Vailankanni is fondly known as the ‘Lourdes of the East’ because like Lourdes in France, millions of pilgrims visit the Shrine throughout the year, praying to Our Lady for various needs and thanking her for the favors received through her intercession. Tradition recounts that Mother Mary appeared with the Infant Jesus in this small hamlet at the end of the 16th or in the early 17th century. Ever since, Vailankanni is the most important destination and almost the synthesis of all Marian Sanctuaries for the pilgrims of the world. The crowds of pilgrims come here regardless of creeds and languages. Our Lady of Vailankanni devotions down through the centuries have proved the Shrine to be of divine origin and has assumed international character. Mary, the focus of unity at Vailankanni, is a clear proof of international, multicultural, and religious harmony.
The Growth of the Shrine
As days passed on, the number of devout pilgrims visiting the Shrine increased. The fame of Vailankanni spread gradually. The wonderful, but inexplicable events that occurred in the Shrine excited awe and wonder. People who witnessed or heard first-hand information about the events, related them to their family and friends. Thus the fame and glory of the gracious Mother of Health of Vailankanni spread like wildfire throughout the land. Year by year the number of devout pilgrims increased. Many came with eager and earnest prayers for favors, and immediate help; many more came with hearts filled with gratitude to show thanks to the miraculous Mother for favors granted. The numerous poor who came to Vailankanni on foot from afar, returned to their homes, singing from door to door the glories and favors of Our Lady, very much in the style and manner of the troubadours of the Middle Ages in Europe. These poor singers of Marian praise also helped in their own humble way, in spreading the devotion to “Our Lady of Health Vailankanni.” In fact the press, did very little to spread the devotion of Our Lady.
In the meanwhile, by the introduction of quicker and more convenient means of transport, such as steamships, and trains, the number of pilgrims to the Shrine increased and the Shrine correspondingly expanded. Fr. Rozario, a Franciscan priest, expanded the small church of 24 ft. x 12 ft. built by the Portuguese sailors, to 70 ft. x 22 ft. by extending the nave of the Church. But the ancient little sanctuary and the Altar were preserved intact. As the years passed by, the Catholic faith was strengthened by ardent missionaries working at Vailankanni.
Very soon, even this extension was found to be inadequate. In 1917 Fr. Sebastio Xavier de Noronha expanded the Church by an another 20 ft. from the nave of the Church. In addition, two gothic domes of 82 ft. each on either side of the entrance facing the sea were also constructed. About the same time a two-story Parochial building with facility for pilgrims was also built.
Southern Side of the Church
This period was marked by rivalry between the Franciscans and the Jesuits and it had its influence on the missionaries in Vailankanni as well. From the beginning of this century, there was an another church in Vailankanni dedicated to the Immaculate Heart of Mary, which was under the jurisdiction of the diocese of Trichy. It was maintained by the Jesuits. In 1928 a solution was found to this problem. The church of Immaculate Heart of Mary was demolished and the statues were brought to the Shrine of Our Lady of Health. By then, both the private and the public sectors began operating bus services to Our Lady’s Shrine from all corners of the land. Hence the number of pilgrims pouring into Vailankanni further increased. In 1933 two new wings were constructed, to the right and to the left of the ‘Main Altar’, meeting the nave at right angles.
Northern Side of the Church
A spacious vestry was also provided immediately behind the Altar. Thus the entire sacred edifice began to assume the shape of a Latin Cross. Right over the center of the ancient main altar was the miraculous image of Our Lady of Health, (the very beauty of the whole magnificent edifice, which remained untouched and unaltered).
With this the Shrine of ‘Our Lady’ was blessed in 1933, on the feast day of Our Lady of Immaculate Conception. The moral pillar behind all these developments was the parish priest, the Very Rev. Fr. Sebastio Xavier Noronha, who attained eternal grace on August 21, 1942. He was laid to rest in front of Our Lady’s Shrine. In 1953, Thanjavur was separated from the Archdiocese of Madras-Mylapore and created as a separate diocese. Vailankanni came under the jurisdiction of Thanjavur Diocese.
To have constant contact with the devotees, who may not be able to visit the Shrine often, in 1953, the Bishop started two monthly magazines, one in English (Vailankanni Calling) and another in Tamil (Vailankanni Kuraloli).
The celebration of the Marian Year all over the world in 1954 drew unprecedented numbers of pilgrims to the Shrine. The Most Reverend Bishop R. Arokiasamy Sundaram, the first bishop of Thanjavur, and Fr. M. V. Rodriguez, the parish priest made elaborate arrangements to celebrate the Marian Year meaningfully and propagate the Marian devotion at Vailankanni.
In 1956, a beautiful welcome arch was blessed and opened by His Excellency Most Reverend Bishop Sundaram. The illuminated arch stood imposingly to show the way to the eager pilgrims, who sought the protection of Mary at this beautiful Shrine. In January 1961, a beautiful central altar, delicately executed in spotless white marble was erected replacing the former one made of cement concrete.
The marble altar adds exquisite splendor to the Shrine. The ancient porcelain plates and paintings have been carefully retained in their original beauty. Enlarging the church for active participation in the Liturgy for the influx of various language-speaking pilgrims became imperative. This warranted a two-storied extended Basilica.
So in 1974-75 during the time of late Very Rev. Fr. Maria Soosai the two story church was blessed and consecrated by Rt. Rev. R.A. Sundaram, then Bishop of Thanjavur. After all these renovations and the extensions, the present Church shows the triumph of classicism in structure, this magnificent edifice with its 93 ft. high dome and two 82 ft. high gothic spirals dominates the skyline of Vailankanni.
