Posted by: lrrp | October 3, 2005

Catholic Church in Sri Lanka – A History in Outline – The Portuguese Period by W_L_A_Don Peter


In the very first stanza of Portugal’s celebrated national epic Os Lusiadas by Luis Vaz de Camoens there is reference to a Taprobana.
This is the island the subcontinent of India has at its southern tip, like a pendant, a pear-shaped island of 25,.000 square miles, separated from the mainland by a thirty-mile stretch of sea, an island that has an ancient history and civilization and has been the home of prehistoric man from the palaeolithic age.
The island was known to the people of India as Lanka, to the Greeks and Romans as Taprobana, to the Arabs as Screndib. to the Portuguese as Ceilão, to the British as Ceylon, and is known today as Sri Lanka.

In historic times several settlements of Aryan immigrants from North India, which were eventually unified under a common ruler and spoke a common language of Indo-Aryan origin called Sinhala, came to be known as the Sinhalese and today constitute about three-fourths of the island’s population of a little over 16 mil1ion. In the 3rd century B. C. the Sinhalese king and his subjects accepted Buddhism brought by monk-missionaries from India. Buddhism, in its Theravãda form, has since remained the dominant religion of the country.
For over a millennium the capital of the Sinhalese kingdom was Anuradhapura in the north-central part of the island, but later, owing to invasions from South India, it was successively shifted southwards to such locations as Polonnaruva. Dambadeniya, Yapahuwa, Gampola and Kotte, which was about seven miles inland from Colombo, and was the capital when the Portuguese arrived.
Early immigrations from South India brought to the northern parts of the island people of Dravidian stock whose language was Tamil and religion Hinduism. At a later date came Muslims who settled down mainly near seaports for trade purposes.
At the time of the arrival in early sixteenth century of the first Europeans of the colonial period, the Portuguese, there was in the island a Tamil kingdom in the north, the capital of which was Nallur; and there were to the south of it two Sinhalese kingdoms, one in the central uplands with Kandv as its capital, and the other, comprising mainly the southwestern lowlands, which was the largest, richest and most powerful and the ruler of which, residing at Kotte, his capital claimed suzerainty over the whole country, and was accordingly called cakravarti or emperor, of Lanka.
The presence of a few Christians in the country long before the arrival of the Catholic Portuguese is known from what Cosmas Indicopleustes, of the 6th century, tells us in his book The Christian Topography, namely, that there were some Persian Christians in the island; from the discovery in 1912 among the ruins at Anuradhapura of a granite slab with a cross engraved on it; and from the presence of an Indian Christian, Migãra, who served as army commander under Sinhalese rulers in the 5th century. Maybe there weere other Christians among Indians who served in the army of Sinlialese rulers. No attempt seems to have been made by these Christians to spread their faith among the local inhabitants.

In 1493 Pope Alexander VI (1492-1503) assigned to the Portuguese the evangelization of countries in the East. Under the Padroado arrangement of joint Church-State action in this regard, King Manuel I of Portugal (1495-1521) sent the first missionaries (8 Franciscans and 8 secular priests) to India in 1500 by the fleet under the command of Pedro Alvares Cabral. Five years later, on 15 November 1505. a Portuguese fleet commanded by Lourenço de Almeida, son of the Portuguese viceroy in India, Francisco de Almeida, having been driven by a storm to the shores of Lanka, landed in Colombo.
With the leave of the king of Kotte, Dharma Parãkramabãhu IX (1489-1513), Alimeida erected a feitoria or trade station in Colombo. There he built also a small chapel where the chaplain of the fleet, Friar Vicente, a Franciscan, celebrated Mass, the first Latin Mass on Sri Lankan soil. The chapel was dedicated to St Lawrence, Roman deacon and martyr, Lourenço’s name-saint. It was thus that St Lawrence became the chief patron of the city of Colombo.
Leaving a few soldiers behind. Lourenço de Almeida returned to India and informed his father of the events connected with the ‘discovery’ of Sri Lanka. The latter informed King Manuel of Portugal who by letter dated 25 September 1507 intimated to the Pope, Julius II (1503-1513), that the Portuguese had arrived in the island.

