The mission of Valikamam, at the early part of the history of the Oblates in Sri Lanka, was in the area north of Jaffna Mission and on the south of the channel of Thondamanaru. This mission also was continuous with the Mission of Jaffna. Some of the churches of Valikamam were only 7 miles from Jaffna; others are 12, 18 or even 20 miles away. The people were all Tamils.
The mission of Valikamam was one of the three missions in the Jaffna peninsula, which was situated in the Northern Province. The Northern Province, Eastern Province, North-western Province are the three, out of the six provinces into which the civil administration of then Ceylon was divided, formed together the Northern or Jaffna Vicariate. The Northern Province had the area of 5,427 square miles and the total population was 315,000 in 1861. Each province was divided into various missions.
According to the report on ‘The Various Missions of Ceylon’ sent on 12 February 1844 to propaganda Fide by the Vicar Apostolic of Ceylon, Mgr. Caetano Antonio, a Goan Oratorian, in the mission of Valikamam had the catholic population of 3669. And there were nineteen churches, of which some were built of stones, some of clay, but all were covered with the leaves of palms, and besides three, the others do not have doors or windows. One was distant from another by one mile, half a mile, two miles, three miles, and four miles. Five of them were dedicated to the Blessed Virgin Mary, five to St. Anthony, two to St. John the Baptist, two to St. Joseph, one to St. Thomas the Apostle, another to St. Cajetan, another to St. Philip Neri, another to St. James the Apostle, and another to the Holy Apostles Peter and Paul.
It was in November 1847 the missionaries of the Oblates of Mary Immaculate arrived in Sri Lanka on the invitation of the newly appointed Vicar Apostolic of Jaffna Bishop Orazio Bettachini, an Italian Oratorian. The first band of four Oblates under the superior-ship of Fr. Étienne Semeria, o.m.i., landed in the Vicariate of Jaffna, for which they were destined to, on 10 March 1848.
It was only in September 1853 Oblates took over this mission of Valikamam for the first time from Fr. Erminio Guidi. Fr. Guidi, an Italian Oratorian, arrived in the Jaffna Vicariate with the first band Oblates on 10 March 1848 accompanied by Bishop Bettachini. Fr. Guidi was a brother when he arrived and was raised to the priesthood on 26 May 1849 at Trincomalee. From the time of his ordination he had been in the mission of Valikamam. The first Oblate to go to the mission of Valikamam was Fr. Jean Le Bescou o.m.i., and he was assisted by Fr. Auguste-Marie Rouffiac, o.m.i., who had just arrived into the country. He became the pastor of this mission when Fr. Jean Le Bescou was transferred in August 1855. He came back to the mission again in May 1860.
The period of years of 1850 to 1855 was very crucial time in the mission of Valikamam and in large in Jaffna Vicariate. It was the time when cholera was ravaging in the town of Jaffna and its suburbs. It first broke out with sudden fury in August 1849, and continued for five dreadful years, bringing death and desolation practically over the whole Vicariate of Jaffna. Jaffna town which was full of life and activity, suddenly turned into a sort of stupor: work was suspended; schools were deserted; the streets were empty, except for a few gaunt figures slinking along like ghosts; happy homes turned into heart rending scenes, with mourning and wailing everywhere. Very few families were not infected by the dread malady. Many of them were either entirely or at least partially destroyed. Several times the husband and wife, father and sons, brothers and sisters had to be buried at the same time. In the midst of this desolation, the Oblate missionaries were moved about the town and its suburbs like ministering angels, assisting the sick, caring the victims, burying the dead and consoling and comforting the suffering. As they were few in number, they had to multiply themselves, for the area affected was extensive. They had neither the time nor the inclination to look after themselves. Day or night, they were ready to go whatsoever charity and zeal beckoned to them, regardless of distance, of the difficulties of the way, of their own fatigue. Without waiting for them to be called, they went about, ringing a small bell, so that stricken families or their neighbours might know that they are passing by. They could not take and they did not take any precautions against infection because the very air was contaminated with dreadful germs. Though some of the Oblates also caught the infection, they were spared of their life through the mercy of divine providence. But there were others who became victim to the dreadful disease.