And there stands an inspiring octagonal, gothic dome, generous but strictly of geometrical and architectural propositions, the crowning glory of it all! Indeed this dome enhances the arresting grandeur of the glorious and majestic Shrine.
History of Vailankanni Parish
The first person to refer to Vailankanni in historical documents is Fr. Paulo de Trinidad an OFM priest. In his chronicle in the year 1630, he writes:
“… And two leagues (about six miles) from Nagapattinam in the direction of Mannar (i.e. towards South), we have another Christian settlement, of which one of our Religious has charge and the Church is under the Patronage of our Lady of Health…”
(Paulo de Trinidad, 111, 68).
In 1771 Fr. Antonio de Rozario, the last Parish Priest of the church of the Immaculate Conception, was appointed as the first Parish Priest of Vailankanni, which was then raised to the status of an independent parish. Till then, the parish of Vailankanni was a substation of the parish of Nagapattinam, and Nagapattinam had always been under the ecclesiastical jurisdiction of the Bishop of the Diocese of Mylapore. During that period the Diocese of Mylapore was administered under the Portuguese ‘Padroado’ (patronage). Under the Padroado system, the king of Portugal in Europe met all the expenses incurred by the Diocese of Mylapore, which remained under the ecclesiastical jurisdiction of the Roman Pontiffs.
Until 1847 the priests of St. Franciscan Missionaries who had looked after the province of Goa and Mylapore also looked after Nagapattinam and Vailankanni. The Franciscan origin and ownership of the Shrine was also perpetuated, by giving the place of honor to two Franciscan saints, St. Anthony of Lisbon and St. Francis of Assisi, on either side of the miraculous image of ‘Our Lady’, on the High Altar until 1961. Besides the last parish priest, Miguel Francisco Fernandez, who was of the Franciscan order, controlled the parish of Vailankanni till 1889.
In the year 1949 this dual system came to an end: the Portuguese patronage of the Diocese of Mylapore was ended and placed under the direct control of the Roman Pontiff.
The Diocese of Mylapore was in charge of the mission in this area until 1952. It was in that year that Thanjavur, a Cauvery-fed basin, became a new and independent Diocese called the “Diocese of Thanjavur.” Thanjavur town was chosen to be the headquarters of the new Diocese. In November 1952, when the new Diocese of Thanjavur came into being, the Diocesan Priests of Thanjavur became the custodians of the Shrine Vailankanni. The administration of the new Diocese was temporarily placed under the apostolic administration of the Rt. Rev. Dr. Louis Mathias, S.D.B., who was then the Archbishop of the new Archdiocese of Madras-Mylapore.
On March 19, 1953, His Excellency the Rev. Dr. R. Arokiasamy Sundaram, DD., L. C. L., M. A., a priest of Mylapore Archdiocese was appointed as the first Bishop of the new Diocese of Thanjavur. He assumed charge of his Diocese on March 24, 1953.
Vailankanni being situated in the Thanjavur District came under the jurisdiction of the Diocese of Thanjavur. The Rev. Dr. R. Arokiasamy Sundaram showed keen interest in the development of Vailankanni Shrine and granted special spiritual privileges. ‘Our Lady of Health Vailankanni’ became the second patroness of our newly erected Diocese.
Chronological List of Parish Priests of Vailankanni:
1771 Sep. Fr. Antonio de Rozario
1774 Aug. Fr. Jose de Santa Roza de Viterbo
1777 Jul. Fr. Antonio de Rosario, Commissary
1779 Sep. Fr. Luis dos Remedios
1783 Jan. Fr. Antonio de Rosario, Commissary
1788 Dec. Fr. Antonio do Jesus Maria Jose
1789 Sep. Fr. Antonio de Rosario Commissary
1792 Sep. Fr. Jos. Roza de Giterbo Commissary &V. F.
1814 May Fr. Constantine de Jesus Maria Commissary
1819 May Fr. Thomas de Piedade
1822 Feb. Fr. Francisco Xavier Masearenhas
1822 Aug. Fr. Francisco Das Dores
1824 May Fr. Felipe de Jesus
1825 Sep. Fr. Francisco Dos Dores
1828 Jun. Fr. Felipe de Jesus
1829 May Fr. Clemente Das Dores
1847 Oct. Fr. Isidore Manuel Alimao
1858 Apr. Fr. Jose Felis Fernandes AG.PP
1863 Nov. Fr. Felipe Nery Joaquim Dias
1876 May Fr. Ignacio Antonio d’ Andrade
1886 Aug. Fr. Miguel Francisco Fernandes
1890 Dec. Fr. Joaquim Jose Ag. P. Vic. Nagapattinam
1891 Feb. Fr. Cuilherme Jose Dias
1892 Dec. Fr. Joaquim Jose Luis Ag. P. Vic. Nagapattinam
1893 Mar. Fr. Martinho Valeriane de Sa
1899 Sep. Fr. Joaquim Francisco da Fiedade Dias
1900 Aug. Fr. Camilla Fernandes
1910 Jun. to 1942 Fr. Sebastio Xavier de Noronha
1942 Sep. to 1963 Fr. M. V. Rodriguez
1963 Jun. to 1980 Fr. S. Mariasoosai
1980 Sep. to 1982 Fr. Thomas Vaz
1982 Sep. to 1990 Fr. S. L. Gabriel
1990 May to 1998 Fr. M.M. Sammanasu
1998 Jun. till date Fr. G. Arul Iruthayam