In 1518, with the permission of the king of Kotte. Vijavabãhu VI (1513-1521), the Portuguese built a fort in Colombo which brought more Portuguese into the country. They seem to have had also a priest to attend to their spiritual needs. In any case, by about 1530 there were in Colombo two Franciscans and a parish priest (vigario) by the name of João Vaz Monteiro. His engraved tombstone was discovered in Colombo in 1836.
In 1521 the king of Kotte, Vijayabãhu VI. was assassinated by his three sons who then divided the kingdom among themselves, the oldest Bhuvanekabãhu becoming king of Kotte, the second Madduma Bandãra king of Rayigama and the Two-Korales, and the youngest Mãyãdunnë king of Sitawaka and the Four Korales. This unfortunate partition of the kingdom of Kotte gave the Portuguese the opportunity to be more and more involved in the country’s politics.
Mãyãdunnë aimed at taking the kingdom of Kotte as well, which made its ruler. Bhuvanekabãhu VII, turn to the Portuguese for military aid to defend himself. He in fact sent an embassy to Portugal to ask the king, John III (1521-1557), to defend him and his intended successor, his grandson Dharmapãla. To render the king of Portugal propitious towards him. Bhuvanekabãhu asked also that Catholic missionaries be sent to his kingdom. Accordingly, towards the end of the year 1543, five Franciscans, sent by John III, with Friar João de Villa do Conde as their leader, arrived in Kotte. They came with the hope of converting the king and his subjects to the Catholic faith.

In the meantime Francis Xavier had arrived in Goa (8 May 1542), the first Jesuit priest to come to the East, and in September that year had proceeded to the Fishery Coast in South India to minister to the Paravas, about 20,000 of whom had been converted in 1536 but with little instruction. Xavier converted more of the Paravas and also people of another caste in the region, the Karaiyas or Kadaiyas.
In 1544 the Kadaiyas of Mannar, an island by the north-west coast of Sri Lanka, which was part of the kingdom of Jaffna, had invited Xavier to come over and baptize them also. Since he was not in a position to come himself, he had sent a fellow-missionary, the Spanish secular priest Juan de Lizano. The latter had baptized about a thousand of the people of Mannar.
The king of Jaffna, Chekarãsa Sëkaran or Sankili. fearing this would be a step towards Portuguese occupation of his kingdom, sent his troops to Mannar, who massacred six to seven hundred of the new converts, while the rest fled to the Lankan mainland. In a letter of 27 January 1545 to fellow-Jesuits in Rome, Xavier speaks of the martyrdom of the Manniarites and says that though he regrets the action of the king, he is happy that so many had received the crown of martyrdom.
Xavier proceeded to Goa and requested the governor, Martin Affonso de Sousa, to punish the king of Jaffna, not to take revenge from him, but to let him know, and other Asian rulers as well, that thev should not deny, their subjects freedom to convert to Catholicism. But as the governor took no steps in this direction Xavier decided to leave India for the time being and go further eastwards.

The Franciscans who had arrived in Kotte (1543) found that the king Bhuvanekabãhu, through fear of alienating his
Buddhist subjects, was not willing to become a Christian, nor was he in favour of the conversion of his subjects. The missionaries, however, while ministering to the Portuguese who had settled down at some seaports, made a few conversions among the local inhabitants roundabout and built chapels for them. The seaports mentioned are Negombo, Panadura, Kalutara, Maggona, Beruwala, Galle and Weligama.
There were also some conversions of princes of the Sinhalese royal family. Prince Jugo Bandara, a son of Bhuvanekabãhu by a junior queen, was planning to go to Goa and become a Christian to win Portuguese support to get the throne of Kotte for himself, but when the king came to know of it, he got the prince secretly murdered. About this time a son of the king’s sister was baptized at Kotte as Dom João, the first member of the Sinhalese royal family to become a Catholic. He fled to Goa where Xavier too met him. Another prince, Jugo Bandãra”s brother, also went to Goa and became a Christian as Dom Luls. Both Dom João and Dom Luis were hoping to be placed on thrones in Sri Lanka by the Portuguese but both died in 1546 in an epidemic of smallpox at Goa.
When Bhuvanekabãhu died in 1551, Dharmapala succeeded him, but since he was still a minor of about 16 years, his father, Vidiyë Bandãra, became regent. The Portuguese viceroy, Afonso de Noronha, hearing of the king’s death, came to Sri Lanka in the hope of securing the king’s treasure and also to persuade Dharmapãla to become a Catholic. The latter, however, fearing repercussions among his Buddhist subjects, was not willing to change his faith. Noronha got only a part of the treasure and when he left he took with him as a hostage a four-year-old prince, a son of Bhuvanekabãhu by a sister of the queen. Baptized at Goa as Dom João, he was educated at the Jesuit College of St. Paul. In 1557 he went to Portugal, but later returned to Goa where, having married a Portuguese lady, he lived until his death in 1587.

