THE PARAVARS OF THE PEARL FISHERY COAST
The history of Shrine Basilica is closely connected with the history of the conversion of the PARAVARS (Tuticorin), the indigenous people of the Pearl Fishery Coast. In fact, Our Lady of Snows, is fondly called in Portuguese senhora, Das Nevis which means Our Lady of Snows. She has been given the unique title of Yelu Kadalthurai, Yega Adikala Thai in Tamil which means the Mother of Refuge for the seven major coastal villages, viz Vembar, Vaippar, Thoothukudi (Snows Basilica, Tuticorin), Punnaikayal, Virapandianpatinam, Thiruchendur and Manapad (Thoothukkudi District).
THE MASS CONVERSION
Once the paravars of Pearl Fishery Coast had a sharp dispute with the Muslims of this area regarding the right of Pearl Fishing. The Pattankattimar (The leaders of Parava villages) requested the Portuguese to rescue them form the cruelties of the Muslims and the Portuguese and the Muslims were routed. As a token of gratitude to their redeemers, the Portuguese, the Paravars from about 22 villages numbering about 30,000 embraced Christianity in the y ear 1535-37 . In October 1542, St. Francis Xavier arrived on the shores of the Pearl Fishery Coast to catechize them and strengthen them further in their faith.
Soon there arose a great religious persecution by the Nayak of Madurai who had by this time taken control of the Pearl Fishery Coast. They set fire to churches and houses of Catholics. Hence the Paravars left Thoothukudi ( Tuticorin ) and fled to a nearby Island named Raja Theevu (known as Hare-island today). They took along with them the statue of Our Lady of Snows and solemnly installed it in a newly built church there. It was there till the Jesuits returned to Thoothukudi ( Tuticorin ) in 1610.
Another tradition says that during the war, the church of Our Lady of Snows at Raja Theevu was destroyed and therefore, the people removed the statue from there and installed it in a small chapel of St. John the Baptist at Sivanthakulam near Thoothukudi ( Tuticorin ). When the Dutch occupied that area, they carried away the statue to a church at Korkai. And it was brought back to Thoothukudi ( Tuticorin ) in 1699.
THE MIRACULOUS STATUE
The beautiful statue of Our Lady of Snows has always been looked upon as a miraculous one, as many miracles are said to have occurred in the Shrine from the time of its installation at St. Pauls Church, Tuticorin.
SAVED FROM A THUNDERBOLT
The first miracle is narrated by Rev. Fr. Vigilius Mansi himself who built the present Church of Our Lady of Snows. In a letter dated September 24th, 1708 addressed to one Father Maria Ignacy in Rome, he narrates how on April 4th, 1707 at mid-night, a sonorous and fierce thunderbolt fell in his residence where he had kept the miraculous statue for a short time and how he was miraculously saved by Our Lady herself.
OTHER MIRACLES NARRATED
The Jesuit report of 1709 by Fr. Francis Vaiz mentions the following miracles.
A newly converted Dutch Officer was attacked by a serious disease. No doctor nor medicine could cure him. The condition became worse day by day. On his death bed, he had recourse to Our Lady drank the water that washed the feet of the miraculous statue of Our Lady of Snows. What a surprise! He began to get well from that moment and he totally embraced the Catholic faith latter.
Two people who were paralyzed and lost all hope of cure, vowed in front of the miraculous statue that they would pray the Rosary daily till the end of their lives and drank with faith the water that washed the feet of the statue. Slowly they were relieved of their paralysis and soon got completely healed.
A supposed to be barren woman with faith drank the oil form the lamp kept near the miraculous statue and was conceived and became a mother of a child.
Once a pious woman had gone to the Shrine to participate in the Novena Service. At that time her hut caught fire by a piece of cloth that fell on the oil lamp. The whole hut should have been burnt to ashes but surprisingly, only that piece of cloth had got burnt!
Even the Hindus who come flocking to Our Lady of Snows acknowledged that they had experienced miracles after praying to Our Lady. Even today we find Hindus and people of other faiths flocking to Our Lady of Snows Church especially during the annual festival days. There are a few sincere devotees who visit the shrine throughout the year.
The holy custom of drinking the water that washes the feet of Our Lady in the statue and using the oil from the lamp are still followed by some devoted people.
