Shrine of Our Lady of Madhu

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Shrine of Our Lady of Madhu
Madhu Church (Madu Church)9.jpg
Basic information
Location Mannar district, Sri Lanka
Affiliation Roman Catholic
Rite Latin Rite
Status Active
Architectural description
Architectural type Church
Architectural style Baroque Revival

The Shrine of Our Lady of Madhu is a Roman Catholic Marian shrine in Mannar district of Sri Lanka. With a history of over 400 years, this shrine acts as a center for pilgrimage and worship for Sri Lankan Catholics.[1] The site is considered as the holiest Catholic shrine in the island[2] and is a well known place of devotion for both Tamil and Sinhalese Catholics.[3] The church has been a symbol of unity not just between Tamils and Sinhalese, but also between people of different religions, including Buddhists, Hindus and Protestants.[4]

Pope Pius XI granted the image a Canonical coronation on 2 July 1924. Attendance for the August festival at times touched close to a million people before the outbreak of the Sri Lankan Civil War.[1] Situated in the heart of the conflict zone, pilgrimage to this shrine was dramatically affected by the Civil War with the presence of refugee camps around the shrine complex.[2] It was shelled a number of times.



Christianity in Sri Lanka is not well known before the 16th century although some local traditions claim that Saint Thomas the Apostle was active in the island.[5] The Portuguese missionaries from India, especially under the authority of Saint Francis Xavier, are known to have brought Roman Catholicism to the Kingdom of Jaffna, which comprised the northern peninsula of Sri Lanka.[6] The newly converted Christians were under persecution under both the king of Jaffna[6] and the Dutch.[7] During this time the Catholics regrouped to form a church in Mantai installing a statue of Our Lady of Good Health in a shrine.[6]

The shrine in Madhu[edit]

The Dutch invasion and the persecution of the Catholic Church in 1670,[7] led to 20 Catholic families fleeing from Mantai, along with the statue of Mary in that church to a safer locale of Madhu.[8] About the same time another 700 Catholics migrated from Jaffna peninsula into Wanni forests. When these two communities met in Madhu they installed a new shrine with the statue.[6]


With the revival of Catholic faith by missionaries such as Saint Joseph Vaz, Oratorian priests expanded the small shrine in late 17th century.[6] With the arrival of British to the island, the persecution ceased, but the number of Catholics remained small, with just 50,000 members in 1796.[7] With such a small community the shrine at Madhu started to attract pilgrims from all over the country.[6] The stifling of Jesuit authority which had started in 1773 in the subcontinent[9] built-up as a problem and eventual suppression of the Congregation in Madhu by 1834.[6] The building of the new church was initiated by Bishop Bonjean in 1872 and his successors built a facade, the spacious presbytery, the restful chapel of the Blessed Sacrament and the grotto of Our Lady of Lourdes.[8]

Papal recognition[edit]

In 1920 Bishop Brault, who was very devoted to Our Lady of Madhu, obtained the Pope's sanction for the historic solemn Canonical Coronation of the Statue of Our Lady of Madhu. Bishop Brault with the clergy and the laity had petitioned the Vatican Chapter through the Apostolic Delegate Cardinal Van Rossam, Prefect of the S.C. of Propaganda and he personally presented the request to the Pope, who in his audience of April 7, 1921, granted the request. In 1924 it was officially crowned by the Papal Legate who came in the name of Pope Pius XI.[8]

The Consecration of the Church[edit]

The Church was consecrated in 1944 during World War II. In preparation for the consecration ceremony, a marble altar replaced the old wooden structure and the whole sanctuary was covered with white and blue marble. In spite of travel restrictions and difficulties finding conveyance, more than 30,000 people came to the jungle shrine.[6]

The penitential tour[edit]

The statue of Our Lady of Madhu had been taken for procession thrice to the parishes in Sri Lanka, in 1948, 1974 and in 2001. The latter was as a spiritual effort to encourage Catholics in Sri Lanka to pray for peace and an end to the civil war.[8]

Feast day at Madhu[edit]

In the year 1870 the new Bishop arranged an annual festival to be celebrated on 2 July.[6] But in recent years the August 15th festival draws the biggest crowds because it is one of the most hallowed days for Catholics celebrating the day of Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary into heaven and also because the school holidays facilitate entire families to make the trip.[1]

Church amidst civil war[edit]


The Civil War on the island-nation of Sri Lanka lasted thirty years. Since 1983 there was on-and-off civil war, predominantly between the government and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE, also known as the Tamil Tigers), a separatist militant organization who fight to create an independent state named Tamil Eelam in the North and East of the island. It is estimated that more than 68,000 people were killed since 1983[10]

Refugee camps[edit]

The shrine has housed thousands of refugees since 1990.[11] In the Autumn of 1999 more than 10,000 refugees were camped for security reasons around the Shrine area and was regarded as a "demilitarized zone".[3]

Madhu church shelling[edit]

On November 20, 1999 the area was shelled killing 44 people and injuring more than 60; both sides blamed the other.[11][12][13] Catholic bishops called for the Madhu vicinity to be a demilitarised zone with guaranteed security for pilgrims and the 15,000 refugees taking shelter.[11] When the violence escalated the civilians sheltered in the premises had to flee further north; the statue itself had to be moved because of repeated shelling.[4]

See also[edit]


Coordinates: 8°51′18″N 80°12′10″E / 8.854948°N 80.202880°E / 8.854948; 80.202880