The Arrival of the First Missionary Sisters in Jaffna
Bishop Etienne Semeria OMI was the chosen apostle in God’s plan to play a key role in the history of the Holy Family Sisters in Sri Lanka. In 1860, it is said that he wrote a personal letter to our Good Father, Pierre Bienvenu Noailles, asking for three sisters.
On the 8th of June 1861, Bishop Semeria received the joyful news that the Sisters have been named for the mission in Ceylon. The six missionaries were selected: Three French – Srs. Marie Xavier Marchand, Marie Liguri Rojer, Marie Joseph Maroille, two – Irish- Marie Stanislaus Quinn, Marie Helen Winter, and one Dutch – Marie Therese Van Meur. These generous and valiant women surrendered themselves totally to God and their superiors.
In August 1862, they left for Marseilles, the party consisting of the six Sisters, two Oblate Fathers, three Oblate Brothers and the Bishop went on board the “Canada” which was bound for Port Alexandria. On 14th September, the ‘Canada’ entered the Port of Alexandria. The news arrived that the ship “Echo” would sail on the 18th October. The sisters accompanied by the Bishop, Priests and Brothers headed for Suez where they will embark for the last lap of their long journey. The ship sailed out of Aden on 19th October, and in seven days, they got their first glimpse of the palm fringed coast of Ceylon. A thanksgiving Mass was celebrated on board the ship before the missionaries disembarked in Galle. On 27th October, they left Galle and arrived in Colombo on the 28rd October. Bishop Semeria called on the Governor of Ceylon who placed at their disposal the steamship “Pearl” to bring them to Jaffna. The “Pearl” left Colombo on 31st October. On 1st November, feast of All Saints, at 8.00 p.m. the ship reached the pier. The Bishop felt that it would be better for the travelers to spend the night on the boat. The next morning, after Mass, they realized that this was their destination, the land of their adoption!!! Jaffna was a riot of colours, the entire population of the town seemed present to welcome them. The Sisters were filled with wonder and fascination. In the Catherdral with hearts glowing with profound gratitude all joined in the ‘TE DEUM’. Mother Xavier Marchand writes, “What a happy day, the day we arrived here’. We felt that we had left our families behind only to find another. Your daughters are not alone in this distant Isle… Without doubt we shall never be that, because God is everywhere.”
The First Years
Soon after their arrival in November 1862, the Sisters entered the apostolic field that was already mapped out for them by Bishop Semeria: (I) fifteen to twenty young person – Europeans or descendents of Europeans; (II) Fifty native girls; (III) half a score of young pagans, who thanks to the allocation of Holy Childhood Work we have collected to make them Christians; (IV) some young girls to be trained to the religious life. (8th June 1861) With generosity, zeal and trust in God, the Sisters accepted these tasks; Bishop Semeria’s and Fr. Bonjean’s vision and guidance were their invaluable support in the first years.
Since 1850, the English School had progressed under the dedicated direction of Mrs. Mary Anne O’Flanagan, wife of an Irish Military Officer. Her dedicated service to the Catholic education in Jaffna was highly commendable. She handed over the School to Sr. Helen Winter and went to Trincomalee to direct the Catholic School there. Five weeks after their arrival on 14th December 1862, when the official Inspection of School took place, the Inspector was well-disposed towards the Sisters. The English School made steady progress and became a leading educational Institute in the North under the effective guidance of Sr. Helen Winter.
The beginnings were tough; they had to face the drab in their day to day life in a poor under-developed country. The heat was most trying and getting acclimatized to the country was hard. They spent sleepless night and with great fear, listening to the squealing rats and hissing serpent on the ceiling above their heads and the difficulty in communicating without knowing the Tamil Language. But it was a consolation to see the orphans praying and making novenas that the Sisters must soon pick up the Tamil language to teach them about God.
The Second task they undertook was the formation of young native girls and the care of orphan children. The Sisters opened a workshop to introduce them to skills such as sewing and handicraft. Most of these orphans desired Baptism and were instructed. They responded beautifully. In her letters Mother Xavier said that these orphans were her consolation, her beautiful bouquet to God. . In 1867 the epidemics of cholera and typhoid ravaged the population; their orphans too were not spared. Sr. Liguori and Sr. Marie Joseph risked their lives to nurse their dear orphans. They experienced the pinch of poverty in their works. On 24th May 1864, the foundation stone for the new Convent was laid by Bishop Semeria. It took six long years to complete this edifice.