Newsletter of the District of Asia

 Jul - Sep 2001

Some Historical Landmarks
in the History of the Catholic Church
in Sri Lanka 

1505 The first Portuguese ship arrived in Colombo. On board, there was a Franciscan priest who celebrated the first Holy Mass in Sri Lanka. 
1534 Creation of Goa Diocese (Portuguese Asia) which included Sri Lanka.
1543 St Francis Xavier sent a 'clerigo' (most likely a priest) to the island of Mannar, next to Jaffna, in the North. King John III of Portugal sent the first permanent priests, Franciscans, to Sri Lanka.
1544 600-700 of the new Christians of Mannar are martyred by the king of Jaffna.
1545 St Francis Xavier made a quick stop in Colombo, Mannar and Jaffna. 
1558 Sri Lanka is detached from Goa and attached to the new diocese of Cochin, in Kerala (South West India). 


Under Portuguese Rule 

1587 Portugal conquered Jaffna. So far, about 2000 faithful and 16 missionaries have died for the faith. 
1602 Arrival of the first Jesuits.
1605 Arrival of the first Dominicans.
1606 Arrival of the first Augustinians.

Within the first 100 years of the arrival of the faith in Sri Lanka, about 150 churches were built, 68 of which were dedicated to Our Blessed Lady under 24 titles.


Under Dutch Rule

1637-1658 Gradual fall of all the forts to the Dutch, Jaffia being the last. Sri Lanka became a Dutch colony.
1687 April Blessed Joseph Vaz arrived in Jaffna as a sick beggar.
1705 Arrival of Fr. Jacome Gonsalves, a great scholar in the Sinhalese and Tamil languages.
1711, Jan. 16 Death of Blessed Joseph Vaz.
1742, July 17 Death of Fr. J. Gonsalves. 

During their Rule, realizing that the conversions they were obtaining through violence or by the attraction of worldly rewards would not last, and that the soul of the Sri Lankans would always be rebellious to Calvinism, the Dutch Rulers became ardent promoters of paganism. That way, at least, they would push away the spectre of Catholicism as far as possible. They managed to save Buddhism which was dying away, thanks to the work of the Catholic Portuguese missionaries. In order to reanimate its doctrines, they refilled its empty temples, and to restore to its ceremonies the Oriental pomp, the Dutch authorities offered to the King of Kandy their own ships to go to Siam (Thailand) and fetch 12 young and Zealous Buddhist monks, able to restore the worship of Buddha.  

Nevertheless, when the persecutors' arms got tired of hitting and of killing, fifty thousand Catholics appeared in the open. Many of them came out of the jungle where their hunted ancestors had hidden themselves. They had regrouped themselves there in inaccessible villages. The leader, chosen among the best, baptised the children, presided the Sunday prayers, gave the talks, assisted at marriages, at the burials. Fidelity to the Pope of Rome had been jealously preserved. Thus generations had passed on to one another the Tradition, and, like their abandoned Christian brothers of Japan, faith had survived amidst ruins. "
Fr. Duchaussois O.M.I. Sous les feux de Ceylan, Paris, 1929, p.66)


Under British Rule

1796 Colombo capitulated to the British. 
1798 Sri Lanka became a British colony. 

"Then, Albion tried first to destroy by kindness what Holland had not succeeded to gain by violence. The Anglican, Methodist, Baptist ministers came with hands full of unction and promises: "Do you come from Rome?"Asked in their simplicity the Sri Lankans "No, but now it is the true religion that I bring you!" "Go away, we only accept here priests from Rome!" (Duchaussois, op.cit. pp.69-70)

1806, June 4 The British government restored full religious freedom to Catholics.
1834, Dec. 3 Sri Lanka became an independent ecclesiastical territory, the Vicariate Apostolic of Sri Lanka.
At the same time, the King of Portugal suppressed all religious orders in his country and colonies. Thus, stopping the Goan Oratorians from coming to Sri Lanka, which they had done for 150 years (since the arrival of Bl. Vaz).
1847, Nov. 28 Arrival of the first Oblates of Mary Immaculate (O.M.I.), sent by St Eugene of Mazenod, founder of the O.M.I.
1886, Sept.1 Canonical erection of the Catholic Hierarchy of Sri Lanka by Leo XIII.
1887, Jan. 6 Proclamation, by the Apostolic Delegate, of the elevation of bishop Christopher Bonjean, as first Archbishop of Colombo.
1947 First Sri Lankan native Archbishop, Thomas Benjamin Cooray.

A first Holy Communion in the good old days!
Sometimes, more than 1000 children would make it together!


1948, Feb. 4 Independence from England. Most foreign missionaries had to leave in the following years.
1965 Archbishop Cooray was made Cardinal (he supported the Coetus Internationalis Patrum during Vatican II).

Death of Cardinal Cooray.  

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