The regent, Vidiyë Bandãra, was hostile to the Portuguese and their faith, though baptized by the Franciscans when once he was in prison. After his death around 1555 Dharmapãla found himself more free on the throne, and allowed the missionaries greater freedom for their evangelistic activities. It is reported that in 1556 several thousands of the Karãva community inhabiting the western seaboard were converted by the Franciscans.
Emboldened perhaps by the conversion of so many, of his subjects, King Dharmapãla himself became a Catholic towards the end of the year, baptized by Friar João de Villa do Conde and given the name of the reigning Portuguese monarch, John III. Thus Dom Joã Dharmapãla became the first Catholic king of the Sinhalese royal dynasty. Jayaweera Bandira, ruler of Kandy, though baptized earlier, did not persevere in the faith.
In 1557, Dharmapãla, on the unwise suggestion of the Franciscans, took the impolitic step of donating to them, as a Catholic king, the Buddhist temples of his kingdom with their lands and revenues, just as Buddhist kings before him had donated them to the Buddhist clergy. The Franciscans, destroying Buddhist images, converted some of the temples to churches. The Buddhist clergy and laity naturally revolted against this desecration and alienation of their time-honoured and sacred places of worship. Portuguese forces harshly, suppressed the revolts. Many of Dharmapãla’s Buddhist subjects went over to Mãyãdunnë’s side, who now found himself in a stronger position.
Supported by his militarily, astute son Rãjasimha, Mãyadunnë launched his onslaughts against the kingdom of Kotte and its capital. Colombo itself was exposed to the danger of attack. Unable to defend two cities simultaneously, the Portuguese decided to move King Dharmapãla and his court to the fort of Colombo and abandon the city of Kotte which was done in 1565.

While Mãyãdunnë overran the kingdom of Kotte, Dharmapãla, now a refugee, remained in the fort of Colombo, a king without a kingdom, far removed from his subjects, and maintained and guarded by the Portuguese. The Franciscans too were confined to the fort. Many of the churches they had built in the kingdom were destroyed by the forces of Sitawaka.
About ten years after being confined to the fort of Colombo. Dharmapãla sent to the Pope, Gregory XIII (1572-1585), a letter dated 28 January 1574 begging him to persuade the king of Portugal to win back for him his kingdom. The Pope, who received the letter four years later, replied on 1 July, 1578, promising to communicate with the king of Portugal regarding the request. At the same time he urged Dharmapãla to remain faithful to his faith in spite of reverses. The following day itself the Pope wrote to the king of Portugal, but nothing came of it, since, about a month later, 4 August 1578, Portugal’s young King Sebastian was killed and his army routed by Muslim forces at the battle of Alcazar-Kebir in Morocco.
Dharmapãla continued to remain in the fort of Colombo, and since he had no children and there was no chance of a Catholic succeeding him. he drew up a deed of gift on 12 August 1580 donating his kingdom to the king of Portugal, which was confirmed on 4 November 1583. This too was done on the advice of his Franciscan mentors.
Mãyãdunnë of Sitawaka died in 15 81 and his son Rãjasimha succeeded him. The following year Rãjasimha brought the kingdom of Kandy too under his rule. He also laid siege to Colombo (1587-1588) but the Portuguese succeeded in saving it.
In 1592 the Kandyans successfully revolted against Rãjasimha. He died the following year. After him there was no one in the Sitawaka royal family to lead the fight against the Portuguese. The latter took prisoner a 12-year-old prince of Sitawaka. Nikapitiyë Bandãra, and placed him in the Franciscan college of St Anthony in Colombo where he was baptized as Dom Filipe and given an education.

