In the Eastern Province of Sri Lanka there were two vast barren and abandoned regions. The regions that were inhabited were those which were along the coast or not very distant from the sea. There we had only two missions, which are so distant from one another and from the other missions as well. The two missions are at Trincomalee and at Batticaloa. In the area the people were generally Tamil Speaking. According to a Report of Fr. Étienne Semeria, o.m.i., in 1850 in the mission of Trincomalee there were five churches with 1500 Christians; and every Sunday there, sermons both in English and Tamil, were given. At Trincomalee there was a military regiment and often the greater part of the soldiers was Catholics.
Trincomalee is a tropical city on the northeast coast of Sri Lanka. It is a bay and a port city with one of the finest harbours in the world. It is built on a peninsula, which divides the inner and outer harbours. According to the geographical map of Sri Lanka, Trincomalee was 137 miles from Jaffna and 115 from Kandy.
In Trincomalee Bishop Bettachini, an Oratorian, had posted the Spanish Cistercian, Fr. Florentius Garcia, in 1845, who was joined, or replaced, two years later by the Italian secular priest, Fr. Vincent Cassinelli. In 1853, the two secular priests and fellow-countrymen, Frs. Cassinelli and J.C. Mola were at Trincomalee. During the course of these years, the priests have been engaged in apostolic activities and have been trying to build the church of St. Mary, looking after the military in the place, trying to instruct the Christians and the non-Christians. But they encountered a considerable amount of indifference and ingratitude on the part of their people. Fr. Cassinelli was apparently much discouraged; the experience he had in Trincomalee contributed much to his decision to go back to his native land. And his successor Fr. Mola also had problems even more severe ones than Fr. Cassinelli. Thus, Fr. Mola also left the country.
Welcome to Oblates
The first Oblate to be stationed in Trincomalee was Fr. Jean Le Bescou, who took charge of the mission on 11 March 1855 after the departure of Fr. Mola. According to Fr. Le Bescou there, in Trincomalee, was in the town a pretty church newly put up by the Catholic Irish soldiers of the garrison under the direction of his predecessors, Frs. Cassinelli and Mola. There were four other smaller churches in the neighbourhood.
Fr. Le Bescou mentions that a certain Mrs. Langlois, a convert from Protestantism, had opened a Tamil school for girls. There was also a Tamil boys’ school, but it had closed down, and he could not revive it. Fr. Jean Le Bescou was in Trincomalee only a year.
He was succeeded by Fr. Constant Chounavel, o.m.i., who was sent to the mission of Trincomalee on the 04 May 1856. Since he had studied English in Batticaloa during his spare time, he was also put in charge of the Anglo-Irish regiment. At Trincomalee, Fr. Chounavel inaugurated the feast of the Corpus Christi and established the devotion of the Month of May. One day, it so happened that Fr. Chounavel so spoke against drunkenness with such force that a soldier remarked to his neighbour that, on next Sunday, Father would jump out of the pulpit. Next Sunday the sermon was on the Last Judgment and as Father spoke about the Last Sentence, all fell off their seats as if they thought that the Hour had already come. What really happened was that six soldiers occupied a bench and they had rested one leg of the bench on an old grave. Under the weight the surface of the tomb gave in and the bench toppled over with the men who were deeply absorbed in the sermon.
The following year on 04 May 1857 when Fr. Chounavel was transferred to the mission of Vanny, Fr. Joseph Laclau-Pussacq, o.m.i., was sent temporally to the mission of Trincomalee. It was the time when Bishop Étienne Semeria, o.m.i., formed his heroic band of Mission Preachers and started organizing Parish Missions in the Vicariate of Jaffna in the style it was conducted by the Oblates in France. Bishop Semeria chose Fr. Ernest Christophe Bonjean, o.m.i., and Fr. Chounavel to form a band together with him to preach grand missions.
The grand mission at Trincomalee was preached in May and June 1858, the honour of preaching the Inaugural sermon being accorded to Fr. Chounavel. The Mission was a great success and at its close, in order to consolidate the results achieved a Temperance Society, named “the Confraternity of St. John the Baptist” was established, as drink was the biggest curse of the place.
