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Our Lady of Snows Shrine Basilica, Tuticorin, Tamil Nadu, India

History of the church

Snows Basilica in Tuticorin is a famous church in Tamilnadu, India. One of the oldest and biggest, this church was built after the arrival of St. Francis Xavier in the 16th century. St. Francis Xavier was instrumental in bringing Christianity to Tamilnadu. His mission started from Kanyakumari and went until a village called Vembar covering all coastal villages for a distance of 200 kilometres. He installed several churches in and around these coastal villages.

The first church in Tuticorin was built during 1540 and dedicated to St. Peter. St. Francis Xavier who came here during this time was instrumental in building this church. Later on 5th August 1582, a new church was built and dedicated to “Our lady of Mercy”. In Rome 5th August was observed as the feast of Mother of Snows. Since then the annual feast is celebrated on August 5th and the church was gradually called as the “Church of our Lady of Snows” instead of “Church of our Lady of Mercy”.

The history of Mary’s statue – The statue was originally placed in the convent of Augustinian sisters, Manila, Philippines. When St. Francis Xavier was travelling to China after visiting the coastal areas of Tamilnadu he stayed in this convent for few days. He had a strong desire to take this statue back to Tamilnadu but the sisters refused to give as they were very fond of this. Later St. Francis Xavier died on the way to China in an island called Sancian which was a Portuguese occupied island during those times. Hearing this news the sisters decided to send this statue to Tuticorin as a mark of respect to the saint. The statue of Our Lady of Snows arrived from Manila, Philippines and is the statue which we see now in the Basilica.

Construction of the latest church which we see now started in 1712 by Fr. Vigilius. This church was completed in a very short span of time and it opened on 05th August 1713.

Since the new church was very big compared to the churches in other coastal villages in Tamilnadu it was called “Periya Koil” (big church). Even today people in Tuticorin refer this church as “Periya Koil”.

Arrival of the “Dutch” in coastal regions

During late 1650’s the Dutch fought with the Portuguese and conquered Tuticorin. Slowly they captured the entire coastal regions of Tamilnadu. Since the Dutch were against Catholicism they started demolishing many churches in this region. To protect the statue of Our Lady of Snows it was removed from the church by the village head and moved out of Tuticorin. This statue moved around coastal villages such as Sivanthakulam, Vembar, Punnaikayal to stay away from the hands of the Dutch.

In 1699 the Dutch did not have any progress in their trade because all locals around the Tuticorin region boycotted to support them. Realising a big loss in their business the Dutch called back all Jesuit priests and asked the local Catholics in Tuticorin to follow Catholicism again. During this time the statue of Our Lady of Snows came back to Tuticorin.

Golden Car

The golden car procession of Our Lady of Snows in Tuticorin is considered as one of the most important festivals. In 1702 the first Car procession ("Ther" of Our Lady of Snows) took place. The Golden Car procession first took place in 05th August of 1806 and then in the years 1872, 1879, 1895, 1905, 1908, 1926, 1947, 1955, 1964, 1977, 1982, 2000 and 2007.

Logic behind finalising the years when a golden car procession should take place is interesting. Though we are not aware how the initial years were decided the later part had logic:
We should note that in 1982 this church was raised as a Basilica.
Year 2000 was the Jubilee year and again golden car procession took place.
Year 20007 marked the 25th anniversary since the church was raised as a Basilica.
Year 2013 marked the completion of 300 years since the new church was built in 1713.

Interesting facts on Snows church and the Golden Car

“Das Nevis” means Our Lady of Snows in Portuguese.

She has been given the unique title of “Yelu Kadalthurai” (depicting seven coastal villages) or Yega Adaikala Thai (Mother of Refuge for the seven coastal villages). These villages were Vembar, Vaipar, Tuticorin, Punnaikayal, Virapandianpatinam, Alanthalai and Manapad.

In 1982 the Church celebrated the 400th anniversary. Pope John Paul II raised it to the status of Basilica on 30th July 1982.

The basilica houses the miraculous statue of Our Lady of Snows, which is completely carved out of wood and considered a great piece of art.

The altar against a heavenly background has the portrait of God the Father and Jesus Christ crowning Mother Mary. Mother Mary’s statue (Snows statue) stands at the centre and to her right is the statue of St. Ignatius and to her left stands St. Francis Xavier.

In the Golden Car instead of a Cross we can see a star at the top. It signifies the name of Our Lady as the Star of the Sea (Stella Maris). This star has five points to signify:
a) Divine Motherhood
b) Immaculate Conception
c) Perpetual Virginity
d) Channel of Divine grace
e) Gate of Heaven.

The heads of the four parrots found on the four corners of the basement in the Golden Car tell us that the people in and around Tuticorin (all coastal villages) were ruled by Pandyan Kings.

In the Golden Car four mermaids with human heads and bodies of fish are erected standing with folded hands symbolising sea faring people in this region.

The Car’s height is 53 feet depicting 53 Hail Mary’s in a rosary.

- Anton Niresh Vaz

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