The kingdom of Kotte was now under Portuguese control. The king Dharmapãla, was old and ailing. When he died in 1597, his kingdom, by virtue of his deed of gift, passed to the Portuguese crown, and Philip II of Spain (Philip I of Portugal) became its ruler, since from 1580 Portugal had come under Spanish domination (and would continue so till 1640). Dom Jeronimo de Azevedo, who had been captain-general in Lanka since 1594 now became the local ruler of the kingdom of Kotte.
Under Portuguese rule there was freedom and opportunity for the missionaries to carry on their work. So far, Franciscans, who had first arrived in 1543, had been the chief pastors in the kingdom along with a few secular priests. Since the erection of the diocese of Cochin in 1558 Lanka had been part of it. The Bishop of Cochin now was André de Santa Maria, himself a Franciscan. In the new situation he saw the need to have in Sri Lanka missionaries of other religious orders as well. The Franciscans went on to claim that the kingdom had been exclusively entrusted to them by the king of Portugal. The bishop, however, went ahead with his plan and members of other orders too arrived in the island, the Jesuits in 1602, the Dominicans in 1605, and the Augustinians in 1606.
To prevent conflict, each order was assigned a particular region for missionary work, the Jesuits the part of the kingdom to the north of the Maha Oya, that is, the Seven-Korales, the Franciscans the western seaboard to the south of the river, the Augustinians the Four-Korales, and the Dominicans the Sabaragamuwa (Ratnapura) region and the Two-Korales. Each order had a house in Colombo.

We saw that after the new converts of Mannar, were massacred, Xavier requested the Portuguese governor in Goa to take steps to punish the king, as a lesson to him and other Asian rulers that they should not deny religious freedom to their subjects. But a move in this direction was made only, 15 years later, in 1560, that is, eight years after Xavier’s death (1552)
The viceroy, Constantino de Braganza, led an expedition to Jaffna, but it ended in failure. He thereupon captured the island of Mannar and built a fort there, hoping to take Jaffna later. The Portuguese brought from the Fishery Coast some of the Catholics there to settle down in Mannar. With them came also some of their Jesuit pastors, among them the Tamil scholar Fr Henry Henriques. Two hospitals were built on the island, one for the soldiers, the other for the common people. There were also Franciscans and Dominicans working in Mannar. But since some of the immigrants from the Fishery Coast went back later owing to disease on the island, its Catholic population dwindled.
In 1591, about 30 years after Braganza’s failed attempt to subdue Jaffna, a Portuguese force under the command of André Furtado de Mendonça, captured Jaffna, killed the reigning kinq Puvirãja Pandãram (1582-1591), on the ground that he was hostile to the Portuguese, and set on the throne a prince who was prepared to reign as a vassal of Portugal. He was Edirimãnasingam or Pararãsa Sëkaran.
During his reign the Franciscans were able to be engaged in missionary activity. A church they built near the king’s palace at Nallur, the capital, was later transferred to Jaffna and became their main church in the kingdom and a popular shrine, the Church of Our Lady of Miracles.

