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St Joseph's Church Atchuvely 175th Anniversary
Phillip Jeganathan BSc (Hons) ACMA


Celebration of 175th anniversary of St Joseph's Church Atchuvely -Sri Lanka

St Joseph’s Church at Atchuvely is one of the many magnificent churches in Sri Lanka. It is situated about 300m from the Atchuvely - Vasavilan Road (Chankanai Road). As it is situated away from the main road, this magnificent church is not visible to the passing public. This church is one of the few remarkable buildings one can clearly see from the air when flying into Palaly airport in Jaffna. May be because of its visibility, this church may have been spared from the Sri Lankan air force bombardment. Many of the army and air force top brass stationed at the Palaly Air base visited this church.

Catholics at Atchuvely

The seeds of Roman Catholicism were sown in Atchuvely with the arrival of the Portuguese to Sri Lanka in the early part of the sixteenth century. (The Portuguese first came to Sri Lanka in 1502) The conversion of heathens was part of the public policy of the Portuguese, and therefore in 1518 a number of Franciscan friars arrived in Ceylon, and, under the protection of the Portuguese Government, preached the gospel and converted many thousands. Many churches and monasteries were established in Sri Lanka in that period. There is evidence that there was a vibrant Catholic community at Atchuvely during the Portuguese time. The ruined building next to Atchuvely Maha Vithyalam (formally Atchuvely Christian College) is said to be part of the Holy Spirit Church, a catholic church.

St Francis Xavier and Sri Lanka

St Francis Xavier arrived in Goa, India on 8 May 1542, the first Jesuit priest to come to India, and preach the Good News to the newly converted catholics of the South Indian coastal villages. He and his brother priests sailed to Mannar Island in Sri Lanka and spread the Catholic faith among the coastal villagers. In 1544 the newly converted catholics of Mannar (Kadayer or Kamndalar), which was part of the kingdom of Jaffna, invited Xavier to come and baptize them. Since he was not in a position to go himself, a fellow-missionary priest Fr Juan de Lizano was sent to Mannar. He baptized around a thousand Mannar residents.

The king of Jaffna, Chekarãsa Sëkaran, hearing of this conversion fearing that this would be a step towards the Portuguese occupation of his kingdom, sent his troops to Mannar, who massacred six to seven hundred of the new converts, while the rest of the catholics fled to the mainland. In a letter of 27 January 1545 to fellow-Jesuits in Rome, Xavier speaks of the martyrdom of the Mannarites and says, "though I regret the action of the king, I am happy that so many received the crown of martyrdom".

After the new converts of Mannar were massacred, Xavier requested the Portuguese governor in Goa to take steps to punish the king, but a move in this direction was made only 15 years later, in 1560, that is, eight years after Xavier's death (He died in 1552).

The viceroy of Portugal, Constantino de Braganza, led an expedition to Jaffna, but it ended in failure. He thereupon captured the island of Mannar and built a fort there, hoping to take Jaffna later. In 1591, about 30 years after Braganza's failed attempt to subdue Jaffna, a Portuguese force under the command of André Furtado de Mendonça, captured Jaffna, killed the reigning king Puviraja Pandaaram (1582-1591), on the ground that he was hostile to the Portuguese, and set on the throne a prince who was prepared to reign as a vassal of Portugal. He was Edirimanasingam or Pararasa Sekaran.

During his reign the Franciscans were able to engage in missionary activity. The Church of Our Lady of Miracles, they built near the king's palace at Nallur, the capital, was later transferred to Jaffna and became their main church in the kingdom and a popular shrine.

When Pararãsa Sëkaran died in 1615, his seven-year-old son succeeded him. The late king's brother, Arasa Kësari, became regent, but another prince, known as Sankili, slew him and took his place. It came to the ears of the Portuguese that he was conspiring with the Dutch to get them out. The captain-general in Colombo, Dom Constantino de Sa de Noronha, dispatched a force to Jaffna under the command of Philip de Oliveyra. Sankili was taken prisoner. The young king and his two sisters and other members of the royal family were exiled to Colombo and the kingdom of Jaffna brought under direct Portuguese rule. Sankily was sent to Goa where he was tried and executed.

