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 Post subject: The Shrine of Our Lady of Matara
 Post Posted: Sun Sep 05, 2010 9:13 am 
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The Shrine of Our Lady of Matara
The statue that was washed ashore

by M. Felix V. Cooray

This three-hundred-year-old statue of Mother and Child which has been carved out of one block of Ashwood with characteristic of Portuguese style in sculpture of the 17th century. According to history, a huge wooden crate was found by fishermen off the coast of Weligama near Matara early in the seventeenth century. When this crate was opened the statue was found inside untouched by water. The fishermen handed over the statue to the parish priest at that time and then placed in the original church of Matara.

Enshrined in the church that stands facing the Southern seas along the stretch from Weligama to Dondra is the Shrine of Our Lady of Matara. How it escaped the hands of the Dutch Calvinists, when they destroyed the church that sheltered this beautiful statue surprised us.

The protection of Our Blessed Mother of Matara was there to bestow, through the priceless treasure so dear to the Catholics, an endless stream, of extraordinary favours and graces "Glittering as the morning sun, fair as the moon".

She was to rise above the sea to shield under her protection the persecuted remnants of Catholics so that through them the faith may revive, increase and spread in the area.

The miraculous statue

Expert opinion in Europe on this three-hundred-year-old statue of Mother and Child which has been carved out of one block of Ashwood declares that the statue in its features is characteristic of Portuguese style in sculpture of the 17th century.

It was venerated as stated early in the Church of Our Lady of Victory in Matara. Today it is really dedicated as the Church of Our Lady of Matara.

According to history that has come down through generations, a huge wooden crate was found by fishermen off the coast of Weligama near Matara early in the seventeenth century. When this crate was opened the statue was found inside untouched by water.

The fishermen handed over the statue to the parish priest at that time and then placed in the original church of Matara. This was the first time that the statue returned from the sea. Some time after, the statue had to be hidden due to the religious sanctions imposed by the Dutch but again it returned to Matara.

Cholera epidemic

Later a cholera epidemic swept through the entire Southern district and claimed hundreds of lives. The people of Matara rallied around the statue and prayed for an end to the epidemic.

The statue was taken in procession through the streets of Matara. People of all religions participated. After a few days the area was declared safe by the Health Authorities. There were no deaths. Our Dear Mother answered the prayers of everyone. Since then the people have viewed the statue as miraculous.

In the early 1900s the first Bishop of Galle Rt. Rev. Dr. Joseph Van Reeth of Belgium had the statue sent to Europe to be restored by a famous Sculptor, Zeus of Gehent. After restoration, the sculptor placed the statue on the ship 'Beachy' to be sent to Matara. The ship was caught in a storm in the North sea and nearly wrecked, most of the cargo was destroyed before continuing to Colombo, but not before yet another rough patch at sea when part of the remaining cargo was also thrown overboard.

Finally the ship arrived in Colombo without the statue. The Bishop of Galle wrote to friends in Belgium to try to retrieve the priceless item. The statue was traced by a man in Middesborough who demanded money in exchange for the sculpture.

When the sum was refused he damaged the face of the statue and threw it away. The statue was recovered and returned again to Sculptor Zeus for repair. The sculptor spent a great amount of energy and time restoring it to its original beauty.

The Bishop of Galle was visiting Belgium and undertook to return the statue to Matara. He departed to Europe aboard the "Princess Alice" along with the statue. On reaching Colombo, the Bishop went to take possession of the statue to find it wasn't there. Three days later the statue arrived aboard another vessel.

Tsunami - the third time

This is the story of the sea voyage on December 26 - Holy Family Sunday 2004 at 9.10 a.m. It was communion rite in the Eucharist. On this fateful day the congregation was less than usual perhaps due to the Christmas holidays.

At this moment the church and its environment and the whole area went under water suddenly. Rev. Fr. Charles Hewawasam, the administrator and celebrant of Holy Mass noticed the gushing waters and shouted to the people to run for safety. It was the stubborn waves of the Tsunami. At this moment even Fr. Charles had to run for safety. Then he realised that he should remove the Blessed Sacrament and the Miraculous Statue of Our Dear Mother. By this time, everything was taken over by the stubborn cruel waters.

He noticed that another stubborn and disastrous wave which was most destructive was fast approaching causing damage to the church, St. Servatius College and the entire area. He promptly took refuge in the new building and he was able to see even vehicles being carried by cruel gushing waters. The break between the first wave and the second wave was about 20 minutes.

Even the valuable jewellery presented in 1918 to the Blessed Mother was missing. However, the water receded. Fr. Charles with a few parishioners and relations went towards the Main Road. There he noticed that a man was carrying a bucket and recognised that it was the bucket used for church collections. They insisted the man show them what he was carrying and to their utter surprise the jewellery was found. Our Heavenly Mother guided them to recover her stolen jewellery.

After the tsunami, morning, evening and night, Fr. Charles with the small congregation was praying in tears for the statue to come. "Oh, come Dear Mother" - when Fr. Charles was informed by Milton Hekmanage that the statue was washed ashore. Fr. Charles cried embracing the statue giving praise to God.

Solemn surprise

On December 29, 2004, Fr. Charles had a visitor early morning around 6. It was Milton Hekmanage - who was accompanied by one of the parishioners Ravi Rathnasingham. They informed Fr. Charles that the statue had been washed ashore 400 metres away from the land that the Sisters of Charity of St. Mary's Convent were hoping to buy.

The Infant Jesus carved on the statue of Our Lady of Matara did not have His crown during the sea voyage. It is tiny, but had survived. They also recovered the gold chain which was on the Infant Jesus carved on the statue of Our Lady's body.

Subsequently, after repairs were over, the statue was installed at a special place on top of the main altar as could be seen today. Rev. Fr. Charles Hewawasam was blessed to handle this great situation and today due to his hard, tireless efforts and experience, the church was brought to its high standards.

A permanent religious Stall has been opened in the church premises for the convenience of pilgrims.

Every first Saturday, devotions to the Heavenly Mother followed by Holy Mass is celebrated at 7 a.m.

The administrator with the parish family has made all arrangements for the convenience of the pilgrims.

The feast of Our Lady of Matara will be celebrated on September 12.

Due to repairs on the railway track, all train services including the special train from Chilaw will terminate at the Galle railway station. It is proposed to arrange a transport service from Galle to Matara to coincide with train arrivals and departures.

New Chapel for the Blessed Sacrament

On June 23, a new chapel for the veneration of the Blessed Sacrament was sanctified and opened by the Apostolic Nuncio to Sri Lanka. After celebrating Holy Mass the Blessed Sacrament was escorted by the Apostolic Nuncio Joseph Spiter and the Galle Diocesan Administrator Very Rev. Fr. Nihal Nanayakkara in procession to this hallowed chapel in appropriate surroundings catering to the spiritual needs of the devotees. He stressed that this chapel was a much needed facility for a place of pilgrimage.


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