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‘Kathirai Maatha’ Church of ‘Little Rome’ Sillalai in Jaffna

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On 14 August the feast of the Sillalai church was marked on a grand scale. Many Sillalaians from all over the island and abroad travelled to the village especially to take part in its celebrations.

It was a time for reunions between those who had left the village and those who still lived there.

How Sillalai got its name

Sillalai, also called ‘Little Rome’, is a hamlet in the Jaffna district. It is rich in vegetation, surrounded by paddy fields in the North and West and villages in the South and East. The village got its name from a ‘small oil mill’ (siria aalai in Tamil) in the area which extracted oil from gingerly seeds, margosa seeds and the seed of the honey tree or butter tree (Illupai).Over time ‘Siria Aalai’ became Sillalai.

Origins of the faith story

Catholicism in Sillalai is well over 500 years when all its inhabitants were Catholics and the main livelihood of the community was farming. History records that the statue of ‘Kathirai Matha’ – a rare depiction of Mother Mary seated on a chair holding baby Jesus on her lap – was brought to Sillali by the Portuguese who landed at the port ‘Sambil’ which is about three to four kilometres west of Sillalai. It is said that the Portuguese, on witnessing the faith and the dedication of the people of Sillalai, gifted the statue to the village, where a small cadjan hut was built for it. The rosary was recited daily at the feet of the statue.

During the Dutch period, when the Catholics were persecuted, the people of Sillalai took great pains to protect the statue, transferring it from place to place and hiding it in deep wells and abandoned huts.

The Joseph Vas connection

It was during this time of persecution in 1687 that a young priest from India, Father Joseph Vaz, arrived in the village. The priest and his faithful servant John, disguised as slaves, landed in Mannar and walked to Jaffna. Sillalai’s population was entirely Catholic, and when they came to know that he was a priest, they arranged a dwelling place for him in the Moopar’s (guardian of the village church) land. They built another hut in the vicinity and used it as the church.

The Sillalai cross

During the time Father Vaz spent in Sillalai, a Catholic named Kayar Pranchipillai, notwithstanding the repeated warnings of the priest, never went to Church. One day his house caught fire and was completely burnt down. Father Vaz, to console him, gave him a crucifix, asking him to make his peace with God and return to the Church with his family. Touched by this kindness, he brought back his whole family to Father Vaz. The cross which is today owned by the ninth generation recipient is used as an object of piety by the inhabitants of the village. This particular cross, about six or eight inches long, is similar to the one used by the Patriarchs.

The fire

One night, long after Father Vaz had left Sillalai, a devotee mistakenly left a naked flame that he had brought with him in the cadjan hut after praying at the feet of the statue of Our Lady. Late in the night, the hut caught fire reducing it to a heap of ashes. But the statue of our Lady was miraculously saved without any damage. Early next morning, when the Moopar saw this, he rang the bell out. The people gathered were shocked at the sight of the damage and the elegance of the statue which stood unharmed. Thereafter, a church was built using limestone and mud.

Building of the church

The Sillali church was built and rebuilt at the same place in 1836, 1896 and 1916. It was the late Reverend Father Louis Daisy OMI, a Belgian national who served the parish of Sillalai for 15 years, to whom credit goes for yeoman service. During his first term Father Daisy built two schools – one for boys and one for girls – on both sides of the church. His second term he built the church which is considered one of the most beautiful in the island. It was thoughtfully designed in the form of rainbow arcs without any pillars that block the view of the altar from the congregation. The foundation stone for this building was laid in 1957 and completed in 1961. Sillalai was economically backward at that time but Fr. Daisy encouraged them to contribute by way of manual work for the building construction.

The new church was blessed and declared open by then bishop of Jaffna, the Late Right Reverend Jerome Emiliamus Pillai. Father Daisy made a memorable statement about the support given by the parishioners, especially by school children, when he said, “This church is built not only with cement, sand, pebbles and water but also with the sweat of the small tots who helped.”

The faith of the people have so far produced bishops, priest and nuns – over 50 from each – and many lay servers who serve in the vineyard of the Lord at different levels in Sri Lanka and abroad. courtesy: Ceylon Today

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