On 18 June 1623 Pararãsa Sëkaran's son and daughters, his queen and other members of the Jaffna royal family were solemnly baptized at the Franciscan Church of St Anthony in Colombo. The prince was given the name Dom Constantino, after his godfather, the captain-general Constantino de Sa, and the princesses were named Dona Maria and Dona Izabel. The three were later sent to Goa where the prince became a Franciscan, Constantino de Cristo and held various posts in the order. The two princesses became nuns at the Augustinian Convent of St Monica in Goa, the first Sri Lankans to become nuns. Dona Izabel died in her youth (1645) while Dona Maria lived to a ripe old age. On 1 January 1682 she was elected the convent's prioress. She died on 9 April of the same year.

The Dutch were prominent sea merchants at that time and frequented Sri Lankan coastal waters. The king of Kandy, Rãjasimha II sought the help of the Dutch to get the Portuguese out of the country. The Dutch took the Portuguese fort at Batticaloa in 1638 and several other coastal forts, subsequently, including the strategically important one of Galle which was taken in 1640. With the capitulation of Colombo to the Dutch in 1656 and of Jaffna in 1658, Portuguese rule in Sri Lanka came to an end.

The Dutch feared that Lanka's Catholics might not be loyal to them and would want the return of the Portuguese. The Dutch therefore took measures to stamp out Catholicism from the country. The Catholic faith was proscribed. Catholic churches and schools were confiscated. All Catholic priests were banished from the country. A proclamation was made that anyone harbouring or aiding a priest would be subject even to capital punishment. Catholics were required to attend services in Dutch and to have their children baptized, their marriages solemnized and their dead buried according to Calvinist rites. The fact that the Dutch took such stringent measures against Catholicism shows that at the end of the Portuguese period the number of Catholics in the island had been considerable.

During this period, the Dutch authorities destroyed most of the Catholic places of worship including the Holy Spirit Church at Atchuvely. However the Catholics managed to function underground. The Atchuvely Catholics continued nurturing their faith secretly even under the very nose of Dutch officialdom.

Blessed Joseph Vas and Atchuvely During the Dutch administration there were no priests to shepherd the Catholics in the Jaffna peninsula. About this time Rev Joseph Vas learned of the problems of the Catholics in Ceylon; harassed and persecuted by the Dutch, they had had no priests for almost fifty years. He sought permission to work in Ceylon, but was asked to go to the mission in Kanara, India. Though he accepted the offer, his heart was in Ceylon. In 1686 he gave up his position, and set out for Ceylon. Disguised as an itinerant worker, he reached the port of Tuticorin on Easter 1687, and then proceeded to the Dutch stronghold of Jaffna in the north of the Ceylon.

On his way, he had acute dysentery, contracted due to the terrible travelling conditions. On his recovery he began his mission by contacting Catholics and continued evading the Dutch. He was taken in by a courageous Catholic and continued ministering to his secret flock by night. Always one step ahead of the authorities, in 1689 he went to the Catholic village of Sillalai and began ministering to the folks in the surrounding villages continuing his mission among the scattered Catholic communities. This probably included the Catholics at Atchuvely. Sillalai is not far from Atchuvely and there are many social and cultural links between these two communities. Later the missionary priest in charge of St Philip Neri took over from him and continued administering to the faithful in Atchuvely. It is well substantiated that Holy Mass was celebrated frequently though secretly at the Kanakkar's (Book keeper) house situated to the East of the Atchuvely market. This place is now known as Adaththar (Altar) House.

A new era, however, dawned with the colonisation of the island by the British which put into practice the principles of religious liberty, though the Church of England became in turn the established church of the colonial masters. The greater part of the "Dutch Christians" among the natives were either absorbed by the Anglican Church or reverted to their original religious persuasion.

