Maria Goretti worried about not being able to camp at the annual festival at the Shrine of Our Lady of Madhu this year due to the Covid-19 outbreak. The 68-year-old Catholic visits the shrine with her relatives every July. But this year the festival, which attracts thousands of devotees, was a low-key affair and did not allow temporary camps to be set up. In olden times, people traveled by bullock cart, and later they came by train, bus and private vehicle. The shrine is one of the oldest Christian places of worship in Sri Lanka. Built in the 17th century, it attracts thousands of visitors from different religions each year. Goretti, who comes from Negombo, recalled her past experiences when the faithful used to erect tents tethered to big trees.
"More than 200,000 devotees flock to the Madhu shrine from every part of Sri Lanka for the feasts in July and August. They stay in temporary dwellings and participate in church services," she said. "Pilgrims stay in the camps until the day of the feast. Even on the night of the feast, the sacred shrine overflowed with people. Some devotees recite the rosary, some observe Holy Hours and some sing hymns in their temporary camps." Nilusha Fernando, 54, attended high Mass celebrated by Bishop Harold Anthony Perera of Kurunegala, Bishop Christian Noel Emmanuel Fernando of Trincomalee and Bishop Emmanuel Fernandoof Mannar. He could go there only on July 2 morning to attend the feast but could not camp in the shrine’s premises. Pilgrims could follow the festival Mass on national channel Rupavahini from 6.15-7.45am. Vespers service was conducted on July 1 as usual with a very limited crowd without the Eucharistic procession. "We will go to the shrine with my children and relatives next year as usual. I prayed for Mother Mary's intercession to attend the feast next year," said Fernando, who comes from Dalupotha. The shrine, 220 kilometers north of capital Colombo, was damaged by shelling during Sri Lanka's civil war on Nov. 20, 1999, and about 40 Tamils, including children, were killed. The 400-year-old shrine is the lifeblood for villagers, with pilgrims bringing much-needed revenue to the region. It also has been a source of refuge for Tamils, having been home to thousands of refugees on several occasions. It remains a center of pilgrimage and worship for Sri Lankan Catholics, both among the majority Sinhalese and minority Tamil communities. In peaceful times, hundreds of thousands of pilgrims from all over Sri Lanka visit the Madhu shrine during feasts. Its main statue of Mary is reputed to have healing powers and is venerated by Catholics and non-Catholics alike. It sheltered thousands of internally displaced people in the wake of Sri Lanka's civil war. In 2008, a claymore mine exploded close to the church, killing 20 people including 11 children. Up to 100,000 people died during the 26-year civil war, which came to an end in 2009 when the government declared victory over the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam — but not before international human rights groups accused government forces of abuses including extrajudicial killings and forced disappearances. The shrine, which is considered the holiest Catholic shrine in the country, used to be a major pilgrimage destination and place of worship for local Catholics. Pope Francis visited the shrine during his trip to Sri Lanka in 2015. The site contains a statue of the Virgin Mary, which was brought for safekeeping from the Dutch in the 17th century and was consecrated in 1944, near the end of World War II. The Church canceled Masses and other services from March 15 because of the rapid rise in the number of Covid-19 cases, but the government granted permission to reopen places of worship on June 12. Religious gatherings are restricted to a maximum of 50 attendees. Covid-19 cases have risen to 2,072 with three more persons testing positive, the Health Ministry said. Eleven patients have died while 1,885 have fully recovered and been discharged from hospitals. The country has successfully controlled the contagion and the situation has almost returned to normalcy, though everyone has been asked to wear masks and observe social distancing. Schools that were closed from March 18 to stem the contagion were reopening on July 6 for 766,000 students in grades 13, 11, and 5 amid strict health measures, according to the Ministry of Education. Goretti said that she would attend the feast next year with her family and her relatives. "I believe Mother Mary who is staying in the Vanni forest is a dear mother who provides at every step of the way to help the sick," she said.
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