Father Joseph Vaz was born on April 21, 1651, in India. He was a Goan, born in Benaulim, and was raised in the villages of Benaulim and Sancoale. When he grew up, his father sent him to a school at Benaulim to learn Latin as a preparation for his priestly studies. Joseph Vaz made such rapid progress in his studies that his father decided to send him to the city of Goa, to the Jesuit College of Saint Paul. After completing his studies with the Jesuits, Joseph Vaz entered the Academy of Saint Thomas Aquinas for his philosophical and theological studies. In 1676 he was ordained a priest.
How the call to mission came to him, we do not know exactly. He knew about the misery of the Catholics of Ceylon (Sri Lanka) and their complete abandonment. Ceylon was a Buddhist Country. But there were, at that time, a large number of Catholics living on the island without a priest or a church. In 1658, the Dutch, being adherents of the Dutch Reformed Church and fearing that Catholics would support the Portuguese, began to persecute the Catholics, forbidding the practice of the Catholic faith within their territory. Joseph Vaz’s heart was afire to go and save the Church in Ceylon at any cost.
He presented his request to go to Ceylon to the ecclesiastical authorities. But, he was asked to serve the abandoned Catholics of Canara (Karnataka) in southwestern India. Joseph Vaz lived in Canara for 4 years. During that time he gave shape to the church of Mangalore, where he had reached in 1682. He built churches and chapels. In many villages, he opened a small school, appointed a catechist, and made provision by establishing confraternities for the maintenance of the church.
In 1684 Joseph Vaz made his way back to Goa. There he found a small community of Goan priests at the church of the Cross of Miracles. He entered this tiny community and was elected the superior. Within a few months, seven more priests joined the community and gave it new energy. To give a form of stability to the community, Joseph Vaz then organized the Goan community into the Oratorian Institute of Milagristas of Goa. The Goa Oratory of Saint Philip Neri is assumed to be the first fully native religious community of the Latin rite in Asia. This indigenous priestly community was the ideal group to work in Ceylon and restore the Catholic Church there. After a six month stay in the Oratory, in March, 1686, Joseph Vaz set out for Ceylon. In April, 1687, he disembarked in Ceylon as a poor beggar.
In 1658, 120 Catholic missionaries had left Ceylon, and the churches were closed or destroyed. From 1658 to 1687 Catholics were isolated: no priest, no sacraments, and no church. Joseph Vaz arrived in Jaffna. He started his life in Ceylon without any logistic support. With a rosary on his neck he begged from door to door for his survival. That was how he made contact with Catholics. Joseph Vaz was the first non-European missionary to came to Ceylon. He came, not sent by civil, royal or ecclesiastical authorities. And he came in simplicity and poverty, without the support or protection of an institutional Church.
The Dutch commander of Jaffna noticed the revival of Catholic life in his district. On Christmas night, 1689, two years after Joseph Vaz had started his apostolate, the commander detected the presence of the priest. Three hundred Christians were imprisoned. But Joseph Vaz was not among the prisoners. No one knows how he escaped.
With the help of some Catholics, he went to Puttalam since this was part of the Kandy Kingdom outside of Dutch authority. Joseph Vaz had chosen Kandy the center of his apostolate to avoid the vigilance of the Dutch. But, as soon as the King, Vimaladharma Surya II, was informed, Joseph Vaz was bound in chains and conducted to a prison in Kandy, as he was seen as a foreign spy. Joseph Vaz had studied Tamil and now, in Jaffna, in the prison, he started to study the local language, Sinhala. In 1693 the king set the priest free. As soon as he obtained the freedom to minister to the Catholics of the city, Joseph Vaz had the people build a simple church and dedicated it to Our Lady.
In 1696 there was a prolonged drought in Kandy. The king was very much distressed and asked the highest Buddhist religious leaders of his kingdom to perform their ceremonies to call down rain. But, it was to no avail. The king then asked Joseph Vaz to pray to his God and obtain rain for the kingdom. Joseph Vaz answered the king´s request by a prayer in the public square the next day. It brought such abundant rain that Joseph Vaz won the sympathy of the king, liberty for himself, and permission to bring more priests from the Goan Oratory. In a letter dated February 10, 1696, the Bishop of Cochin, appointed Joseph Vaz as his Vicar General with full jurisdiction, spiritual as well as temporal, over the entire island of Ceylon. In 1696, the Oratory Fathers of Goa began to arrive on the island and so a properly constituted mission was established.
Joseph Vaz undertook long missionary journeys throughout a large portion of the west of the island. He even entered the city of Colombo, and continued this journey and his missionary apostolate in Gurubavilla, Malwana Sitawaka, Soffragan. Between April and November, 1698, Joseph Vaz paid his second visit to Colombo. From there he continued his apostolic journey through Negombo, Mantota, Mannar, Vanny, Kalpitya, Punarym, Jaffna, Trincomalee, Puliyadiva and Batticaloa. In 1699, he went beyond Malwana and baptized more or less a thousand people. In the years 1700, 1704 and 1705, Joseph Vaz undertook further missionary journeys to Puttalam, Mantota, Vanny, Allanbil, Kottiyar, Trincomalee, Batticaloa, Pungadda and the Neduntivu Island in the North. Today in Sri Lanka, nine out of twelve dioceses comprise the area of these districts erected by Joseph Vaz. In 1705, it was Joseph Vaz who expanded the small shrine of Our Lady of Madhu.
In 1703, Pope Clement XI (1700-1721) sent a legate who proposed to nominate Joseph Vaz as the Vicar Apostolic of Ceylon. Joseph Vaz humbly declined the offer to be the first Apostolic Vicar of Ceylon. But whether a bishop or not, Joseph Vaz administered the Church in the whole country as a bishop would have done.
In 1710, Joseph Vaz was completely exhausted. He died January 16, 1711. He had spent 24 years of untiring labours in the mission of Ceylon. He was 59 years old. He left a marvelous legacy: 70,000 Catholics, 15 churches and 400 chapels. He translated into Singalese and Tamil, the local languages, various prayers and a catechism. After his death, his example and methods of apostolic work made him a continuing inspiration for the priests in Sri Lanka. When the Missionary Oblates of Mary Immaculate came to Sri Lanka in 1857, they were able to build on and continue Fr. Vaz´s apostolic work.