The Catholic bastions of Kayts | Sunday Observer

The Catholic bastions of Kayts

26 January, 2020
Facade of St. Mary’s Church
Facade of St. Mary’s Church

Among the islands in the Northern Province the one with the most historic and commercial value is the island of Kayts. Commonly referred to as Oorkavatthurai by Northerners this amazing island was once a vibrant harbour and colonial naval establishment.

According to ancient records by 1178 AD it was a strategic harbour where King Parakramabahu 1 gathered his troops and also built a fleet of sea going vessels.

During this time Oorkavatthurai was one of two ports connecting us to South India, the other being the port of Kankesanthurai. Perfectly positioned at the entrance to the Jaffna lagoon the port commanded the sea routes through the Palk Bay in all sailing directions.

Hence, the Tamil language name Oorkavatthurai, which translates as, the port guarding the city. Over the past century the area was popularly known as Kayts, a name still used. Kayts is derived from the Portuguese word Cais which means a pier. The Dutch during their rule called it Kayts.

Since ancient times the people of Kayts were daring seafarers, and produced many marine captains and tug masters. To this day they excel in making boats. Old records indicate that the Customs revenue of Kayts was only second to the Colombo harbour, which shows the volume of trading.

Church of Saint Anthony

It is well known that the Portuguese traders propagated their faith and thus influenced the people of Kayts. It is fascinating to note that the Catholics who live in the east of Kayts are descendants of the famous martyrs of Mannar - the incident where many Tamil Catholics were slain for converting by the ruling king of Jaffna in that era. These folk settled in Chaddi and took to farming.

Today Kayts has a collection of Catholic churches. It is a Catholic stronghold of the North having produced many priests, of which six were promoted to the divine office of Bishop of Jaffna. The British rulers appreciated the seafaring people of Kayts, once they took control of the port. During the Second World War the Japanese bombed the pier and some ships and since then the port of Kayts lost its commercial value.

Travelling from Jaffna to Kayts with Fr. Michael we passed many paddy fields and red onion cultivation. Cormorants flew around a massive pond. Herds of cattle intercepted the road now and then. We reached the town of Kayts and passing the hospital, on the right hand side of the road is a majestic church painted brown and white. The church of St. Anthony has stood here for two centuries. We met up with Rev. Fr. Mayuran and walked into the church, where the floor was being renovated in anticipation of the grand bicentennial celebration in June this year. Fr. Mayuran said, “This is the second oldest church in Kayts, the construction of which had begun in 1820. Before that period the Dutch didn’t tolerate the local Catholics. Devotees had to hide their statues in wells. Years later when a tree was being cut down a small statue (hidden in the trunk) had popped out creating much interest among the locals. Soon people began to visit the area and the miracles attributed to the church spread all over the country. In 1921 the church celebrated her centenary with mass being said by the Bishop of Jaffna Rev. Jules Brault”.

We walked around the massive church. The roof was so high our voices echoed. Yellow stained glass windows enriched the glow of the sunlight. The wooden altar was imposing.

The large bell on the left side of the church could be heard across the Kayts area when it is rung. Church records indicate that in 1849 Bishop Orazio Bettachini had decided to hand over the missions of Kayts and Mannar to the Jesuits. Two Jesuit missionaries were sent to Kayts- Fr. Frederic Rapatel and Fr. Vuillemert. By 1952 the Jesuits withdrew all their priests from the Vicariate of Jaffna. It is interesting to note that two former Bishops of Jaffna, Rev. Henri Joulain and Rev. Andre Melizan had served as parish priests of this church. Opposite this church is the school, St. Anthony’s College, founded in 1872 by the French priest Rev. Fr. Joseph Boisseau. This school has witnessed many stages in its long journey and the present rector is Rev. Fr. James Singarayar.

St. Mary’s Church

We then visited another church in Kayts. St. Mary’s Church, adorned in shades of blue and white, with its intricate and elegant architecture is one of the most beautiful churches in Sri Lanka. Large trees dotted the garden offering shade from the midday sun, where hens and ducks meandered.

The young assistant priest Rev. Fr. H. Eronius greeted us. We walked into the church and the sheer size of the main altar was amazing.

This is by far one of the largest wooden altars in Sri Lanka. Made of solid wood the altar resembles a small chapel. The stained glass windows enhanced the beauty of this old sanctuary.

Fr. Eronius said “The foundation for this church was laid in 1780 by Rev. Leonorado Riberia. A century later the old church was demolished and a new church began to take shape, the façade of which was completed in 1895.

The large altar was designed by South Indian architects and completed in 1907. The statue of St. Mary above the altar was carved out of a single tree”.

On the left is a private chapel dedicated to the Holy Eucharist. We walked around the church and noticed that the Corinthian style columns were cut from single slabs of stone. Even the adornments on the columns were cut from coral rock.

Another unique feature of this church is the solitary statue of Christ the King on top of the belfry. Opposite the church is St. Mary’s Girls’ School, where the present principal is Rev. Sr. Grace Stanislaus.

Kayts has two other historic Catholic churches. St. James Church built in 1815 by Rev. Fr. Dalgoda and Rev. Fr. Sylvanus Lorenz. The fourth church in Kayts is dedicated to Saint Joseph which began to take shape in 1925. Due to rain we didn’t have time to visit these churches.

The good work of the pioneering Catholic clergy has touched and transformed thousands of lives. Kayts is a must visit destination for those who love church history and appreciate architecture.