When Pararãsa Sëkaran died in 1615, his seven-year-old son succeeded him. The late king’s brother, Arsa Kësari, became regent, but another prince, known as Sankili, slew him and took his place. It came to the ears of the Portuguese that he was conspiring with the Dutch to get them out. The captain-general in Colombo, Dom Constantino de Sa de Noronha, dispatched a force to Jaffna under the command of Philip de Oliveyra. Sankili was taken prisoner. The young king and his two sisters and other members of the royal family were dispatched to Colombo and the kingdom of Jaffna was brought under direct Portuguese rule. Sankily was sent to Goa where he was tried and executed.
On 18 June 1623 Pararãsa Sëkaran’s son and daughters, his queen and other members of the Jaffna royal family were solemnly baptized at the Franciscan church of St Anthony in Colombo. The prince was given the name Dom Constantino, after his godfather, the captain-general Constantino de Sa, and the princesses were named Dona Maria and Dona Izabel. The three of them were later sent to Goa where the prince became a Franciscan as Constantino de Cristo and held various posts in the order. The two princesses became nuns at the Augustinian Convent of St Monica at Goa, the first Sri Lankans to become nuns. Dona Izabel died in her youth (1645) while Dona Maria lived to an advanced age and on 1 January 1682 was elected prioress of her convent. She died on 9 April the same year.
In 1619 the Bishop of Cochin entrusted missionary work in the kingdom of Jaffna to the Franciscans. However, seeing that now there was greater opportunity for evangelistic activity in the kingdom, he turned to the Jesuits too for help. They came in 1622 from the Malabar Province in India. Franciscans were assigned the coastal regions, and the Jesuits the inland parts of the kingdom. The Dominicans too came to Jaffna. They had a residence and church in the fort of Jaffna and their services were given also to a church about three miles from the fort.

Four decades after the arrival of the Portuguese in the island, the ruler of the upland kingdom of Kandy, Jayaweera Bandãra, turned to them for help, like Bhuvanekabãhu of Kotte, fearing an attack by Mãyãdunnë of Sitawaka, but, unlike Bhuvanekabãhu, he accepted baptism to please the Portuguese. He was baptized as Dom Manoel by the Franciscan, Francisco de Monteprandone, in the night of 9 March 1546. Trindade tells us that two Franciscans stayed on in Kandy, and in the following year (1547) erected in Kandy a chapel dedicated to the Immaculate Conception. But when danger from Sitawaka receded, Jayaweera Bandãra’s Christianity also evanesced. His conversion does not appear to have been sincere.
He was succeeded by his son Karalliyaddë Bandãra. To protect him from Sitawaka, the Portuguese sent to Kandy a force of 300. It appears that the Franciscan, Friar Paschoal, who accompanied the troops, baptized the king, as Dom João, and also members of the royal family and some citizens.
Mãyadunnë died in 1581 and was succeeded by his son Rãjasimha. The following year Rãjasimha took Kandy. Karalliyaddë Bandãra fled with the members of the royal family and some Portuguese. At Trincomalee he, his queen and several others of the royal family died of smallpox, leaving behind a princess about a year old and a nephew Yamasimba who was 19.
The princess was taken to Mannar by the Portuguese and entrusted to the care of a Portuguese, Gabriel Colaço and his wife Catarina de Abreu. She was baptized as Dona Catarina and brought up as a Catholic. Yamasimha was sent to Goa and baptized as Dom Filipe. He had a son by the name of Dom João.

In 1892 the Kandyans succeeded in overthrowing Rãjasimha of Sitawaka. He died the following year. The Portuguese placed Yamasimha on the throne of Kandy, and sent for his support a lascarin force under the command of a Sinhalese, Konappu Bandãra.
The latter was one who had fled to the Portuguese in Colombo when his father, Virasundara, a Kandyan chieftain, was put to death by Rãasimha of Sitawaka on taking Kandy. Sent to Goa by the Portuguese, Konappu Bandãra had become a Christian there as Dom João D’Austria. Now he was back in Kandy, sent there by the Portuguese.
Before the lapse of a year, King Yamasimha died, suspected of being poisoned by Konappu Bandãra. The Portuguese acclaimed Yamasimha’s 12-year-old son, Dom João as king of Kandy, but Konappu Bandãra overthrew him, proclaimed himself king as Vimaladharmasurya, attacked and dispersed the Portuguese, who were in Kandy, and began championing Buddhism. The Portuguese brought from Mannar princess Dona Catarina and tried to place her on the throne, but Konappu Bandãra defeated them at the battle of Danturë on 9 October 1594, and taking Dona Catarina prisoner made her his queen, thus securing a royal link to the throne. Of the missionaries who had gone to Kandy, four Franciscans were killed and two others and a Jesuit taken prisoner.
When Vimaladharmasurya died (1605), a cousin of his, Senarat Bandãra, became king, himself marrying Dona Catarina. In 1617 he signed a peace treaty with the Portuguese, one of the conditions of which was that there should be a Franciscan in Kandy as hostage. The king made use of him to educate his children.
After Senarat’s death (1635), one of his sons, Rãjasimha, became king. With the help of the Dutch he managed to get the Portuguese out of the country. Their forts were taken one after the other and finally Colombo capitulated to the Dutch in 1656 and Jaffna in 1658, and with that Portuguese rule in Lanka came to an end.

