St. Anthony’s Church, Kayts: 200 years of Christian witness | Daily News


St. Anthony’s Church, Kayts: 200 years of Christian witness

St Anthony's Church, Kayts
St Anthony's Church, Kayts

The Northern Province has many islands. Kayts is an amazing island which was once a vibrant harbour and colonial naval establishment. It is a common feature for islands to have small chapels and shrines. Perfectly positioned at the entrance to the Jaffna lagoon the port commanded the sea routes through the Palk Bay in all sailing directions. Hence, the Tamil language name Oorkavatthurai, which translates as, the port guarding the city. Kayts is derived from the Portuguese word Cais which means a pier. The Dutch during their rule called it Kayts.

Since ancient times the people of Kayts were daring seafarers, and produced many mariners.

Footprints of faith

History records how the Portuguese traders propagated their faith, along with pioneer missionary priests and thus influenced the people of Kayts. It is widely believed that the first Catholic clergy resided inside the Jaffna Fort. The first priest to visit Kayts was Fr. Francisco, who planted a cross near the harbour. The ruler of Jaffna King Pararajasingham was not pleased at the presence of this priest. In 1614 Fr. Pedro De Pentancour laid the foundation for a small church named St. Johns (where the Kayts Rest House stood). By 1625 a seminary was also built. Once the Dutch captured Jaffna, they chased away the Catholic clergymen. The church and seminary at Kayts were demolished. Once the British exerted their dominance they allowed the Catholic mission to operate freely. The Jesuit priests made a significant impact on the Catholic mission in Kayts Island. Fr. Frederic Rapatel and Fr. Vuillermet were the first to come, and were followed by Fr.Cortes and Fr. Silvainus. By 1852 the Jesuit priests withdrew from their good work in Kayts.

A new phase of missionary zeal engulfed Kayts as the OMI clergymen began their ministry. Fr. Giovanni Vistarani started his work in the island, and the people followed him. By 1854 he completed the façade of St. Josephs Church. During this period the Catholic mission spread to Karampon, Mandathivu, Punkuduthivu, Delft, Allaipidy and Naranthanai. It was Fr. Jean Pouzain who united these islands by preaching the gospel. By 1871 Fr. Louis Boisseau came to Kayts.

200 years and beyond

Today Kayts has a collection of Catholic churches. It is a Catholic stronghold of the North having produced many priests, of which six were promoted to the divine office of Bishop of Jaffna. The British rulers appreciated the seafaring people of Kayts, once they took control of the port.

My first journey to this beautiful island was facilitated by Rev. Fr. Michael of the Salvatorian Order (SDS). The town of Kayts has witnessed the victories and vicissitudes of life. The roads don’t have too much of traffic and therefore the serenity of this area is preserved. On the right hand side of the road is a majestic church painted is shades of brown and white. The church of St. Anthony has stood here for two centuries, and still has a peacefully imposing first impression. The clear blue sky and cool breeze is the picture perfect setting for a historical church as this. We met up with Rev. Fr. Mac Mayooran, incumbent parish priest. Planning to celebrate their Bicentennial Anniversary in June 2020, the parishioners had begun a restoration of some sections of this massive edifice.

Commenting on the historic significance of this church Rev. Fr. Mayooran said, “This is the second oldest church in Kayts, dating back to 1820. Before that period the Dutch didn’t tolerate the local Catholics. Devotees had to hide their sacred statues in wells. Decades later when a tree was being cut down a small statue (previously hidden in the trunk by a Catholic devotee) had popped out creating intense curiosity among the locals. Soon people began to visit the area and the miracles attributed to the church spread all over the Northern Province. In 1921 the church celebrated her centenary with mass being said by the then Bishop of Jaffna, His Eminence Rev. Jules Brault”.

We walked around the massive church. The roof was so high our voices echoed. Yellow stained glass windows enriched the glow of the sunlight. The wooden altar was imposing. The large bell installed on the left side of the church could be heard across the Kayts area when it is rung. It is interesting to note that two former Bishops of Jaffna, Rev. Henri Joulain and Rev. Andre Melizan had served as parish priests of this church. The floor of this church was first cemented in 1911 by Fr. Owen William. It was Fr. William who inspired the first local from this parish Victor Rajanayagam to take up the holy vocation. Fr. Victor thus became the first local from St. Anthony’s parish, to be ordained a priest.

In 1970 the church of St. Anthony celebrated 150 years. The 175 years anniversary could not be celebrated due to the war. During the turbulent days of displacement the people of Kayts were inspired by Fr. S.Kirubanathan, who was instrumental in establishing the YMCA in Kayts along with Mr. Linus. During 2005-2010 many renovations were done to this historic church when Fr. X.W. James was the parish priest.

Holistic education

Education was a key area linked to the early Catholic missions. The need for a good school was realized and the church began to build a school opposite the church. St. Anthony’s College was founded in 1872 by the French priest Rev. Fr. Louis Boisseau, who had a vision to uplift the standard of the people of Kayts. The school buildings expanded. This school has witnessed many stages in its long journey. For 200 years the magnificent St. Anthony’s Church has served many generations of Catholics in Kayts. The Church remains a radiant beacon of hope and faith. 

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