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The Holy Spirit Church, Vembar

Ruled by Pandyan Kings

Situated in the Tuticorin – Rameswaram highway about 45 kms from Tuticorin, Vembar is one of the main places inhabited by the Paravars. Before the Arabs and Portuguese came to the coastal region the Paravars were governed by Pandyan kings in Madurai.

The Pandyan emperors allowed the Paravars from Kanyakumari till Keelakarai to manage and operate the pearl fisheries because of their ancient skills in that activity. This activity required special seamanship abilities, knowledge of how to tend the oyster beds and also knowledge of their location. The emperors exempted the Paravars from taxation and allowed them to govern themselves in return for the Pearls and other sea products generated for the kingdom. In these coastal areas along with Palm trees and Coconut trees a lot of Neem trees (Veppa Maram) were planted. When Pandyan Kings used to visit Vembar, people used to garland him with the flowers of the Neem tree. In Tamil garland of Neem flowers were called Vembu (Neem) + Aaram (Garland) deriving the term “Vembar” for this village.
In 1534 many Paravars in these coastal areas along with Vembar were converted to Christianity by the Portuguese. Paravars embraced Catholicism to gain the help of Portuguese who battled against the Arabs securing them. Paravars in Vembar, Tuticorin, Virapandianpatanam, Alanthalai, Kanyakumari, Manappad etc. embraced Catholicism during this time.

History of the Holy Spirit Church
During 1542 when Jesuit Priest Francis Xavier travelled through these coastal regions he asked people to build churches. Churches were built with walls made of clay and roofs made of thatched leaves. More than 40 churches were built in this way along the coastal regions and Vembar was one among them. During 1600 Jesuit records in Rome noted that Vembar’s church was the biggest and beautiful among the coastal churches built during that time.
Around 1658 Dutch explorers overtook these coastal regions from Portuguese. The Dutch who followed “Calvinism” started damaging Catholic churches in Vembar, Manappad, Virapandianpatanam, Tuticorin and Punnaikayal. These churches started functioning as the warehouses for the weapons possessed by the Dutch. Eventually the Paravars did not support the Dutch in their business and the Dutch faced heavy losses. In 1699 the Dutch called up all Paravars along the coast line and asked them to follow Catholicism without any fear. In fact the Dutch were instrumental in starting some churches for us and many of them turned to Catholicism. After 50 years since the Dutch came the church in Vembar started functioning again as a parish. In 1708 Vembar and Vaipar was a single parish. During 1720′s a second church was built and was named The Holy Spirit Church.
History records that in 1709 a terrible plague visited the people of Vembar. This plague took many lives and incapacitated many in this village which lasted for nearly 2 years. During this time people turned towards St. Sebastian, a warrior saint from Milan, Italy. He is known for curing plagues amongst several people all over the world. The people of Vembar prayed vigorously to St. Sebastian and many were cured by these prayers. Around 1711 – 1712 the people embraced St. Sebastian as the patron saint of Vembar. For more information on St. Sebastian please read the article “Vembar & St. Sebastian”.
The second church built during 1720′s started deteriorating in the beginning of the 20th century. The construction of new church began in 1908 and the stones and woods from the old church were used for this building. Paravars belonging to Vembar (within Vembar and outside of Vembar) contributed heavily to build this new church. Finally on 1st February 1915 the new church was blessed and dedicated to The Holy Spirit by Parish priest Fr. Swaminathar in the presence of Tiruchi Bishop Rev. Augustine Faisandier
Since 1876 Vembar had been a big mission with 25 substations; but from 1908 substations of Vembar were annexed with Tuticorin one after another. The church has a beautiful statue of Auxilium Mary (In Tamil known as “Sengol Matha”) in the centre near the Eucharistic Tabernacle. The feast for Sengol Matha is observed on 30th October. On the left and right side of the Tabernacle are the statues of St. Joseph and St. Sebastian. St. Sebastian’s relic was brought from Rome to Vembar and this relic is used for blessing during St. Sebastian’s feast.
Feast of St. Sebastian and The Holy Spirit
The feast of St. Sebastian (as the patron Saint of Vembar) is observed on January 20th every year. A large procession of St. Sebastian around the village takes place during this time. Natives belonging to Vembar arrive from different places to attend this feast.
A beautiful grotto (“Keby” in Tamil) of St. Sebastian stands next to the church and a separate festival for the grotto called “Keby Thirunal” is observed on 21st January (next day of St. Sebastian’s feast).
The feast of Holy Spirit is observed every year on the day of ” The Pentecost” (50 days from Easter) in a grand manner. Hence there are two major feasts celebrated in the Holy Spirit Church, Vembar: “St. Sebastian’s feast” and “The Holy Spirit feast”.
by Anton Niresh
Thanks : Global Paravar

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