Miraculous Statue of Our Lady Of Matara
@ The Island / 5Aug2005
The miraculous statue of Our Lady of Matara is about 400 years old. Several experts in Europe have pronounced to the Portuguese type of sculpture of the beginning of the 17th century. It is cut out of one solid piece of ash wood.
This statue has a story intertwined with the sea. Legend tells us that a huge wooden-crate was hauled out of the sea by some fishermen of Weligama, a town between Galle city & Matara. When it was opened, this beautiful statue of the Mother & child was found inside, untouched by the sea water. They handed it over to the Parish Priest of Matara & it was subsequently placed in St. Mary’s Church, Matara. The statue has come on its own, over the waves & given itself to the care of the Catholics of Ruhunu Rata (Down South of Sri-Lanka)
It gained it’s miraculous nature through an incident which occurred few years later. At a later period during a cholera epidemic which raged through the District & claimed hundreds of lives, the Catholics rallied round this statue & prayed to be delivered form the terrible disease.
The statue was taken in a solemn procession through the streets of Matara & non-Catholics too participated. After a few days the area was declared safe by the health authorities. There were no fresh cases and no further deaths.
Since then the people of Matara have come to look upon this statue as miraculous. In the early 1900s, after over 300 years in the church of Matara, the statue looked faded and worn due to exposure and the hands of thousands of devotees touching and kissing it.
The first Bishop of Galle, Rt. Rev. Dr. Joseph Van Reeth who was a Belgian made arrangements with the then famous sculptor and painter, M. Zeus of Gehent, to ‘renovate’ it. Accordingly the statue was sent to him on June 02nd 1911. M. Zeus not only’ restored the wasted parts; but also brought out its original colours. With due care the statue was re-packed in a wooden crate and shipped to Matara in the cargo boat "Beachy" which set sail from Antwerp. This package never reached our shores. It was lost in transit.
This ship had been caught in a fierce storm in the North Sea and was nearly wrecked. However, it managed to limp into Middles borough the next morning. Most of the cargo had been destroyed & some had been thrown overboard. At Minicoy, too, the ship encountered trouble and once again a part of the remaining cargo was thrown overboard.
Finally the ship entered Colombo harbor-minus the statute. The Bishop and Ahe Belgian priests in the Galle Diocese wrote to friends, and relatives in Belgium and through their intensive investigation traced the statute to a man in Middles borough. This man, an atheist, refused to hand over the statue and demanded a fabulous sum of money which was refused. In his disappointment and rage, he smashed the face of the statue with a hammer and threw it away. But the statue was recovered and it came back to M. Zeus. He repaired and repainted it. His was a labour of love and zeal. He spent all his energy and time on it till it was restored to its original beauty.
Bishop Van Reeth went to Belgium on holiday and undertook to bring back the statue to Matara on his return. He set sail with the statue in the streamer, Princes Alice. When he reached Colombo and looked for the statue, the crate containing the statue was missing.
Three days later, a cargo boat, the "uckermarck", from Belgium arrived in Colombo with the missing statue. The "uckermarck" had sailed after the "Princess Alice" had left Antwerp harbor and into this cargo boat had been loaded the excess luggage of the earlier passenger ship.
The 3 d miracle.
This is Her Story of the Third Sea Voyage. On the 26th December (Holy Family Sunday) 2004, 9. 10 a.m. it was the communion rite in the Eucharist. On that fateful day the congregation was thin due to the Christmas parties, may have gone for vacations and tiredness of celebrations. The main focus of the homily was looking into the example of the Holy Family of Nazareth to do the Will of God. This will of God is revealed to us in various ways but we have to be sensitive to listen to it.
When communion began, one lady from the left wing of the church started shouting and was uneasy. The Parish Priest, Fr. Charles Hewawasam did not take notice. But lie felt some uneasiness and became vigilant. Then he saw a van floating on the road just front of the church. Then noticed water approaching them. He shouted to the congregation to run to a safer place and ran towards the new building in the process of finishing. Many ran with him and followed him to the three story building through the sacristy. From the second story, the parish priest saw the sea water spreading all over. It was a flood. Suddenly the sea began receding. He ran towards the church to remove the Blessed Sacrament from the tabernacle and the miraculous statue of Our Lady. It was gone and the pedestal was remaining with the unbroken glass that was fixed from inside and locked from behind the repository, which protected the statue. Then one lady from the choir loft yelled, ‘Father, Our Lady of Matara has gone. She has washed away. Run back and save yourself, Run, father run’. The priest filled with sadness and anxiety ran towards the gate, to the beach. There he fell down as a big pit had been carved by the angry sea tidal wave.. Once again that lady, Mrs. Felicitas and priest’s nephew reassured that the miraculous statue had washed away. Then the sea bad receded and they could see the sea, one and half kilometres away the stones were visible.
In this break between the first wave and the second, 15-20 minutes, they could rescue about ten persons. Then the priest remembered that his priest friend, Rev. Fr. Lalith Christopher Fernando, the secretary to the Bishop of Galle, who came to assist him in Christmas season was in his room. He rushed towards the parish house. The whole parish house was under water. There he gathered mental and physical strength and searched for his friend everywhere in the room but he was not there. Then he remembered his own family was in the upper floor. The staircase was broken. Fr. Charles’ mother, sister’s family and some friends who had come from Colombo was on top. He still can’t imagine how they were rescued and brought towards the new building. In that rush he was able to recognized that Fr. Lalith also been saved and on the second floor. He too has been washed off and floated towards the inner quadrangle and had a narrow escape. Meantime they brought the wounded, the infirm and the little children towards the new building. Also he managed to save some of the church records and parish documents.
