St. Mary’s Cathedral Jaffna: bastion of the Northern Catholics | Sunday Observer

St. Mary’s Cathedral Jaffna: bastion of the Northern Catholics

13 October, 2019
View of St. Mary’s Cathedral
View of St. Mary’s Cathedral

The majestic, beige and white dome of a cathedral is visible rising into the sky, from the side of the famous St. Patrick’s College, Jaffna. This is the largest cathedral in the Northern Province embellished with history, martyrdom and zealous faith.

The early years of this great house of prayer is one of sacrifice, and in the decades gone by a story of perseverance laced with divine victory. I entered its sacred precincts accompanied by Rev. Fr. Michael. An aura of stillness permeated the premises. On the right side was the old Mission House where the pioneer Catholic clergy once lived and served. The brown and grey building has stood here for more than a century. The side view of the cathedral is amazing and reflected the massive walls of this edifice. We entered the office of the resident priest Rev. Fr. Charles Xavier Nesarajah.

Rev. Fr. Nesarajah explained, “This is the Cathedral for the Catholic community of Jaffna. It is the cathedral and cathedra (seat of office) of the Bishop of Jaffna Rt.Rev. Dr. Justin Gnanapragasam. The beautiful history of this church dates back to the final years of the Portuguese in Ceylon. The dedicated work of the early missionary fathers gave birth to this magnificent Cathedral which can accommodate 3,000 worshippers. It also functions as the house of prayer for the students of St. Patrick’s College. We celebrate mass daily at 5.30 am and on Sundays we have mass at 5.30 am, 7.30 am and 5pm. Our congregation is made up of the Catholics of Jaffna and others who visit us from all parts of the Northern Province”.

A murdered Tamil prince


The origins of the first young Catholic martyr in Ceylon dates back to the time of the Portuguese. The reigning Tamil king of Jaffna was Cankili the First. His young son had befriended a Portuguese by the name of Andre De Souza. Gradually, the kind man influenced the boy to embrace the Catholic faith. Weeks later the young Tamil prince convinced by his new religion was getting ready to travel to Goa (India) to be formally baptized. News of this secret voyage reached the king. The king was enraged and ordered the execution of his own son in November 1544.

Later perhaps convicted by his own guilt the king conducted the son’s funeral with royal honours. However, the ashes of the martyred prince were buried on the border of a forest in Jaffna. A man named Antonio Fernandez had built a tiny chapel on this location and the place was called ‘Emilda de Cruz”.

According to some, a luminous cross used to randomly appear at this spot many decades ago. Centuries later by a coincidence this became the building site for the first chapel, which later blossomed into St. Mary’s Cathedral.

Since that time, between 1750 and 1780 the devout Catholics had gathered for worship at a small chapel built under the shade of a large tamarind tree. It is believed that by 1789 the foundation was laid to build a church. By 1794 the church was nearly completed under the guidance of Rev. Fr. Leonardo Reberio, who came to Ceylon from the Oratory of Goa. The early Oratorian fathers dedicated the church as “Our Lady of Conceicao’- referring to the immaculate conception of Blessed Mary.

The church records indicate that one Chevalier Savarimuthu had helped to complete the portico of the church. By 1924 Bishop Alfred Guyomar, fondly known as the ‘building bishop’ had decided to build a new cathedral.

Footsteps of faith

The engineers were Norman Percy and Ranesinghe. During the tenure of Rev.Fr. P.T. James the nave and belfry were completed. By 1959 Rev. Fr. Augustine had completed the remaining sections with the ardent support of Bishop Emileanuspillai. The much needed funds were received from Switzerland by Rev. Sister. Clara Francisca of the Holy Cross Order. In 1976 the prudent Bishop, Rt. Rev. Dr. Deogupillai assisted by Rev.Fr. J.P. Selvarajah did much to enhance the building. The latter went onto complete two new wings of the Cathedral, despite many challenges. In that period a bag of cement was purchased at 12 rupees from the cement factory.

We walked inside the cathedral. The inner sanctum did not have many colourful adornments, but perhaps its majesty lay in its simple but large construction. The cathedral resonates with the tones of Goanese design. The solid marble altar has been carved from one block with a large wooden crucifix suspended above. Back in 1875 the marble tabernacle had been got down from Europe at a cost of one thousand rupees. On either side are two medium sized stained glass windows with the images of Jesus and Mother Mary. On the left hand side a statue of Mother Mary is mounted on a wooden pedestal.

The dome rises 115 feet while the total floor area of the Cathedral is 34,550 square feet. The roof and some parts of the cathedral were damaged by bombings during the war. One of the wooden doors still showed bullet holes, a dark reminder of how much this parish had endured. During the war it was a refuge for hundreds of displaced people. Another unique feature is the balcony at the end of the cathedral- something new in that era of church building.

The four bells have a history of their own.

The original large bell gifted by the oblates was removed and sent to Madhu Church. Subsequently, four new bells were ordered from Pacard and Company in France. The bells were delivered between 1901 and 1904 and were named with the first names of the four Catholic Bishops of Jaffna - Stephen (Semeria), Christopher (Bonjean), Andrew (Melizan) and Henry (Joulain). The spacious gardens outside the cathedral accentuate the serenity of this venue. On the left side of the main entrance is a statue paying tribute to the first oblate Bishop of Jaffna. The cathedral has witnessed much change over the decades.

The good work of the zealous founding fathers can be summed up in Latin – Ad Maiorem Dei Glorium (for the greater glory of God). One of the beloved sons of Jaffna who often prayed here was the late Rev.Fr. H.S. David a linguistic scholar who spoke many languages and served in the staff of St. Patrick’s College. Today Rev.Fr. Charles Nesarajah is assisted by Rev. Fr. Gerard and Rev. Fr. Alvin. Thus for almost 225 years the awe inspiring Cathedral of St. Mary has guided thousands of Catholics. She will vibrantly do so in the decades ahead, and would be a radiant light of faith and hope to the people of the Northern Province.