HISTORY OF THE SNOWS BASILICA
As the whole race of Paravars became Christians, they were badly in need of a place of worship. Fr. Pedru Consalves who had baptized these people, built the first church in Thoothukudi ( Tuticorin ) in 1538 and dedicated it to his own patron St. Peter; this was the Parish Church for the Parava Christians in Thoothukudi ( Tuticorin ) for many years. It is also said St. Francis Xavier, during his stay at Thoothukudi ( Tuticorin ), used to celebrate Hole Mass in this Church. Today, a street named, St. Peter Koil Street, tuticorin exists in the Parish area ( Tuticorin ).
THE CHURCH DEDICATED TO OUR LADY
Then in 1582, through the efforts of the Jesuits, a church dedicated to Our Lady of Mercy (Senhora de Piedade) was consecrated by the Bishop of Cochin Msgr. Devoura on 5th August, the fesast of Our Lady of Snows. It was in the Jesuit head-quarters in Keracope Street. It was also called St. Pauls Church, Tuticorin. Every year the annual feast was celebrated on 5th August. In 1610 when the miraculous statue of Our Lady of Snows reached Thoothukudi ( Tuticorin ), it was solemnly installed in the church of Mother of Mercy and thereafter gradually it came to be called the Church of Our Lady of Snows Basilica.
NEW CHURCH HISTORY
Wishing to build a beautiful church of Our Lady of Snows Basilica, Fr. Vigilius Mansi whole heartedly took great efforts. He had to face lot of difficulties from the side of the Dutch as well as that of his own people. He obtained permission from the Dutch Government (at Ceylon) to construct a new church for Mother Mary of Snows, tuticorin; swimming against the current, he laid the foundation for the new church on 4th April 1712 and within a year he was able to complete the church. On August 5th 1713, the new church was opened and blessed and the first feast in the new church was celebrated in a very grand scale.
PROBLEM OF DOUBLE JURISDICTION
From 1857 onwards, the so called Double Jurisdiction caused a great problem among the Parava-Christians of Pearl Fishery Coast. In the same diocese and sometimes within the same parish at one and the sametime the Portuguese government (Padroado Goa Mission) and the Propaganda Fide (French Mission) had their jurisdiction. Accordingly, the following five coastal parishes came under the Padroado Diocese of Mylapore : Our Lady of Snows Basilica, Thoothukudi, Holy Ghost Manapad, St. Micheals Punnaikayal, Our Lady of Assumption Vaippar and St.Marys Kooduthaai. This condition continued till the new diocese of Thoothukkudi ( Tuticorin ) was erected in 1923. Pope Pius XI through the Apostolic Brief Quae Catholico Nomini dated June 12, 1923 amalgamated the above parishes into the newly created Diocese of Thoothukudi ( Tuticorin ). Accordingly the Church of Our Lady of Snows came under the jurisdiction of the Bishop of Thoothukudi ( Tuticorin )on April 11, 1930.
RAISED TO THE STATUS OF BASILICA
In 1982, when the Church of Our Lady of Snows celebrated the 400th anniversary, Pope John Paul II raised it to the status of Basillica through his apostolic letter Pervenute illa Dei Beatissimae Genitricis Effigies dated 30th July 1982.
It is the greatest honor for a church to be raised to the status of a Basilica. The Greek word Basilica signifies a Royal Hall. In course of time, this word has come to mean a large and beautiful hall. In ancient times, the whole world in general and Rome in particular, erected large halls for administrative purposes. The first hall bearing the name of Basilica existed in Athens. But after the fall of Greeks, the Romans popularized it. It was Julius Caesar who artistically constructed the hall of Basilica Julia for administrative purposes. They are somewhat similar to the Durbar Halls in ancient Indian places.
Christ being the king and His Church being His Audience the larger Christian Churches in Rome, came to be called Basilicas. Naturally these Basilicas were large, roomy, bright and ornamental. Today, for a church to be raised to the status of Basilica certain conditions are to be fulfilled:
The Church, usually is built with front facing the east.
Generally it is constructed in one of the classical styles of architecture.
It should contain some works of art or house the body of a Saint or a celebrated statue venerated in the land or it should be a place of pilgrimage
OUR SHRINE A TRUE BASILICA
The Shrine Basilica of Our Lady of Snows is fascine East; constructed in the Portuguese architecture; it houses the celebrated and miraculous statue of Our Lady of Snows, most beautifully carved out of wood and hence it is a great piece of art. Thus the Shrine Basilica of Our Lady of Snows deserves to be called a Basilica in the true sense of the word!
