By Mike Viola
Twenty years after forming the Missionary Oblates of Mary Immaculate, the Oblate founder, St. Eugene De Mazenod, was looking to expand the Oblates’ presence beyond Europe. One of the places he settled on was a tiny island nation off the east coast of India, Ceylon (known today as Sri Lanka).
Saint Eugene sent four missionaries to the isolated island. They had almost no knowledge of the country. Two of the Oblates were French, one Italian and one from Ireland. When they arrived, there was no significant Catholic population on the island. Most people were either Buddhist or Hindu and there was a small group of Muslims.
“We can only imagine the tremendous trust that they had in God to venture into this unknown territory,” said Fr. Jeevendra Paul, O.M.I. “They were outstanding Oblates who left an indelible impact on the lives of the people through their excellence and creativity.”
The early Oblates in Sri Lanka were excellent at finding creative ways to serve the spiritual and physical needs of the poor on the island. They constructed numerous churches and several Catholic institutions as well as trained many indigenous clergy. Saint Eugene was so impressed by the work of the pioneer Oblates in Sri Lanka that within 15 years he had sent 31 more Oblates from Europe to serve in the country.
In the early days of the mission, most of the Oblates were parish priests or managers of dioceses. Eventually, they branched out to new forms of serving the poor through other avenues of evangelization, social rehabilitation, psychological counseling, as well as caring for the displaced, refugees, orphans, widows and school dropouts.
Two crises in Sri Lanka, a 25-year civil war and a tsunami in 2004 that killed 37,000 people, greatly impacted the Oblates’ work on the island. The Oblates launched several rehabilitation programs for the poor such as building temporary houses, providing food and relief supplies and other emergency services. The Oblates became specialists in psychological counselling and established five Centers for Counseling and Spiritual Renewal to help people with healing and guidance in their lives.
Youth ministries have also been at the forefront of the Oblates’ work in Sri Lanka. Today they run several orphanages and technical schools for poor children.
The Oblates started the St. Vincent’s Technical School in Maggona in 1881, the first social service institute for underprivileged children in Sri Lanka. The school is still in operation with children being provided an education, lodging, meals and medical care.
Some of the children are orphans while others were abandoned by their families due to financial or personal reason. They receive technical/vocational training in carpentry, welding, mechanics, industrial electrician and air conditioning and refrigeration.
The Oblates also created the La-kri-vi Movements (Valiant Children of Action) to cultivate and develop spirituality in children ages five to 15. Currently there are more than 9,000 children involved in the program in about 400 villages throughout the country.
From four missionaries 175 years ago, the Sri Lanka mission now consists of 266 Oblates, the largest religious congregation of men in the country. More than 70 of these Oblates are seminarians, a hopeful sign for the future of the missions. The Sri Lankan Oblates have established missions in recent years to India, Pakistan and Bangladesh and have also sent missionaries to countries in Asia, Africa and Europe.
“The Oblate vocation is ever fresh and relevant to the present time, even when times are fast changing and new needs are arising,” said Fr. Paul. “The 175th Anniversary celebration this year will bring an awareness of the pioneering spirit of our Oblate missionaries of the past and inspire the present Oblates to venture into the future trusting in God and in themselves.”