Prince Dom João of Kandv, after being dethroned by Konappu Bandãra, was taken by the Portuguese to Mannar and then brought to Colombo where he was educated at the Franciscan College of St Anthony, along with prince Nikapitiyë Bandãra of Sitawaka. Later both of them were sent to the Franciscan College of the Magi at Bardes, Goa, where they continued their studies for fifteen years. Then, on the orders of the king they were sent to Portugal, having been ordained subdeacons, and were to continue their studies in the University of Coimbra. Prince Nikapitiyë went to Coimbra, but before commencing studies died at the Franciscan monastery there.
Prince Dom João preferred to remain in Lisbon. Ordained priest, he settled down at Telheiras, in the suburbs of Lisbon, where he built a church and near it a convent for the Franciscans as a token of gratitude to them for all they had done for him. Receiving an allowance from the king, he lived there until his
death in 1642 at the age of 64. The church fell into ruins in the Lisbon earthquake of 1 August 1755.
While in Portugal in 1955 to collect information on the history of Lanka’s Church in the Portuguese period, I went in search of the ruins and was happy to discover that the church had been rebuilt and was being used. On 15 August 1955 I had the opportunity of celebrating Mass in the church, probably the first Sri Lankan to say Mass in the church after the prince priest who built it.

Although the missionaries had little chance to take the Gospel to the kingdom of Kandy, they had much opportunity for missionary work in the kingdoms of Kotte and Jaffna, especially after they came under direct Portuguese rule. They made conversions, never by force, but sometimes by the offer of favours and privileges; they built churches and schools for the converts and established parishes; they lived in the parishes. close to the people, unlike the Calvinist ministers of the following period (Dutch period) who lived in towns and only occasionally visited the people; they learnt the languages of the country, some only a smattering of it for their practical needs, but a few in depth and wrote books, like the Franciscan missionary of Matara, Antonio Peixoto, who wrote and staged religious plays in Sinhala, the Jesuit Matthew Pelingotti who translated several religious works into Sinhala, the Colombo-born Jesuit Emmanuel de Costa who wrote a Sinhala grammar in Latin and the Jesuit Pierre Berguin who wrote one in Portuguese. The famed Italian Jesuit Robert de Nobili is known to have been engaged in writing religious books especially for children when he was in Jaffna (1645-1648) to recuperate his health.
Of the Sinhala writings of European missionaries of the Portuguese period, none has come down to our times. A copy of Pierre Berguin’s Sinhala grammar in Portuguese had been there in the library of the University of Jena, Germany, but when I inquired about it in 1955, I was informed that with other documents and books it had been destroyed in an Allied air-raid in February 1945 during the last World War. A copy of a Tamil grammar by the Jesuit Henrv Henriques (who was in Mannar one time) was found in the Biblioteca Nacional in Lisbon.
We learn from Trindade that by 1628 the Franciscans had in the territory assigned to them in the kingdom of Kotte 54 churches. He gives the list, mentioning the location of each church, the patron-saint of each, and the number of Catholics that belonged to each (translation, pp. 137-150). Similarly in the kingdom of Jaffna and the adjacent islands the Franciscans had by 1634, 25 churches (ibid. 239-242).
A Jesuit report of 1644 tells us that they had in their territory in the kingdom of Kotte 7 residences and 3 more in Franciscan territory. The church or churches served by the priest or priests of each residence, the patron saint of each church, the number of Catholics that belonged to each church, and the number of children attending religious instruction are also given. Similarly the Jesuits had 12 residences in the kingdom of Jaffna (Perniola, Portuguese period, vol. 3,pp. 310-314).
The Augustinians who were assigned the Four-Korales had 13 churches. A list is given by them of the location of each church, the name of the priest who founded it, its patron-saint, and the number of Catholics that belonged to it (ibid. pp. 91-95).
We do not have much information about the Dominicans. We are told they looked after 12 churches in the territory entrusted to them. Besides their church in Colombo, there was another church outside the city, dedicated to St Sebastian, which they served. In Galle too they had a church and another somewhat inland.