The census of 1901 gave the following religious statistics in Sri Lanka: Buddhists, 2,141,404; Hindus, 826,826; Christians, 349,239; Mohammedans, 246,188; others, 2,367. The Christians were: Catholics, 287,119; Anglicans, 32,514; Presbyterians, 3,337; Wesleyan Methodists, 14,991; Baptists, 3,309, Congregationalists, 2,446. Authentic Catholic statistics gave a total of 293, 929 Catholics in 1904.

The general statistics for 1905 shows 592 churches and chapels, 570 schools, with 45,549 pupils; 5 seminaries with 174 students. It also shows that there were 33 European secular priests, 43 native priests, 288 religious brothers and 430 sisters in the various educational and charitable institutions.

History of St Joseph's Church Atchuvely The original church of St Joseph at Atchuvely was built in 1830 North East to the current building. This site is presumed to be next to the “Viladdu” Mango tree. It was a traditional building of that time made of local material such as mud, timber and coconut thatched roof of woven coconut leaf screen (kiduhu). The old church site is to this day referred to as “Palaya Kurusady" (Old Cross Place). Four families were responsible for the building of this original church. They were Muthaliar, Cheddiyar, Seemar, and Ramar. The original houses of these families were located in the areas now known as Muthaliar Valavu, Cheddiar Valavu, Seemar Valavu and Ramar Valavu. Their descendants are the current residents of Atchunagar. All Atchuvelians can trace their ancestors to these four families.

In 1880 the original building was replaced with a small stone building and tiled roof. In 1898 it was then demolished and replaced with a larger building sixty feet in length with two bell towers in front. The building was constructed under the supervision of Mr Thambimuthu, a famous printer and philanthropist, He also designed the bell towers The church bell was first hung on a mango tree near the entrance to the church. This mango tree was known as “Money Maa” (Bell Mango Tree).

In 1954 the church went into the next step of its renovation. With a huge financial contribution from Sir Chittampalam A.Gardiner, the Dome was installed above the altar. At the same time the foundation for the back of the church was also laid. Sir Chittampalam A.Gardiner was also responsible for the construction of the Atchuvely Hospital, Atchuvely St Theresa’s School and Convent, and Amalivanam Rosary Ashram

In the late 1960’s, the then parish priest Rev Fr. Ventakone made major renovations to the church. He extended the height of the church to match the side structures of the church. Later he also built the portico in front of the church. The portico also functions as a temporary altar during the annual St Joseph’s feast and other major functions. In addition to the work at the main church, Fr Ventakone also built the library, Fr Gnanapragasar’s Drama Stage and new kitchen facilities for the presbytery.

In 1988 Rev Fr Regno continued his predecessor's work and completed the back of the church. Viewed from the air, the church takes a cruciform shape- shaped like a cross. He also modified the altar area to conform to the Second Vatican Council Directive.

During the current ethnic conflict, the Sri Lankan army fired from the Palaly army base resulting in the left bell tower being partially destroyed and the portico roof with it. Miraculously no one was injured. The Atchuvely Catholics are firmly convinced that they were and still are under the protection of St Joseph in the ethnic conflicts.

With the help of local and Oversea's Atchuvelians, the then parish priest Rev Fr Jebanason repaired the damage in time for the 2002 annual Church feast.

The parishioners of St Joseph’s Atchuvely who are hard working farmers take great pride in their church. They work in their farm from the break of dawn or on occasions as early as 2am, till it is time for a quick breakfast (around 9am), and then back to the fields again at 3pm till dusk. Whenever there is work to be done at the church, they troop to the church after breakfast and help till lunchtime or till they return to the fields at around three in the afternoon. Beside financial contribution they also provide almost all the unpaid voluntary manpower for construction and maintenance of their parish church.