It was during this mission Christophe Bonjean pronounced his perpetual vows in Trincomalee on 20 May 1858, in the presence of Bishop Semeria with Fathers Louis Marie Keating, o.m.i., Fr. Chounavel and Fr. Laclau-Pussacq. Christophe Bonjean was born at Riom in the Diocese of Clermont-Ferrand on 21 September 1823. Fr. Bonjean completed his ecclesiastical studies at the Seminary for Foreign mission at Paris, where he was ordained priest in 1846 and was then sent to the Mission of Coimbatore in South India in 1847. He came to Sri Lanka on 27 November 1856 and met Bishop Semeria on 12 May 1857 in Jaffna. Christophe Bonjean was received into the Congregation by Bishop Semeria on 19 May 1857 and, after one year of novitiate, he made his Oblation at Trincomalee.
Bishop Semeria in his letter to Propaganda Fide on 22 July 1858 described thus their mission in Trincomalee: “A few days ago we terminated at Trincomalee a double mission: one for the native Christians in Tamil, and the other in English for the European soldiers of that garrison. I would go too much at length were I to relate all the blessings lavishly showered by the Lord on our ministry. It will be enough to mention that besides the fact that Our Christians, almost all, received the Sacraments with the best possible dispositions, we had the good fortune of receiving into the Church thirty adults, eight of whom had been Protestants. Other pagans and heretics were anxious to receive the same grace, but as they were not yet sufficiently prepared, they will be received later on”.
The Irish Oblate, Fr. Keating came to Trincomalee in 1857 and served there for twenty years, the longest tenure of any of the Oblate Fathers. His chief ministry was to the British garrison forces, army and navy. With the aid of Irish soldiers and sailors Fr. Keating embellished the old Goan church. The construction work of St. Mary’s Church would have begun at least as early as 1802. But, it was plain and unpretentious, although solid as a fortification. In 1857 Fr. Keating erected the portico and façade ‘aided by the generous piety of the sons of Ireland’, as a commemorative plaque recalls. It is written as: Deiparae Virgini Hiberniae filiorum insignum catholicae fidei cultores generosa pietas erexit – A.D. MDCCCLII. Fr. Marie Jules Collin, o.m.i., who came to Trincomalee mission in 1890 enlarged St. Mary’s Church, built new sanctuary and crowned it with a cupola since it was replaced with an octagonal roof. Fr. Keating founded the first boys’ English school, which celebrated its centenary as St. Joseph’s College in 1967. And it was under his direction St. Mary’s Girls’ Tamil school had been started in 1864.
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. Flannagan, on the invitation of Bishop Bettachini went to Jaffna and started a school for girls. When the Holy Family Sisters took charge of this school in 1862, Bishop Semeria commissioned Mrs. Flannagan to start a similar school in Trincomalee. On 04 April 1864 Mrs. Flannagan started two girls’ schools, English and Tamil, in Trincomalee and ran them for eighteen years until the coming of the Holy Family Sisters in 1891. Meanwhile her son, Patrick Flannagan, had joined the Oblate Congregation in 1862, and her daughter, Catherine Flannagan, the Holy Family Sisters in 1863, becoming Sister Marie-Louis.
It seems quite certain that there was a Christian community at Kottiyar in the realm of the Kandyan King from very early in the Portuguese period. Blessed Joseph Vaz and his early companions apparently found a church already existing in Kottiyar, later the place came to be called as ‘Moedoer’ (Muthur). During the pastorate of Fr. Louis Massiet, o.m.i., the present church was built in 1863. Later Fr. Bonne renovated it with the help of the people in 1898.
Farewell to Oblates
Oblates handed over the mission of Trincomalee to the Congregation of the Society of Jesus with the decree In hac beati Petri issued on 25 August 1893 by Pope Leo XIII setting up two new dioceses in Sri Lanka, Galle and Trincomalee-Batticaloa; both of them were entrusted to the Society of Jesus.
It was when Fr. William Owen, o.m.i., was the Parish Priest of the mission of Trincomalee, the diocese of Trincomalee was handed over to the Jesuit Fathers in 1895. The Oblates had worked, toiled and laboured selflessly for thirty long years for the improvement of that difficult and backward mission. The Catholics of Trincomalee, when wishing good-bye to Fr. Owen, thanked all the Oblate Fathers in a special manner “for the opening and maintenance of Catholic Boys’ and Girls’ Schools at great expense, and the establishment of industrial and night schools’ They would never forget, either, they added, ‘the heroic devotedness of the good Oblate Fathers during the prevalence of cholera and small, pox.”
According to the report sent by Bishop Semeria to Propaganda Fide on 03 September 1861: The whole area of Eastern Province of Sri Lanka was 5400 Square miles and its total population was about 300,000 in 1860. There were two missionaries in two churches and three chapels one of which was for the soldiers with 1660 Catholics in the mission of Trincomalee in 1861.
Jerome Velichor, o.m.i.