Then came the powerful, disastrous second wave and it was the most destructive one. With that the sacristy wall, the wall which connects the church and the convent, the garage walls and the adjoining parapet wall of St. Servatius’ College collapsed. Those who were reluctant to conic to the new building and trapped in the sacristy with closed doors were washed away towards tile college. It was disastrous. They drowned, knocked their heads, bodies on the walls and crushed under the falling walls. All the buildings behind the church was demolished. The vans of the two priests floated towards the college. Those who were on the new building, second and third floors were shouting for water in thirst, even the injured. The third wave too appeared which was about 15 - 20 feet high. The wailing and shouting of the people, their screams of anguish tinted with prayers were really heart breaking and tensed.
Those who were on the third floor could see the whole town was under water and many have climbed on to higher places for safety. Then a police bus arrived to transfer the injured to the hospital. The injured were dispatched. The number of people who were sheltered unharmed in the new building was roughly 45. That time they rescued 6 bodies and determined that 23 were killed & including Rev. Sr. Bernedette Koolmeyer SJM who assisted in the communion rite.
The parish priest with all this struggle and anguish approached his room to get back the valuable and ancestral jewellery used on the statue of Our Lady of Matara during her festival. But it was in vain to find that all was lost. These precious items were gifted in 1918. The priest lost his all his belongings. He was made a pauper, no cassock on him, no purse. He left the church with few people including his family and friends from the rear side of the compound, virtually as a beggar. They took shelter in a home of a generous person of the parish.
After two hours, the priest and his friend and six young men drove towards the church for further inquiry of the situation. Then he was wounded was unable to walk. There was diesel scarcity and they parked the vehicle in vicinity. Yet others persuaded him not to do so as lie was injured. On their way to the church, they met a young man carrying a bucket and had a shoulder bag. Then it was recognized that bucket was used to collect the Sunday collection in the parish house. This young fellow was reluctant to show his shoulder bag. The priest’s nephew insisted that it was a bag which was in priest’s room. They had to force open the bag and there they recovered the valuable jewellery. So Our Lady of Matara did not loose any of her precious ornaments.
It is surprising to note the affirmations of Mrs. Felicitas and a little boy of ten years, Aslien regarding the disappearing of the statue. The glass pale of the altar of Our Lady of Matara was lifted and she came down with the water as if she voluntarily joining the sea tide. She was washed away as if she was going ahead to stop the destruction which was harming her people.
Then onwards the priest was busy joining his people identifying the bodies and burying them. But then he discovered one of the pictures of this statue in his devastated room. He kept in that house where was taking refuge and all those who gathered at that home prayed hard for the discovery of the miraculous statue. Dear Mother, you have to come back to us. Your children from all parts of Sri Lanka and walks of life gather to greet you. How could be absent from them. Come back 0’ Mother’
Early morning, 29 the December as he got up there was a visitor to meet him. That was Mr. Milton Hakmanage, who had been accompanied by one of the parishioner of Matara church, Ravi Rathnasingham. They were bubbling with joy and eyes were filled with surprise. They exclaimed, ‘Father, we have found our Mother of Matara’. It was washed ashore 4.00 meters away. That was the land, the Sisters of St. Mary’s Convent were eying to buy for their Jubilee project to be celebrated in 2008. As it was very expensive, the sisters were praying hard for God’s providence. The caretaker of that property has seen a glittering object near the plantain trees but could not identify this object. Then he called Mr. Milton for further inquiry.
The infant Jesus carved on to the Statue of Our Lady of Matara did not loose his crown during sea voyage and flee to the nearby land for three days. It is so tiny but survived. The hands mid part of the foot of infant Jesus was broken. But they could discover this tiny piece of wood in that property devastated by Tsunaini. Also they recovered the gold chain which was on infant Jesus which is carved on to the statue of Our Lady.
Later the parish priest informed the Vicar General of the Diocese of Galle, Very Rev. Fr. Nihal Nanayakkara and the Archbishop of Colombo about the arrival of the miraculous statue once again. When it was brought back to the church, there was a large gathering to welcome her. It included the Vicar General and few priests from the Bishop I louse of Galle, some priests who were visiting devastated Matara, religious, the Mother provincial of Sisters of Charity Jesus and Mary, nuns. When the statue was brought, a procession was held with the heralding of the bells of the church. The awe filled congregation with tears expressed their gratitude for her arrival. They really believe that she walked towards the rough mid dangerous sea to calm it with, her glorious and royal son, King of the Universe. This King has power all over the universe. As Yahweh once calmed the roaring sea to rescue his people Pharaoli, as Jesus calmed the sea and cyclonic weather when God walked on earth as human, now the Fisen, Lord reveals to us in Sri Lanka His Royal powers to believe In Him and to have eternal life in and through him. After a short but emotion filled prayer service, the Vicar General blessed the congregation which was in tears and the whole nation at this moment of crisis with the miraculous statue Of Our Lady, of Matara. After two hours of prayer and veneration, the statue was transferred to the little chapel of Bishop House of Galle for safety.
On January 02nd 2005, the Feast of Epiphany His Excellency Rt. Rev. Dr. Mario Zenari, The Apostolic Nuncio in Sri Lanka arrived in Matara accompanied by the Vicar-General Rev. Fr. Nihal Nanayakkara & Secretary to the Bishop of Galle Rev. Fr. Christopher Lalith Fernando to celebrate the Sunday Eucharist with the people. The statue was brought back to Matara this time. His Excellency after celebrating the Eucharist gave the blessing with the Statue Of Our Lad), of Matara. In the afternoon the statue was -again taken back to the Bishop’s House, Galle until the church is repaired & renovated to place in its proper place.
Written by Fr. Christopher Lalith Fernando after an interview with Fr. Charles Hewawasam, the Parish Priest of Our Lady of Matara Shrine