Situated in the northern portion of Ceylon, Jaffna comprises the northern and north-central provinces of the island. Christianity in Jaffna dates back as far as the time of St. Francis Xavier. In 1548 St. Francis visited Manaar and came to Jaffna to persuade the king to cease his persecutions against the Christians. In 1580, under the protection of the Portuguese, the first Catholic church was built at Jaffna. The whole peninsula surrendered in 1591 to Andrea Furtado de Mendoza. Almost the entire population subsequently abjured idolatry and embraced Christianity. The fort of Jaffna capitulated to the Dutch in 1658. At that time there were in the peninsula 50 priests, 1 Jesuit college, 1 Franciscan and 1 Dominican convent, and 14 churches. The Dutch immediately manifested the most hostile disposition towards the Catholics. The priests and monks were banished, and giving them shelter was declared a capital offence. From that time dates the long persecution which ended only with the surrender of Ceylon to the British in 1796. To this diocese belongs the Island of Manaar rendered famous by the apostolic labours of St. Francis Xavier and by the martyrdom of from 600 to 700 Christians, who were executed by order of the King of Jaffna. Madhu, though a solitary spot in the middle of the jungle, has also its historical fame. For a long time during the Dutch persecution it was the refuge of native Christians. To this spot they had transported a statue of Our Lady which is now enshrined in the new church. Madhu has developed into an important pilgrimage, where more than 40,000 pilgrims congregate every year for the feast of the Visitation.
In 1845 Ceylon was divided into the two vicariates of Colombo and Jaffna, with Bishop Orazio Bettachini as vicar Apostolic of the latter. In 1847 the Oblates of Mary Immaculate arrived in Ceylon. In 1857 the Jaffna vicariate was handed over to the Oblates, and on the death of Bishop Bettachini, Bishop Semeria, O.M.I., was appointed vicar Apostolic . In 1868 Bishop Christopher Bonjean, O.M.I., succeeded Bishop Semeria. He had been in the missions for nine years in India and in 1856 had crossed over to Ceylon to join the Oblate Congregation. During his administration a great impulse was given to primary education. The pernicious effects of the Protestant and Hindu schools were more than counterbalanced by the activity of the bishop and the missionaries. Subsequently Bishop Bonjean was transferred to the metropolitan See of Colombo. Bishop Theophile Melirzan, O.M.I., succeeded him at Jaffna and, following in his footsteps, was named Archbishop of Colombo in 1893. In the same year Henri Joulain, Q.M.I., was appointed Bishop of Jaffna.
The entire population of the diocese is 499,200; the Catholics numbering 45,500. The diocese is in the hands of the Oblates ; 3 secular priests help in the parochial ministry. The total number of missionaries is 46. Attached to the cathedral is St. Martin's seminary for the education of junior students aspiring to the priesthood. St. Patrick's college and boarding school is the most flourishing institution of the northern province. It has a staff of 6 European fathers, 1 native father, 2 brothers, and 15 native professors. The average number of students is 450. It is especially devoted to higher English education, and prepares its students for the Cambridge Junior and Senior examinations and for the London University Intermediate. Some years ago it was thought expedient to come into closer contact with non-Catholics and especially with the higher classes of Hindus. For this purpose a Hindu boarding school was attached to St. Patrick's college. The boarders number 100, with good prospects for the future. Jaffna convent, conducted by the Sisters of the Holy Family of Bordeaux, follows the same junior and senior courses, for the education of girls, as St. Patrick's. To the convent is attached a girls' orphanage. The native Brothers of St. Joseph are occupied in teaching at Jaffna, Kayts, Manaar, and Mullaitivu. The native Sisters of St. Peter conduct primary schools in all the important stations of the diocese. There are 127 schools under the control of the missionaries, for the vernacular and primary English education. At the two industrial schools of Colombogam and Mullaitivu 125 orphan boys are taught agriculture and useful trades. The diocese has conferences of St. Vincent de Paul and young men's associations for the working classes. St. Joseph's Catholic Press is the home of the Jaffna Catholic Guardian, a weekly paper devoted to the interests of the diocese. A Catholic Club has just been founded for the purpose of interests of the Catholic community.
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