“Vailankanni” (Meaning: Virgin of Velai, the town), also known as “Velankanni” or “Velanganni”, is a hamlet on the sandy shores of the Bay of Bengal. It is located 350 kilometers south of Chennai (previously called Madras the capital of Tamil Nadu, a South Eastern state of India) and 12 kilometers south of Nagappatinam. Nagapattinam, a town on the coast of Bay of Bengal, was referred by early writers and the Portuguese as “the city of Coramandel’ (Imperial Gazetteer of India, XIX, 3). Vellayar river, a minor branch of the river Cauvery, runs on the south of the village and flows into the sea. Readers may be startled to learn that Vailankanni was once a port and there is evidence to prove this. Historical notes reveal that people in this area traded with Rome and Greece, the ancient commercial centers of the western world.
Velankanni is one of the most sacred Christian pilgrimage places in India. Velankanni town is located at the sand shores of the Bay of Bengal. It is just at a distance of 12 KM from the famous coast of Coromandel. The town is famous for the shrine Basilica that is dedicated to ‘Lady of Health’. Velankanni has also been declared a holy city by the Pope. This shrine is considered as the divine city and it has been proved for centuries.
Velankanni is fondly known as the ‘Lourdes of the East’. The shrine is a great combination of international, multicultural, and religious harmony.There is an interesting practice here that pilgrims offer candles to the mother to cure themselves. Candles are in shape of the respective ailment- a heart in case of cardiac complications and lungs in case of tuberculosis and so on.
History of the Church
Velankanni was a part of the parish of Nagapattinam, but as pilgrims began to pour into Velankanni, it was raised to the status of an independent Parish in 1771, and Fr. Antonio de Rozario the last parish priest of the Church of the Immaculate Conception, Nagapattinam, was appointed the first Parish priest of Velankanni. Nagapattinam had always been under the jurisdiction of the great 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 been looking after the province of Goa and Mylapore also looked after Nagapattinam and Vellankanni. 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 1890 the parish was handed over to diocesan priests.
Thereafter, the diocesan priests of the Diocese of Mylapore were in charge of Velankanni. In 1952, when the new Diocese of Thanjavur came into being, and Velankanni became a part of the new diocese, the priests of Thanjavur Diocese became the custodians of the Shrine. The administration of the new Diocese was orally placed under the apostolic administration of the Rt. Rev. Dr. Louis Mathias, S.D.B., who was then the Archbishop of the new Archdiocese for 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.
Velankanni issituated in the Thanjavur District which comes under the jurisdiction of the Diocese of Thanjavur. The Rev. Dr. R. Arokiasamy Sundaram showrd keen interest in the development of Velankanni Shrine and granted special spiritual privileges.
Significance of the Church
The greatest honour that can be conferred to a Church is to elevate it to the status of a Basilica. The word ‘Basilica’ is derived from the Greek word ‘Basilike’ and it originally signified a Royal Hall. In course of time this word has come to mean a large and beautiful hall. In ancient times kings from all over the world in general, and from Rome in particular, constructed large hall for administrative purposes. The first hall bearing the name of Basilica existed in Athens.
Jesus Christ being the King of Kings, and His Churches being His audience halls, the larger Christian Churches in Rome came to be called Basilicas. Today, a Basilica is a consecrated Church usually built with the front facing the East, and generally constructed in one of the classical styles of architecture. It is oblong in shape with a broad nave ending in an apse. It is now stipulated that a church, in order to be called a Basilica, should contain some work of art, or it should contain some work of art, or it should house the body of a saint or a celebrated image much venerated in the land, or be a pre-eminent place of pilgrimage.
The devotees in Velankanni offer to Our Lady of Health, candles in various forms in days of ailments.. The tradition is that in case of cardiac complications, a heart size candle is offered , in case of jaundice, liver shaped candles, lungs problem then a lung shaped candle and many others. After being cured of the disease many bring as offering small golden or silver replica of the organ that has been cured.
His Excellency, Dr. R.A. Sundaram D.D., L.C.L., M.A., the first Bishop of the diocese of Thanjavur, earnestly petitioned Pope John XXIII to raise the Shrine of Velankanni to the Status of a Basilica and also requested His Holiness to enrich it with all the privileges attached to a Basilica for the spiritual benefit of the pilgrims. In 1962, when Bishop Sundaram went to Rome to attend the second session of the Second Vatican Council, he reiterated his request to the Holy Father personally to raise the Shrine of Our Lady of Velankanni to the lofty status of a Minor Basilica. After examining the request carefully, His Holiness Pope John XXIII, of saintly memory, issued orders raising the Shrine to the exalted status of a Minor Basilica. Thus the Shrine of Velankanni became the Shrine Basilica of Velankanni in November 1962 and was linked to the St. Mary’s Major Basilica in Rome.
How to Reach the Church
Through Airway: The nearest airport is located in Chennai at a distance of 350 Kms, and Trichy 154 Kms.