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The story behind the only Marian shrine in Sumatra

Sanctuaire marial de « Graha Maria Annai Velangkanni » à Medan, en Indonésie.

© RANDY IMANUEL I Shutterstock

Marian shrine of "Graha Maria Annai Velangkanni" in Medan, Indonesia

Anna Ashkova - published on 02/24/23

A missionary priest is responsible for the shrine, which has become a blessing for many people in Indonesia.

“I had a vision to spread the devotion of Mary here,” Fr. James Bharataputra, an Indian Jesuit priest who has been on mission in Medan, Indonesia, for the past 50 years, tells Fides in all simplicity.

On the Indonesian island of Sumatra, where indigenous groups live and where a rather traditional version of Islam is widespread, this 84-year-old missionary has become an emblematic figure, known and appreciated in the province of North Sumatra. It’s for good reason: this native of Tamil Nadu in India, naturalized Indonesian in 1989, built a huge Marian shrine called “Graha Maria Annai Velangkanni” (Marian Shrine of Our Lady of Good Health) in Medan.

He became a priest in 1970 and began his pastoral work in Medan after always dreaming of being a missionary. “I am still amazed at how God’s loving providence led me to this mission land. And I am just as amazed at the great trust placed in me by my Jesuit superiors. It was they who allowed me to serve in the local Church, the Archdiocese of Medan,” he says. 

When he started his work in Medan, he realized that the local population, especially families with fewer economic possibilities, did not have access to good enough education. So, he sought to address that need by founding an elementary school, called “Karya Dharma” (Works of Charity). But in the Indonesian Church, Father James is best known as the founder and rector of the Marian Shrine “Graha Maria Annai Velangkanni,” also located in Medan.

According to Radio Veritas Asia, he took the decision to build the shrine in the year 2000: “While doing pilgrimage in Europe with a group in the year 2000, one of the group members were found missing in France. Fr James sought the intercession of Mother Mary of Velangkanni and the person returned safe. That moment he decided to extend the devotion of Mary to Sumatra.”

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A post shared by Graha Maria Annai Velangkanni (@velangkanni)

He tells Fides more about his idea for the shrine:

I had a vision to spread the devotion of Mary here as she had shown herself in Vailankanni in Tamil Nadu for more than three centuries, attracting people from all walks of life and helping them to know her son Jesus. I reflected that a shrine would attract many pilgrims from all walks of life and help them to encounter God. At the same time, a shrine reminds pilgrims that they are all children of the one God. It teaches them to respect and love one another as brothers and sisters because they are all children of the same Heavenly Father.

The Word of God that resonated in his heart was Psalm 133: “How very good and pleasant it is when kindred live together in unity!” Thus,with the support of the archdiocese, the missionary undertook the project to build a Marian shrine. 

A place that contributes to Indonesia’s religious and cultural diversity

Fides reports that the Marian shrine took five years to build (2000-2005) and cost more than four billion rupiah (about $500,000). Fr. Bharataputra explains that the money was raised thanks to the great generosity of thousands of donors. It was a magnificent project whose architectural design reflects St. Ignatius’ contemplation of the mystery of the Incarnation in his Spiritual Exercises. It was built in an Indo-Mughal design that “makes the building look like a church, temple, and mosque all at once,” Radio Veritas Asia reports. Also, according to The Hindu, Scripture quotes on the walls are written in the four languages spoken by the largest local ethnic groups – Indonesian, Tamil, English, and Chinese – to make them readable for as many people as possible.

“Here, as in medieval cathedrals, [the mystery of the Incarnation is] artistically represented by paintings and statues. The shrine combines pastoral use as a community hall, on the basement floor; worship and adoration on the middle floor; and artistic contemplation of historical-religious mysteries on the top floor. As the shrine attracts pilgrims of all faiths, the work contributes to Indonesia’s religious-cultural diversity and tourism,” explains fellow Jesuit writer Fr. Ignatius Jesudasan. “This place has become a blessing for many people,” he concludes.

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