by Kishanie S. Fernando
The Madhu festival is said to be like no other church feast in the island. The jungle seclusion and travelling distance only strengthens one’s faith.
The camp atmosphere where everyone is called to prayer on blaring loudspeakers relaying morning and night payers, masses, litanies, rosaries and hymns in English, Sinhala and Tamil.
Nobody seems to mind what language the prayers are conducted – for here prayers are universal and an expression of faith. It is to Madhu that devout families undertake pilgrimage. It is affordable to everyone and brings about unity amongst the rich and poor who share the same premises and, most of the time, their food and water. Here in the arid dryness there are no plush hotels, exorbitant air fares, and profiteering tour organizers to distract you from the real meaning of a pilgrimage.
Madhu’s most popular feast
The main Madhu feast was celebrated originally on the second of July, on the feast of the Visitation. But since the school holidays fell in August, the most popular feast became that of the Assumption on 15 August, drawing hundreds of pilgrims from the north and south to Madhu. M.F.P. Fernando of Moratuwa composed a special hymn to be sung to the Our Lady of Madhu. The pilgrims from the Sea Street church in Negombo walked all the way to Madhu accompanied by their own choir, alter servers, and band. This practice was however stopped by a Bishop of time, which led the people of Sea Street to file a case in Rome, eventually obtaining a verdict in their favour. Such is the fervour for the miraculous shrine of Madhu.
In search of its origin
The original home of Our Lady of Madhu, then called Our Lady of the Rosary, was in Mantai a village about six miles from Mannar. This church was in existence in 1583 after the massacre of the Mannar martyrs by order of Sankily, the king of Jaffna.
With the Dutch rule came more persecution the people were forced to remove the statue of the church to a safer area. It is said in 1670, twenty devoted families migrated with the statue to the Kandyan territory where they hoped to save the statue from profanation and themselves from persecution. After wandering in the thick elephant-infested jungle they reached a hamlet by the side of an ancient tank on the royal Rameshwaran-Kandy road where there was a custom house belonging to the king of Kandy. The hamlet was called Marutha-madhu.
Around the same time there was another movement towards Madhu from the Jaffna Peninsula to avoid Dutch persecution. Around 700 Catholics in the company of seven priests crossed over to Poonaryn and sought refuge in the Wanni. Having wandered for days in anxiety and fear, they too, as if by a miracle, were led to Marutha-madu.
Amongst the newly arrived Catholics from Jaffna was a daughter of a Portuguese captain named Helena whose fervent piety and edifying life won her the title of ‘Santa Lena’ (St. Helena). She married the officer who was in charge of the customs house at Madhu and the first church dedicated to Our Lady of Madhu was built by her. For this good act, the Christians have immortalized her memory by calling the place “Silena-Marutha-Madhu” which continues to be one of the names of the Holy Sanctuary.
The persecution of Catholics ceased when the British arrived. It was slowly establishing as a pilgrimage centre. In 1823, lack of space in the church prompted the Secretary of the Mannar courts to erect a small mud hut which was used as a chapel.
The building of the church
The cornerstone of the present building was laid on 8August 1872 by Bishop Bonjean. People from all over the island contributed generously to its building. The bricks were made at Palampity six miles north of Madhu. Two of the wooden pillars of jak holding the nave were presented by Henrick Appuhamy of Pamunugama. The Lourdes Grotto was built with a contribution of Rs 100,000 by Madam Louis of Negombo.
In 1924, a hundred years after the statue of Our Lady had been brought to Madhu, it was officially crowned by a Papal Legate, Pope Pius XI. Two golden crowns studded with jewels of fine workmanship adorned the brow of Mary and the head of the infant Jesus. In 1944, the church of Our Lady of Madhu was formally consecrated by Bishop Guyomar assisted by 30 priests.
War and peace
With the escalation of the civil war the Madu shrine became a refugee camp and a scene of many sad activities. Access to the shrine was impossible and annual pilgrimages were cancelled. Many Catholics strongly felt the loss of this devotion. In such a scenario the image of the Madu statue was brought down to Colombo to tour the churches of the South. On the appointed day and time each church filled with thundering crowds to greet the image and sing her favorite hymn Maratha-Madu. Many were seen weeping as the statue passed out of the gate of their church.
Today the church is once again accessible to all. The roads are well made and many other conveniences have been established for the pilgrim to Madu. courtesy: Ceylon Today