Fr. Victor Lacombe, o.m.i., came to the Vicariate of Jaffna in May 1853. He was assigned to the mission of Jaffna. He was very energetic young priest. He committed himself to work among the victims of cholera; therefore he extended his ministry to other villages that fell victim of this epidemic. Thus he was busy on his charity mission in the cholera-stricken mission of Valikamam West, helping the sick, assisting the dying, burying the dead and comforting the suffering. He did not have the time to look after himself or to take any precautionary measures. In the midst of his activities, one day he found himself in the grips of the disease. Immediately he sent word for Fr. Semeria, his superior. Fr. Semeria made all the haste he could to reach him, but he was too late. When he arrived at Mathagal, he found Fr. Lacombe lying at the foot of the altar clasping his crucifix - he was dead. It was on 22 January 1855. He was the third Oblate to die on the soil of Sri Lanka. He was only 29 years of age when was buried as a seed of future oblate mission.
The mission of Valikamam experienced a vibrant renewal in 1857. The oblate group of preachers conducted a sixty-eight day of Parish Mission with a call ‘Caritas Christi urgent nos’. It was a second place to conduct such mission after Kayts. Bishop Semeria, Fr. Ernest Christophe Bonjean, o.m.i., and Fr. Constant Chounavel, o.m.i., were the preachers. The Parish Mission began on 28 November 1857 and continued till 04 February 1858. Fr. Bonjean described his experiences in these words: “That which struck me most at first was the piety with which they (people) assisted at Mass, following with profound attention all the actions of the Priest at the altar. Thus at the beginning of the Mass, it was the Confiteor which they all recited quite aloud; at the Credo the Post- Communion and Salve Regina, it was a veritable humming of prayers, very consoling indeed in so far as it was a testimony of their union of hearts; but it was above all at the Elevation that this murmur of prayers had something really thrilling; you would believe that you were hearing the noise of a near-by torrent precipitating itself by degrees. The zeal of the Catholics to listen to the word of God made us from the very beginning augur well for the definite success of the Mission in fact, in spite of the torrential showers that were inundating the whole region, the assistance at the holy services was hardly diminished. I had truly compassion on this poor People; the paths which conducted them to the different villages were in a horrible state; several of our listeners had to traverse a distance of many miles often under a beating rain, without having their ardent zeal cooled down in the least thereby. Surely, the good God would have rewarded so much of good will by an abundant shower of graces!’’
Fr. Léon Jean-Baptiste Pélissier, o.m.i., was assigned to the mission of Valikamam in September 1857, and he continued till 1860. During his stay at Valikamam, he completed the nave of the church the roof of the church at Myliddy. Fr. Frédéric Mouchel, o.m.i., succeeded him for a short time, one year in 1860. Fr. Gabriel Salaün, o.m.i., came to this mission in 1862. Fr. Marie-Louis Boisseau, o.m.i., was sent to the mission of Valikamam as socius to Fr. Salaün on 14 September 1863, to be initiated into missionary life. But, Bishop Semeria chose Fr. Salaün as superior of the Vicarial House of Jaffna and appointed on 17 February 1865, Fr. Boisseau under took the mission of Valikamam. It was during his time he built the presbytery of St. Anne’s church at Ilavalai, and began the edifice of St. Cajetan at Marisankoodal. The wooden pillars supporting the central nave were brought from the old church of St. James in Jaffna. In 1876 Fr. Boniface Gourdon, o.m.i., came to this mission. During his stay at Valikamam, he began the church of St. Francis de Sales at Chankanai to serve as a mission centre for the few Catholics of that place.
According to the report sent by Bishop Semeria to Propaganda Fide on 03 September 1861 there were four churches and eighteen chapels with 5,012 Catholics. The total population of this region was 90,000 in the same year.
The mission of Valikamam is now in the Diocese of Jaffna. Bishop Semeria, in the Vicariate of Jaffna, was succeeded by Bishop Bonjean in July 1868. The Oblate succession continued until the time Bishop Jerome Emilianus Pillai, o.m.i., who passed away on 17 July 1972. He was the last Oblate Bishop in the diocese. Hence, the presence of the Oblates still continues involving in various ministries in the diocese of Jaffna.
Jerome Velichor , O.M.I.
Sources and Bibliography
Philip, Jesuthasan, o.m.i., ed., Gleanings
from the Oblate Mission Field in Ceylon, Mannar, 2003, p. 140-147.
Philip, Jesuthasan, o.m.i., Our Tribute, Vol. I, Ampitiya, 2001, p. 11, 31, 68, 87, 97, 194, 208.
Kuruppu, D.J.B., The Oblates of Mary Immaculate in Ceylon, Colombo, p. 49-51.
Missions O.M.I., 1864, p. 449-511.
Perniola, V., s.j., The Catholic Church in Sri Lanka: The British Period, Vol. I, Dehiwala, 1992, p. 412-420; Vol. III, p. 347-601; Vol. IV, p. 451-752.