In Rome itself there are 13 Basilicas and of which 5 are major and 8 are minor ones.
Basilicas are usually under the supervision of Cardinals and accorded special privileges. In India there are several minor basilicas, like Basilica of Our Lady of Mount Bandra in Mumbai, the Basilica of Born Jesus in Goa, the Basilica of San Thome in Chennai, the Basilica of Our Lady of Health at Velankanni, and the Basilica of Our Lady of Lourdes, Poondi.
The mother instinct is the deeper-most instinct in any living being because the very origin and continuity of life is very much connected with a mother. A mother stands for love and security, the most basic needs of any living being. Hence, it is natural that human beings adore Motherhood and Tamils, have deeper sentiments towards mother than any other race. Almost all religions have somehow developed this concept of Mother God and sometimes a host of Goddesses!
The concept of Mary as Our Mother in the Catholic faith fully satisfies this basic human need of the people. Yet, the church is aware of the exaggerations and deviations in this regard. The shrines of Our Lady, often, seem to be occasions for people to deviate from true catholic faith on Mary. Hence, while promoting the devotion to Mary, Our Mother through Shrine Basilica, it is of paramount importance to point out to the people, the true and correct doctrines of the Church on Marian devotion.
TRUE DEVOTION TO MARY
True Marian devotion arises from the fact that Mary’s is the Mother of Jesus, the incarnate God and therefore, she is honored as the mother of God. The Gospel also confirms this fact: when Mary visited Elizabeth, the later was inspired by the Spirit and cried out
Why this Granted me that the mother of my Lord should come to me?
Lord in Bible refers to God. Hence Elizabeth herself calls Mary The Mother of God. It is only natural that when we honor God we should also honor His mother.
Marys motherhood rests more on her total surrender to Gods will than on her blood relationship to Jesus. When Jesus said Who is my mother.? whoever does the will of God is my mother. He confirms that Mary is His mother more because she surrendered herself totally to God than she brought Him forth just like any Ordinary mother.
In the Gospel according to St. John, Chapter 2, he narrates the incident of a wedding at Cana in Galilee. When there was a shortage of wine, Mary without being asked by anyone of the wedding party, herself realizing the situation approached her son Jesus. She knew for certain Jesus would do what she asked for and we know from the Gospel that Jesus did listen to his mother and wrought his first miracle. This incident proves that Marys intercession with her son, Jesus is very powerful. Our people, the devotees of Our Blessed Mother Mary, know it too well and believe firmly that if they go to Jesus through the intercession of Mary, their prayers will surely be granted because it is something very common in our day-today life at home the child approaches his mother in order to get things done by his father.
The ordinary people who feel that their prayers in times of their needs have been heard because they come to the Shrine of Our Lady, naturally attribute everything totally to Our Lady Herself, making her almost a God! This is a wrong belief, resulting from pure sentiments. This has to be corrected! we must remember what Mary said to the servants at the wedding at Cana; Do whatever He tells you (Jn 2:5). She always points out to her Son only. She wants us to know and believe that all prayers are granted only by God and she is only a pointer towards God. At the end of the narration of the wedding at Cana; This, first of his signs, Jesus did at Cana in galilee and manifested His glory (Jn 2: 11) Mary, therefore, was the cause of Jesus manifesting his glory. We must, therefore, know that Mary would not like to usurp the power of God; She would be happy only when we give her the rightful place in our faith. Hence we must be careful about any exaggeration or deviation in our devotion to Mary Our Blessed Mother.
Let me conclude with the words of William Carrigan, a Marian lecture: Shrines are Our Ladys workshops where she repairs the broken bodies, mends torn hearts and restores sin-scarred souls
Rev. Fr. V. P. Oswald M.A., M.Ed.,
Shrine Basilica of Our Lady of Snows,
Dogmatic Explanation of the Miraculous Statue
Filled with grace and the love of God, the Virgin Mother of God cannot be described easily, nor her miraculous statue. To indicate the fact that the mother of God is clothed with the glory of the brightness of the Great Sun, her diving Son, she is decked with a bright golden habit. She has the waning moon under her feet to signify the trained nature of the world. In the hand, she holds the Child Jesus, the Fruit of her virginal womb, while in the other, she holds a pomegranate fruit to signify both the cursed fruit offered by Satan to make Adam and Eve fall in sin; as well as the immaculate Fruit given by God to Our Blessed Mother.