Velankanni Church – India’s Biggest Catholic Pilgrimage Center (2020)
Velankanni or Vailankanni is a beautiful hamlet located on the golden sandy shores of the Bay of Bengal in Tamil Nadu. Situated around 350 kilometers from Chennai, Velankanni means the Virgin of Velai. The town lies on the Coromandel Coast of the Bay of Bengal and is home to one of India’s biggest Catholic pilgrimage centers – the Basilica of Our Lady of Good Health.
Also referred to as the Velankanni Church, this beautiful religious center is dedicated to Our Lady of Good Health, who is commonly known as the ‘Lourdes of the East.’ The church is sometimes also known as the Sanctuary of Our Lady of Vailankanni. Why is the Basilica of Our Lady of Good Health known for? Well, the origins of this Marian shrine can be traced all the way back to the 16th century, and there are three different miracles that are attributed to the sites surrounding this Basilica – a disabled buttermilk vendor was healed miraculously; an apparition of the Christ Child and Blessed Mary appeared to a sleeping shepherd boy, and a team of Portuguese sailors were rescued from a deadly sea storm.
However, stories of these miracles are more of a myth and stories being passed on from one generation to the next. No written record of these events exist.
What is the History of the Velankanni Church?
In the beginning, the church was only a simple, small chapel that was constructed by Portuguese sailors who were rescued from the deadly storm. Nearly 500 years after that, the holy 11-day festival and celebrations of Our Lady of Good Health still continue to be observed. Each year, it draws almost five million pilgrims from all over India. In 2020, the annual festival was held from August 29 to September 8. On the last day of the festival, which typically falls on a Sunday, a huge feast is held that is dedicated to Mother Mary to mark the end of the festival.
Is the Velankanni Church Popular?
On any regular day, the Shrine receives over 1,000 devotees who come from all over Tamil Nadu to pray and thank her for the blessings they have received by praying to her. So why is the Velankanni Church so famous? According to legends, it is believed that Mother Mary appeared with the Infant Jesus in her hands in Velankanni towards the end of the 16th or start of the 17th century. Since then, the town of Velankanni has turned into an important pilgrimage destination, and pilgrims from all over the world come to pay obeisance at this Marian Shrine. The massive crowd of devotees who come from all corners of the world has proved that the Shrine has some divine origin story to it, and over the years, it has gained international fame and importance.
What is the story of the Basilica of Our Lady of Good Health?
While there are no historical documents that refer to the appearance of the Virgin Mary apparitions at Velankanni, but orally the stories have been passed on from generation to generation. The first apparition of Mother Mary is believed to have taken place in May 1570, when the local shepherd boy was delivering milk to the neighborhood. As he was going about his milk delivery route, he met a beautiful woman holding an infant in her hands. The woman asked the boy for some milk for her little child. After giving her the milk, the shepherd boy continued on his way. Once he reached his next delivery stop, he discovered that the jug was completely full of fresh and cool milk, though before it was nearly empty. The place where the boy met the woman and her child is known as Matha Kulam, meaning Our Lady’s Pool. There is a small shrine built at this site to mark this miraculous apparition.
The second Marian apparition is believed to have taken place in 1597, not very far from the site of Matha Kulam, the first site. This time, again, a beautiful woman with a young boy in her arms appeared to a disabled young boy who was selling buttermilk. The young boy with the woman asked for some buttermilk. Once he finished the buttermilk, the woman asked the disabled boy selling the buttermilk to go and visit a certain gentleman in the town next to Velankanni and to request him to build a chapel in her honor at that very location. The boy set out quickly after hearing the woman’s message and soon realized that he was no longer lame and could walk properly. At this place, a small chapel was built in record speed to honor Our Lady of Good Health. In Tamil, the Holy Mother is known as ‘Arokia Matha.’
The exact date or year of the third miraculous incident is not known, but it is believed to have taken place during the early 17th century. The incident happened when a Portuguese ship sailing from Macao to Sri Lanka got caught in a deadly storm in the Bay of Bengal. They prayed to the Virgin Mother in the form of ‘Star of the Sea’ to help them. The storm quickly subsided, and all of the 150 men on board the vessel were saved. This incident took place on September 8, which is known to be the day of the Feast of the Nativity of Mary. In the coming Thanksgiving, the Portuguese sailors rebuilt the Shrine to Our Lady of Good Health, which was in a dilapidated condition by then. After this, whenever their trips brought them to Velankanni, they continued to add and enhance this shrine’s structure.
Ultimately, the small shrine that began as a thatched chapel in the 16th century became a parish church in 1771. In 1962, the shrine was given a special status of a minor basilica by Pope John XXIII himself. It was finally in 1962 that the shrine was elevated in status and became a Major Basilica and merged with the Basilica of St. Mary Major located in Rome, Italy.
Architecture of the Velankanni Church
This famous Basilica is constructed in the Gothic style of architecture due to the influence of the Portuguese sailors who built the original structure. The southern side of the church was expanded in 1928, while in 1933, expansion was carried out on the northern side. The Basilica comprises of three chapels, as well as the Church Museum, Our Lady’s Tank, Offering Center, the Priests’ Residence, Stations of the Rosary, Stations of the Cross, the Shrine Mega Mahal, and a portion of the Vailankanni Beach. The building is painted in white with red tiles on the roof, lending a beautiful old-world charm to the church.
When you are on a tour of the state of Tamil Nadu, and you have some time on your hands, paying a visit to the small and cozy town of Velankanni is an excellent idea. Spending one day in Velankanni is enough to see the sights of the town, of which the most important attraction is the Velankanni Church or the Basilica of Our Lady of Good Health. Velankanni is India’s biggest Catholic pilgrimage site, and there are many miracles attributed to the Blessed Mother residing in this church. So whenever you are in the area, stop to pay your obeisance as this Marian Shrine.