Roman Catholic Diocese of Jaffna

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Diocese of Jaffna

Dioecesis Jaffnensis

யாழ்ப்பாண மறை மாவட்டம்
St. Mary's Cathedral, Jaffna.jpg
CountrySri Lanka
Ecclesiastical provinceColombo
Area4,400 km2 (1,700 sq mi)
- Catholics

DenominationRoman Catholic
RiteLatin Rite
Established17 February 1845
CathedralSt. Mary's Cathedral, Jaffna
Secular priests162
Current leadership
BishopJustin Gnanapragasam
Metropolitan ArchbishopMalcolm Ranjith
Website of the Diocese

The Diocese of Jaffna (Latin: Dioecesis Jaffnensis) is a Roman Catholic diocese for northern Sri Lanka, that dates back as far as the time of St. Francis Xavier. The current bishop is Justin Gnanapragasam.


The Apostolic Vicariate of Jaffna was created on 17 February 1845 from the Diocese of Ceylon.[1] On 1 September 1886 it was promoted to a diocese. On 25 August 1893 parts of diocese were transferred to newly created Diocese of Trincomalee.[1] On 19 December 1975 parts of diocese were transferred to newly created Apostolic Prefecture of Anuradhapura.[1] On 24 January 1981 parts of diocese were transferred to newly created Diocese of Mannar.[1]


In 1548 St. Francis visited Mannar and came to Jaffna to persuade the king to cease his persecutions against the Christians.[2]

In 1580, under the protection of the Portuguese, the first Catholic church was built at Jaffna. The whole peninsula having surrendered in 1591 to André Furtado de Mendonça, almost the entire population embraced Christianity. When the fort of Jaffna capitulated to the Dutch in 1658 there were in the peninsula 50 priests, 1 Jesuit college, 1 Franciscan and 1 Dominican convent, and 14 churches. For safety the famous miraculous Statue of Our Lady of Miracles, Jaffna patao ( புதுமை மாதா / Puthumai Matha 1614-1658) was smuggled out of the island by Portuguese prisoners. Since 1658, the Protectress of Jaffna is in exile in the church of Sao Pedro situated along the Mandovi river in Bainguinim, Goa, India.

Dutch period[edit]

The Dutch immediately manifested the most hostile disposition towards the Catholics. The priests and monks were banished, and giving them shelter was declared a capital offence. From that time dates the long persecution which ended only with the surrender of Ceylon to the British in 1796. To this diocese belongs the Island of Mannar rendered famous by the apostolic labours of St. Francis Xavier and by the martyrdom of 600 to 700 Christians, executed by order of the King of Jaffna. Madhu, though a solitary spot in the middle of the jungle, has also its historical fame. For a long time during the Dutch persecution it was the refuge of native Christians. To this spot they had transported a statue of Our Lady which is enshrined in the new church. Madhu has developed into an important pilgrimage, where more than 40,000 pilgrims congregate every year for the feast of the Visitation.

British period[edit]

In 1845 Ceylon was divided into the two vicariates of Colombo and Jaffna, with Bishop Orazio Bettachini as vicar Apostolic of the latter. In 1847 the Oblates of Mary Immaculate arrived in Ceylon. In 1857 the Jaffna vicariate was handed over to the Oblates, and on the death of Bishop Bettachini, Bishop Semeria, O.M.I., was appointed vicar Apostolic. In 1868 Bishop Christopher Bonjean, also O.M.I., succeeded Bishop Semeria. He had been in the missions for nine years in India and in 1856 had crossed over to Ceylon to join the Oblate Congregation. During his administration a great impulse was given to primary education. The effects of the Protestant and Hindu schools were more than counterbalanced by the activity of the bishop and the missionaries. Subsequently Bishop Bonjean was transferred to the metropolitan see of Colombo. Bishop Theophile Melirzan, O.M.I., succeeded him at Jaffna and, following in his footsteps, was named Archbishop of Colombo in 1893. In the same year Henri Joulain, Q.M.I., was appointed Bishop of Jaffna.

20th century[edit]

The entire population of the diocese in the early 20th century was 499,200; the Catholics numbering 45,500; the diocese was in the hands of the Oblates; 3 secular priests helping in the parochial ministry. The total number of missionaries was 46. Attached to the cathedral is St. Martin's seminary for the education of junior students aspiring to the priesthood. St. Patrick's college and boarding school is the most flourishing institution of the northern province. It has a staff of 6 European fathers, 1 native father, 2 brothers, and 15 native professors. The average number of students is 450. It is especially devoted to higher English education, and prepares its students for the Cambridge Junior and Senior examinations and for the London University Intermediate. Some years ago it was thought expedient to come into closer contact with non-Catholics and especially with the higher classes of Hindus. For this purpose a Hindu boarding school was attached to St. Patrick's college. The boarders number 100, with good prospects for the future. Jaffna convent, conducted by the Sisters of the Holy Family of Bordeaux, follows the same junior and senior courses, for the education of girls, as St. Patrick's. To the convent is attached a girls' orphanage. The native Brothers of St. Joseph are occupied in teaching at Jaffna, Kayts, Mannar and Mullaitivu. The native Sisters of St. Peter conduct primary schools in all the important stations of the diocese. There are 127 schools under the control of the missionaries, for the vernacular and primary English education. At the two industrial schools of Colombogam and Mullaitivu 125 orphan boys are taught agriculture and useful trades. The diocese has conferences of St. Vincent de Paul and young men's associations for the working classes. St. Joseph's Catholic Press is the home of the Jaffna Catholic Guardian, a weekly paper devoted to the interests of the diocese. A Catholic Club has just been founded for the purpose of interests of the Catholic community.

Bishops, Vicars Apostolics and Pro-Vicar Apostolics[edit]

# Pro-Vicar Apostolic Took office Left office
1st Orazio Bettacchini 1847 1849
# Vicar Apostolic Took office Left office
1st Orazio Bettacchini 1849 1857
2nd Jean-Etienne Sémeria 1857 1868
3rd Christophe-Etienne Bonjean 1868 1883
4th André-Théophile Mélizan 1883 1886
# Bishop Took office Left office
1st André-Théophile Mélizan 1886 1893
2nd Henri Joulain 1893 1919
3rd Jules-André Brault 1919 1923
4th Alfred-Jean Guyomard 1924 1950
5th Jerome Emilianuspillai 1950 1972
6th Bastiampillai Deogupillai 1972 1992
7th Thomas Savundaranayagam 1992 2015
8th Justin Gnanapragasam 2015


  •  This article incorporates text from a publication now in the public domainHerbermann, Charles, ed. (1913). "article name needed". Catholic Encyclopedia. New York: Robert Appleton.
  1. ^ a b c d "Diocese of Jaffna". GCatholic.
  2. ^ PD-icon.svg Herbermann, Charles, ed. (1913). "Diocese of Jaffna". Catholic Encyclopedia. New York: Robert Appleton Company.

Coordinates: 9°39′22″N 80°01′20″E / 9.6562°N 80.0222°E / 9.6562; 80.0222