St. Francis Xavier’s Cathedral , Kottar
St. Francis Xavier’s Cathedral is located at Kottar, now a suburb of Nagercoil, which was once a very famous commercial centre at that time. It is one of the famous pilgrimage centres in India. It is also one of the oldest Churches in Tamil Nadu.
Next to Goa, where the incorrupt body of St. Francis Xavier is kept, St. Francis Xavier’s Cathedral at Kottar is the famous pilgrimage centre in honour of St. Francis Xavier where peoples from all parts, irrespective of caste, creed, language and religion come to St. Francis Xavier’s Cathedral to worship here. Pilgrims come here offer their petitions to St. Xavier or thank him for the already received favour from him. The favour given by St. Xavier in this Church is very powerful that his devotees have given him the proverbial name to address him as “Ketta Varam Tharum Kottaaru Saveriar” meaning “St. Xavier of Kottar, the Grantor of all favours”.
Records say that, St. Xavier was canonized and attained sainthood in 1622, but the Church was dedicated to St. Xavier in 1605 itself. Hence the St. Francis Xavier’s Cathedral at Kottar is the first one in the whole world to be dedicated to St. Xavier.
Kottar, The commercial centre
Kottar, now a small town in the municipality of Nagercoil was one a celebrated commercial and business centre with its own name. Kottar is situated on the banks of the river “Pazhayaru”. Here, the river makes a bend and turns towards the south to the sea. “Kottaru” in Tamil means the bend of the river, and hence the name to the town.
During the first century, Ptolemy visited here and gave it the appellation “Metropolis”. This town is also mentioned by Periplus in the second century. Kottar consisted of people from many caste and creed. One of them were “Chavalakars” a kin to the “Paravars”. St. Francis Xavier came from Goa to teach them and their counterparts in Manappadu area with Christian way of life
Even before the arrival of St. Xavier, Christians were living at Kottar due to the influence of St. Thomas, who had come to Travancore in the first century itself. Until 1602, the Kings of Travancore didn’t allow people to construct a Christian Church. They were allowed only to build small temporary churches with thatched roof of palm leaves, bamboos and mud and also only at coastal areas of the fishermen villages.
St. Francis Xavier
In 1541, St. Francis Xavier (Francisco do Yesu y Javier), started his journey from Lisbon in Portugal and reached Goa in India in May, 1542. He started his missionary work in Goa and then in October 1542, left to the southern coast to teach the people with Catholic faith. Here he started his missionary work in Manappadu in Tuticorin and later in Kottar and surrounding areas in Travancore. During that time, under the leadership of Captain Vittal Rao, the Viajayanagar army along with the Pandian and Chola armies marched to capture Venad. As the Padagas army reached Kottar, the people panicked and fled from there. St. Xavier who was living in a hut in Kottar at that time, rushed to a elevated area in Vadasery, a place two kilometres from Kottar and stood like a colossus, holding a cross. The Padagas were frightened at this sight and retreated from invasion.
This was highly appreciated by the King, Unni Kerala Varma, who became closer and befriended the priest. As per the Church records, the King allotted him a piece of land at Kottar to construct a Catholic Church.
Early History of St. Francis Xavier’s Cathedral at Kottar
Since 1544 A.D, where the St. Francis Xavier’s Cathedral now stands had already a church dedicated to Mary the Mother of Jesus. St. Xavier prayed at this Church when he stayed at Kottar.
As per the church records, the present day St. Francis Xavier’s Cathedral was built in 1600 A.D. In 1552 A.D. St. Francis Xavier passed away. In 1602 A.D., the Travancore Maharaja donated his land in Kottar to Fr. Andreas Pucchario for constructing a Church. In 1603, Fr. Andreas Pucchario constructed the Church with mud and wood, at the place where St. Xavier performed prayers. The church, at that time was called as Trinity Church. In 1605, Fr. Andreas Pucchario dedicated the Church to St. Francis Xavier and then peoples called it as “Saveriar Koil”, meaning Xavier Church.
Growth of St. Francis Xavier’s Cathedral at Kottar
The St. Francis Xavier’s Cathedral has a history of over 400 years. Peoples were attracted by the miracles that had taken place at Kottar. Many miracles were referred in the “Bull of Canonization” issued in 1623 A.D., by Pope Urban VIII. One of the miracles is the raising to life of a month old baby which had died. It was carried to cemetery for burial. The parents had faith and promised to name the child as Francis, if it survived. The miracle happened and the child came back to life.
In the beginning of the 17th century, it is said that the offerings brought to this Church was huge, that through which five other churches were also maintained in the nearby areas. But due to wars and other calamities, those five churches got destroyed over the time. But the St. Francis Xavier’s Cathedral survived since this church was not only protected by the Christians but also by the Hindus.
In 1640 A.D., the Church was reconstructed with stones (Report of the Society of Jesus, 1644).
In 1643 A.D., the sacred relics of St. Ignatius Loyola and St. Francis Xavier were safeguarded here.
In 1752 A.D., the mortal remains of Devasagayam Pillai was buried at St. Francis Xavier’s Cathedral .