Atchuvely has contributed in many ways to the propagation of the Catholic faith in the Jaffna diocese. Rev Fr Gnanapragasar is one of the well-known luminaries in the Tamil and in the academic community. He was born in Manipay. His father died when he was two years old. His widowed mother then married Mr Thambimuthupillai (poet) and moved to Atchuvely. From here he entered Jaffna seminary and was ordained priest. He carried out his pastoral duties among the poor and the needy. He built many churches in the Jaffna diocese, including St Rita’s Church at Navarkeery

During our Church festival we all sing Mangalam Mangalame, (Praise, O Praise), a hymn of praise. Mangalam (or praise) to St Joseph, earthly father of Our Lord Jesus Christ, husband of Holy Mary, and the guardian of Atchuvely.

Names of priests and nuns who were either born in Atchuvely or had Atchuvely parents.

Reverend Fathers Name

Date of  Ordination

Fr Sebastian Antony – OMI

05 Nov 1882
First priest from Atchuvely and Cousin of Poet Thambimuthuppillai

Fr Kurusumuthu Aseervathan –OMI

22 March 1887
Nephew of Fr Sebastian Antony

Fr Swaminatharpillai Gnanapragasar OMI

17 Dec 1899
Step-son of Poet Thambimuthuppillai

Fr Bastiampillai Antony John OMI

29 August 1916
Father from Atchuvely, Mother from Ilavalai

Fr Charles Navaratnam OMI

16 March 1924

Fr Bastiampillai William Jesuthasan OMI

16 March 1924

Fr Sinnappu Joseph Vethanayagam OMI

26 Jan 1926

Fr Bastiampillai Phillip OMI

21 Dec 1927
Atchuvely/ Ilavalai

Fr Phillip Ponniah

26 March 1941
Ilavalai / Atchuvely

Fr John Rajah Leo Thuraisingham OMI

06 Aug 1941

Fr Francis Osanam Thambimuthu


Fr Adrian Joseph

6 Aug 1951

Fr Christy Joachimpillai OMI

22 March 1956
Grandson of Anthonippillai Thiruchelvam

Fr Anton Rajanayagam

21 Dec 1957
Atchuvely / Karampon

Fr J Ponnaiah Emmanual Selvaraja

3 Feb 1958

Fr Theogenes Joseph OMI

21 Dec 1964

Fr Seemampillai Joseph Emmanuel

16 Dec 1966
Atchuvely / Jaffna

Fr Thomas Mahendran Rajanayagam

21 Dec 1966
Atchuvely Karampon

Fr Francis Xavier Patrick Gnanapragasam

12 July 1973

Fr Thambirajah Jeribel Kiribakaran

02 Aug 1982
Grandson of teacher Abelpillai

Fr Joseph Chandrakumar Ligory

Date of Ordination October 28, 1983 
Atchuvely / Ilavalai 
Presently(2007) serving at St.Helena Church New York

Fr Thambipillai Anthonipillai J Jesuthasan

6 Aug 1985
Atchuvely / Sooravaththai

Fr Arasaratnam Eric Rosan

16 Oct 1993

Fr Albert Joseph Arulrasa

2 March 1994

Reverend Sisters Mary Praxede Francis Mary Rosali Francis Marina Sinnappu Desaldal Basiampillai Antony Joseph Pragasam Mary Punitham Aiyathurai Mary Jerome Ponniah Mary Janeesia Manuvelpillai

 Ilavalai / Atchuvely

Mary Adareena Manuvelpillai

Grand daughter of Sinnan Achchi 

Mary Tilda Andrew Grand daughter of Sinnan Achchi Mary Constantine Mary Florence Mary Niranjali Joseph Mary Jayanthi Thomas Grand daughter of Ariyakuddi Mary Regina Rajani Ponrasa

 Atchuvely / Periavilan


· Catholic Churches in Sri Lanka- Monsignor W L A Don Peter

· The Catholic Encyclopedia- 1908

· The Patron Saint Index

· The Chronicle of Atchuvely Priests and Nuns - 1996