In the Portuguese period there were three churches in the country which became popular shrines and places of pilgrimage, all of them shrines of Our Lady: In the Kingdom of Kotte were the shrines of Our Lady of Mondanale, the location of which has not been identified, and the Augustinian church of Our Lady of Deliverance (Livramento) which was at Narahenpita. What is still left of the well of the shrine can be seen in the Catholic section of the Jawatte cemetery. The other shrine was the Franciscan church of Our Lady of Miracles in Jaffna fort. We are told that pilgrims came there even from India. The Augustinian church at Attanagalla was dedicated to Our Lady of the Sinhalese, which is a significant fact of identification of Our Lady with the indigenous people, although the church did not become a shrine as such.
Education too was in the hands of the missionaries. The Jesuits had a college in Colombo for primary and secondary education, that is, for the teaching of Portuguese and Latin and their literature. They had another in Jaffna. The Franciscans had their College of St Anthony in Colombo and another in Jaffna. Christianity, both doctrine and practice, was the main subject taught in these institutions. They resembled the Pirivena colleges of the Buddhist educational system.
From their records we learn that the Jesuits had two types of schools in their rural parishes. One was a catechetical school which all the children old enough to learn the catechism were required to attend. Classes were held in the church, for girls in the morning, for boys in the evening. There was besides an elementary school for boys for secular education mainly for the teaching of the mother tongue and Portuguese. This was more or less like the Pansala school of the Buddhist system. Other religious orders may have had similar schools, though information about them is lacking.
Apart from their pastoral work, the missionaries were engaged in charitable activities as well, one of which was the care of the sick. It was in the Portuguese period that Western medicine was introduced into the country. Sometimes the missionaries themselves distributed medicine among the sick. Sometimes they had care of hospitals and served in them. In the Portuguese period there were hospitals, one in each of the forts of Colombo, Galle and Jaffna, and two on the island of Mannar.
A specifically Portuguese charitable institution was the Misericordia, founded in Lisbon in 1498 by Leonora of Lancaster, queen of John II of Portugal (1481-1495). The Misericordia of each place had a house and church, and its members, who were laymen were engaged in such activities as visiting the sick in homes, hospitals and prisons, care of orphans, and help to the poor, providing them with food, clothing and shelter. Misericordias were established in the home country and in the colonies.
In Sri Lanka the first Misericordia was set up in the city of Kotte. Later, Misericordias were erected also in Colombo, Galle, Jaffna and Mannar.
Thus the Catholic faith was introduced into Sri Lanka with the coming of the Portuguese and in alliance with them. Though such alliance with a political power was beneficial to the Church in certain respects, it was not at all necessary for the purpose of evangelisation. On the other hand, it had results damaging to the country, such as war and bloodshed, harm to the country’s traditional religions, and the loss of the political independence of a large part of the country, all of which affected the Church unfavourably.
Although during this period there may have been conversions from unworthy motives, it is certain also, from the perseverance of Catholics in spite of persecution in the succeeding period of Dutch rule that many conversions had been genuine.
Among the converts was Alagiyavanna, the greatest Sinhala poet of the time. Having learnt the Catholic faith from the Jesuits in Colombo, he was baptised as Dom Jeronimo, the name of his godfather, the Portuguese captain-general in the island, Dom Jeronimo de Azevedo (1597-1614). After his conversion he wrote the poem Kustantinu Hatana which, though a war-ballad, embodies Christian concepts and sentiments and can therefore be regarded as the first Christian poem in Sinhala. Moreover it is the only Sinhala Christian writing of the Portuguese period that h
as survived.


  1. The text is Historical Gleanings by Rev. Dom Peter who gifted the book to the National Library in Lisbon which has a good account of the Portuguse rule in the maritime provinces of the island Lanka

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