Fr. Gomes Andreas, the head of the “Society of Jesus”, Cochin had sent a report in 1698 A.D., to Fr. Gonzales, the head of the “Society of Jesus”, Rome stating that a big church at Kottar was built near the small church with stones.
In 1733 A.D., another report of the Society of Jesus, states “Kottar was a big town. It was the headquarters of all Christian Churches of that area. A big church was there and it was dedicated to St. Francis Xavier, the first foreign missionary to visit Kottar.
Renovations & Extensions of the Church
In 1865 A.D., the St. Francis Xavier’s Cathedral was extended on the West, North and South Sides, which looked like a cross. Tiles were replaced with construction of high dome above the main alter. A dome was also constructed at the St. Mary’s small church.
In 1876 A.D., Jokin Fernandes, an architect from Kollam designed the main altar in wood. Also the wooden statue of St. Francis Xavier kept in the altar was brought from Goa.
In 19th Century, a mandap was designed and constructed by Architect John Louis Fernandes in the front of the Church with big stone pillars. The mandap represents the Indian culture. After the death of Architect John Louis Fernandes, he was buried in the mandap itself.
One can see many styles of architectures in this St. Francis Xavier’s Cathedral . The old church and the vaulting were Romanesque. The extensions and the exterior are Gothic. The stone Mandapam in front is purely Indian. The St. Francis Xavier’s Cathedral looks very great with pleasing appearance.
Formation of Kottar Diocese
During 1930, the saintly Bishop Aloysius Maria Benziger OCD of Kollam recommended that the Southern part of the Kollam diocese can be bifurcated to form the new diocese of Kottar. On May 30th 1930, Kottar Diocese was formed. St. Xavier’s Church, at Kottar was declared as St. Francis Xavier’s Cathedral . Msgr. Lawrence Pereira was its first Bishop. The rectory became the residence of the bishop until it is moved to the present lactation.
The first Bishop of the Kottar Diocese, Mt. Rev. Lawrence Pereira, was buried in the church on 05.01.1938.
In 1942 A.D., to commemorate the 400th year of St. Xavier’s arrival in India, a Tower and the statue of St. Xavier on the top of it and a grotto of St. Lourdes nearby were constructed at the northern side of the Church. It was donated by J.A.D. Victoria of Manapad of Tuticorin Diocese. A small shrine to St. Ignatius who sent him to India, were added to the cathedral premises.
The fourth bishop of Kottar Diocese, Mt. Rev. Leon Dharmaraj, was also buried in the main altar of the St. Francis Xavier’s Cathedral .
In 1956 A.D., when Fr. Barnabas was the priest of St. Francis Xavier’s Cathedral , the western, southern and northern sides of the St. Francis Xavier’s Cathedral were extended further. The St. Mary’s Church was taken over and became a part of the church.
In commemoration of the silver jubilee celebration of Kottar Diocese, a tall tower was erected on the northern side of the St. Francis Xavier’s Cathedral and blessed by Mt. Rev. T.R. Agnisamy, Bishop of the Diocese on November 24th, 1956.
Feast of St. Francis Xavier
The annual feast of St. Francis Xavier is being celebrated every year from November 24 till December 3, with great pomp, show, piety and fanfare. The District Administration declares a public holiday for the Kanyakumari District, on December 3 of every year. Only a few Christian Churches in India gets a local holiday from the Government. On the tenth day celebration, the highlight is the grand Temple Car procession with the statue of Virgin Mary and St. Francis Xavier. Virgin Mary Mother is decorated with Jewels and Ornament. People prostrate before the Temple Car Procession in order to observe their vows and penance. Even Hindus take part with great faith, in this Temple Car Procession, which is of a Hindu custom.
Later Events at the Church
In 7th May 1974, Mt. Rev. T.R. Agnisamy, the second bishop of Kottar Diocese was buried in St. Mary’s church.
The church compound wall was extended further on the northwestern side and a new exit gate was opened when Fr. Berchmans was the parish priest of the St. Francis Xavier’s Cathedral . Also in 2009, Fr. Berchmans constructed a new flag post covered with bronze which was in typical Travancore style. The flag post of St. Francis Xavier’s Cathedral is so unique and beautiful that many churches in Kottar, Palayamkottai and Tuticorin Dioceses have converted their flag post to this model. A new tall statue of St. Xavier was erected at the entrance of the church in 2009.
In 2010, Fr. Berchmans brought artisans from Goa and renovated the main altar of the St. Francis Xavier’s Cathedral . The wooden portions of the main altar, the statue of St. Xavier and wooden portion of St. Mary’s Church were covered with gold and now they glitter brightly. In Tamil Nadu nowhere we can see such a beautifully glittering altar and the statue of St. Xavier.
The Mt. Rev. Peter Remigius, the fifth and the present Bishop of the Kottar Diocese and the parish priest of the Cathedral are taking steps for upgrading the St. Francis Xavier’s Cathedral to the status of Basilica.
The glory, fame and miracles of this ancient St. Francis Xavier’s Cathedral at Kottar are growing day by day and also will grow more in the centuries to come.