Mangalorean Catholics can be proud of the fact that a pious priest in the service of the people, who once lived among them, was canonized as a saint. His brief stint in Mangalore is enshrined in the collective memory of the people even today.
St Joseph Vaz (Konkani ZuzeVaz) was born on 21 April 1651 at Benaulim in Goa. He was the third son of Christopher Vaz and Maria de Miranda, Konkani speaking Catholics of Goa. He became a priest in 1676 and served in different parishes in Goa till 1681.
In 1681 he was sent to Canara region comprising Uttara Kannada (North Canara) and Udupi and Dakshina Kannada (South Canara) to rescue the mission which was almost extinct. He was appointed the Vicar of Canara. He travelled barefoot.
He was appointed as the Vicar of Canara. During his stay in Canara from 1681 to 1684, Vaz undertook a series of missionary activities in Mangalore, Barkur, Mulki, Kallianpur, Honnavar and other places.
He reconstructed the Rosario Cathedral in Mangalore and served in churches at Honnavar, Bastur, Kundapura, Gangolli, Mulki. He also served at Our Lady of Mercy Church in UllalPanir and Mudipu surroundings.
In 1684 he returned to Goa and joined a band of native Indian priests who formed a community. A year later in 1685, he founded a religious congregation called “Oratory of St Philip Neri on September 25.
Mission in Ceylon
He wanted to serve as a missionary in Ceylon (Sri Lanka) and therefore he left Goa secretly in 1686. He reached Jaffna, the Tamil region of Ceylon in 1687 along with his assistant John Vaz both disguised as labourers. In those days there was a ban on Catholic priests and were forbidden to preach. It could lead to imprisonment and even death. The island was under severe religious persecution from the Dutch who at that time ruled the country. The Dutch Calvinists were intolerant of other faiths.
He went around in the rural areas through the tea-gardens in search of Catholics to take care of their spiritual needs such as religious instructions, regularising marriages, baptising their children and conducting the Holy Eucharist in their homes and villages. He converted 30,000 persons who revered him.
In 1691 he was captured by the Dutch and was brought to Kandy in chains and imprisoned as a Portuguese spy by the Buddhist king Vimaladharna Surya II.
However, a miracle he performs saved him. In 1693 he worked a miracle of rain during a severe drought. He erected a makeshift altar with a cross and held prayers causing a sudden downpour. Impressed by this the King of Kandy released him, offered him protection and freedom to preach the Gospel in the Kingdom of Kandy.
Over the years he learnt Tamil and Sinhalese. He composed a para-liturgy in Tamil and Sinhalese. He used inculturation (the use of local culture in church worship), a concept which was then unknown to missionaries. He not only taught meditation but also practised it.
He educated his assistant John to be a priest. John belonged to the Kunbi tribe which at the time were not accepted for the priesthood. Joseph Vaz sent him back to Goa with a letter of recommendation to the priesthood.
In 1697 he is joined by three of his Indian Oratorians from Goa. When there was a minor epidemic in Kandy, the king and other nobles fled, but Joseph Vaz along with Fr Carvalho remained ministering to the dying and abandoned victims for almost two years.
In 1705 he revived the Shrine of Our Lady of Madhu in Mannar district of Sri Lanka and expanded it. It is one of the five officially crowned Marian shrines of the church.
He worked for 24 years in Sri Lanka. Vaz and was given the title “Apostle of Sri Lanka” by the Church. He refused to accept Rome’s order to be appointed a Bishop. Joseph Vaz died in 1711 after 24 years of arduous missionary work in Sri Lanka. The kingdom mourned officially for three days. His remains were buried in the church of Kandy. For more than a decade, Fr Joseph Vaz was the only Catholic priest in Ceylon. He built at least 15 large churches, 385 chapels with schools and dispensaries.
His cause for beautification started in 1713. He was beautified and proclaimed him Blessed Joseph Vaz in Colombo by Pope John Paul II when he paid a visit to Sri Lanka on 21st January 1995.
He was canonized on 14th January 2015 by Pope Francis in Colombo.
Shrine in Mudipu
The Shrine of St Joseph Vaz is located in Mudipu Hill, also known as Miracle Hill, a village about 25 km from Mangalore. Mudipu was a part of Panir church and later of the Fajir church. However, it became an independent parish on 29th June 1997 becoming the only church in India to be dedicated to St Joseph Vaz.
Mudipu Hill is a significant place in the life of JosephVaz. During his mission in Canara and as the parish priest of Panir Church he went from house to house teaching catechism and serving the poor. People liked him for his piety and service and eagerly looked forward to his visits.
However, some people were against him and were attempting to destroy him and his work. Some miscreants took him one night to Mudipu Hill on the pretext of administering the last sacraments to a dying person. When the miscreants reached the Hill along with Fr Joseph Vaz, an attempt was made on his life.
Fr Joseph Vaz knelt down in prayer and miraculously the whole place brightened up. Water gushed out from the three holes that appeared in the places where Fr Joseph had knelt along with his walking stick. The enemies fled from that place. Even today the three holes are a witness to this miracle. There is water in one of the holes and a number of cases of healing have been recorded by the use of the water and intercession of St Joseph Vaz. This place is now called Mudipu Miracle Hill. It is a place of pilgrimage and people came here from as far as Sri Lanka apart from Goa.