. The centre of the mission was the town of Negombo, which was approximately 25 miles from Colombo. It is on the north bank of the Negombo lagoon that the town of Negombo was situated. Most of the inhabitants of the town of Negombo were fishermen. There were population of Sinhala and Tamil speaking.
According to the Ecclesiastical Returns of the Southern Vicariate for 1852, the areas of Pitipana, Angurucaramulla, Grand Street, Sea Street, Periyamulla, Bolavalana, Tillanduwa, Kurana, Katunayake, Amandoluwa, Seeduwa, Bandaravatte, Katuwapitiya, Palanganturai, Pallansena, Welihena, Kocchikade, Toppu, Kattupitiya, Helpe, Kandawala, Murutane, Dalupotha, Katana, Madarala, Kondagamulla, Madampitiya, Andiambalama, Burulapitiya, and Duwa form together the mission of Negombo; in the whole of mission there were 31 centres with a population of 19,799 Catholics, entrusted to the care of four missionaries. The main church was at the centre of the Negombo bazaar.
Bishop Eugene de Mazenod at the request of Propaganda Fide sent four Oblates to the Apostolic Vicariate of the South in 1851. It was the first group of Oblates to be sent to the Southern (Colombo) Vicariate. They were placed under the jurisdiction of Bishop Giuseppe Maria Bravi, a Sylvestrine, the Apostolic Vicar of Colombo, whereas the Oblates who were already working since 1847 in the North were under the jurisdiction of Bishop Orazio Bettachini, an Oratorian, the Vicar Apostolic of Jaffna. But both groups had Fr. Étienne Semeria, o.m.i., as their Religious Superior.
A two of these four Oblate missionaries, Fr. Adrien Duffo, o.m.i., and Fr. Laurent Jean-Pierre Lallement, o.m.i., soon on their arrival were sent to this mission of Negombo for pastoral care of the people but for two different regions. According to the documents of the vicariate on the appointment of missionaries for the year 1851 – 1854 Fr. Duffo was entrusted the region of Duwa where there were the churches of Talahena, Kondagamulla, Kurana, Katunayake, Kondagamulla and the two churches of Pitipane on 31 August 1851. He continued to be in this region until 1853. Fr. Lallement was entrusted the region of Pallansena where he had the churches of Murutane, Toppu, Halpe, Kocchikade, Palanganturai, Periyamulla, and the two churches of Pallansena on 31 August 1851. He continued to be in this region until 1852. And then he was entrusted another region, in the same mission, where there were the churches of Bandaravatte, Seeduwa, Mucculangama, Katunayake, Kurana, Tillanduwa, Andiambalama, and Kandawala on 31 August 1853. He was in this region until 1854. Again he was sent to the region of Pallansena for a year in 1854.
In the mission of Negombo, near the river Toppu, there was a village that took the name Toppu from the river. This was the northern border village of the southern vicariate; the river of Toppu was the boundary.
Fr. Duffo in a letter to his superior Fr. Semeria explained his experience in his first mission in Sri Lanka: “at first, during the month of September 1851 I was assigned to a portion of Negombo where I have been two years. I had half the strip of land that stretches from Negombo to Colombo, strip that is bound on one side by the sea and on the other by the river that goes from Negombo to Colombo. There I had four churches and two on the opposite bank, that is, along the main road between Negombo and Colombo. The following January they gave me also a new isolated church, Kandawala. In order to go there I had to cross the missions of two other missionaries. The Catholic population was about 4000, and of 36 persons in the new church that was added to me’’. While commenting on the life of the people he says, ‘‘In general these people are ignorant, though they seem to possess a certain faith. Thus, besides the tenth part of the fish which they daily give to the church, on Sunday evening they will never omit burning a candle before the stature of Our Lady, of St. Anthony, chiefly of St. Anne; giving from time to time some Mass stipends, getting their boats and nets blessed, bringing a new boat to their favourite church, giving alms to the poor, etc., etc. My churches or principal residence were Duwa and Pitipane’’.
Fr. Duffo went to the mission without knowing a word of Sinhalese, but within three months he was able to hear confessions and to give small instructions. The first sermon he preached in Sinhalese was on the feast of All Saints and it was very much appreciated by everyone. It gave him much encouragement. Then he started to visit the families, listened to their tales and worries, gathered the children for catechism and gave them First Communion. When he was at Duwa, Fr. Duffo got into difficulty with the Vicar Apostolic for giving First Communion to children at Pitipane. For, the Vicar Apostolic had forbidden giving First Communion to children because of certain abuse by some priests in the past.
Again, Fr. Dominique Pulicani, o.m.i., went to this mission of Negombo, particularly to the region of Duwa, in 1856. He was entrusted the churches of Duwa, Talahena, Kurana, Katunayake, Seeduwa, Amandoluva, Bandaravatta and the two churches of Pitipane. He continued his mission here until 1858. The next Oblate to go the mission of Negombo was Fr. Jean-Pierre Perréard, o.m.i., in 1864. He was given the region of Kodagamulla, with the churches of Halpe, Godigamuwa, Kongodamulla, Toppu, Bambukuliya, Murutana, and Kandawala. He was there until 1866, and this was his last mission. Almost during the same time Fr. Pulicani and Fr. Duffo went to two different regions of the same mission of Negombo. Fr. Pulicani had been the region of Duwa from 1864 to 1865 with the churches of Kepungoda, Talahena, Pitipane, Munai and Duwa. And Fr. Duffo had been in the region of Pallansena with the churches of St Anne at Palangathurai, Munnakkara, Kochchikade, Kattuwa, and Dalupotha.
At the beginning of 1866, the General Administration of the Oblates decided to pull out the Oblates serving in the Vicariate of Colombo and sent them to join the Oblates in the Vicariate of Jaffna. Thus, all the three Oblates left the vicariate. Again it was in 1883 when Propaganda Fide entrusted the vicariate of Colombo to Oblates and transferred Bishop Ernest Christophe Bonjean, o.m.i., from Jaffna to the vicariate of Colombo, Oblates came again and extended their services in most parts of the vicariate.
According to the report of Bishop Bravi, on 06 September 1858 on his Pastoral Visitation, there were 39 churches in the whole mission with a population of 26,000 persons, entrusted to the care of four missionaries. In 1863 there were the catholic population of 30,836.
Jerome Velichor, o.m.i.