The Cabinet has approved a proposal made by President Maithripala Sirisena to declare the holy shrine of Our Lady of Madhu a sacred area. The President visited the Madhu Shrine on Sunday.
This is a most welcome measure for Roman Catholics in the country.
Madhu is a mystic jungle shrine dedicated to Mother Mary and venerated not just by the Catholics of this country, but by members of all religious faiths. It is situated in a remote area in Mannar.
For more than 400 years, Catholics as well as non-Catholics have gathered around Our Lady of Madhu and it is believed that this holy shrine has miraculous powers which have served the spiritual needs of Sri Lankans from different walks of life, ethnicities, religions and different areas of the country.
For more than two decades, in the midst of the conflict and mass displacement, Madhu Shrine also served as a place of refuge for all affected people. Madhu Shrine has been recognised locally and internationally as a ‘safe haven’ and ‘place of refuge’ for people fleeing conflict and destruction.
Even during the war, the Church administration has always maintained the shrine and the surrounding area purely as a place of religious worship and a place of refuge for displaced people. It was strictly kept out of bounds for any type of military or political activity.
However, during the height of the war, when the Church administrators felt that the shrine was in danger, they managed to take the sacred statue of Our Lady of Madhu with them, despite the strong protests from the LTTE. The Bishop of Mannar at the time took measures to place the statue of Our Lady at St. Francis Church Mission.
The sacred area was also declared a ‘no war’ zone and the Sri Lankan security forces spared the area from military offensives during the recent conflict.
Speaking to the Daily News, Director of the Aquinas College of Higher Studies, Rev. Fr. Benedict Joseph welcomed the move by the President. He said the Madhu feast is scheduled to be held on August 15 and is expected to be held on a grand scale. “This move gives us a chance to show our devotion to the Blessed Mother who is very close to the heart of every Catholic. Even non-Catholics have a soft corner for the Blessed Virgin. To date, people of all walks of life have honoured this shrine as it is not restricted to the Catholic community. Even when the Pope visited the country, he made it a point to visit the Madhu Shrine.”
There are numerous legends regarding the Shrine of Our Lady of Madhu, which has a history of over 400 years. However, it is widely believed that when the Dutch took over the country and started promoting Christianity in the form of the Dutch Reformed Church, especially in the coastal regions, around 20 Tamil Catholic families from Mantai in Mannar fled inwards with a statue of Mary and settled down in an area called ‘Marutha Madhu’.
It is believed that later another group of Tamil Catholics had also joined them.
The Portuguese missionaries from India, especially Saint Francis Xavier, are said to have brought Roman Catholicism to the Kingdom of Jaffna. Many in the region embraced the Catholic faith. Legend has it that the Madhu Shrine was originally called the ‘Shrine of Our Lady of Good Health’.
In fear of profanation of the statue and persecution by the Dutch, a group of families had taken the statue to the jungles in the Mannar area (Madhu), which was under the Kandyan territory, in order to save the sacred statue that they are said to have guarded with their lives. It is believed that the Virgin Mary had provided protection to this group of people who were so devoted to her.
In the calm forested area of Marutha Madhu, the little group of Catholics grew in numbers under Our Lady’s protection, while persecution raged throughout Jaffna.
It is also believed that during this period, another group of Tamils from the Jaffna Peninsula were moving towards Maruthu Madhu to escape Dutch persecution and had sought refuge in the Wanni. Catholics believe that it was nothing but a miracle that this group too was miraculously led towards Maruthu Madhu after wandering for days in anxiety and fear.
It is said that the two groups of Catholics had then met. A lady among the group who is known as Helena is believed to have been the one responsible for building the initial shrine for Our Lady of Madhu and the little church in her honour.
The Church was consecrated in 1944 during World War II. A marble altar replaced the old wooden structure in preparation for the consecration ceremony and the whole sanctuary was built with white and blue marble.
Even during the war, despite the dangers posed and restrictions placed on movement in these areas, over 30,000 devotees attended the feast held at the sacred jungle shrine. Despite its ruthless reign of terror, even the LTTE respected this festival and did not prevent the devotees from attending the feast.
It is also reported that the statue of Our Lady of Madhu was taken in procession thrice to other parishes in Sri Lanka – in 1948, 1974 and in 2001. The last was as a spiritual effort to encourage Catholics in Sri Lanka to pray for peace and an end to the civil war.
Meanwhile, in 1870, the new Bishop had arranged an annual festival to be celebrated on July 2, but it is the August 15 festival that still draws the biggest crowds because it is one of the most hallowed days for Catholics celebrating the feast of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary and also because the school holidays facilitate entire families to make the trip.
After the Madhu Shrine was taken back from the grip of the terrorists by the Army, the shrine of Our Lady of Madhu was given back to the diocese of Mannar.
Despite war-time bombings which caused serious damage to the church of the Sacred Heart located to the right of the shrine, the shrine itself suffered only light damage along its left side and roof.
On Sunday (July 29), President Sirisena, accompanied by family members, visited the shrine of Our Lady of Madhu in Mannar and engaged in religious observances. Colombo Archbishop Rt. Rev. Dr. Malcolm, Cardinal Ranjith, Mannar Bishop Dr. Emmanuel Fernando and Rev. S. Emiliyanus Pillai conducted the mass.
Catholics all over the country will welcome the announcement by President Sirisena declaring the Madhu shrine area a sacred site, a measure that would add to the significance of the feast of Our Lady of Madhu on August 15.