The church of Our Lady of Health of Velankanni in Vile Parle has kicked off its 50th annual Novena celebrations from Wednesday. The nine-day-long celebration marks the anniversary of an apparition of Mother Mary wearing a sari with a child in her arms at Velankanni in Tamil Nadu in the 1500s.
Father Ravi Thanaiah Merneni, the parish priest of the Irla church, who took over the position in 2017, explained the significance of the church to Irla. “Before 1967, Irla was a village and cut off from the rest of the city. Catholics living here are mostly of East-Indian origin. Back then, the closest church was St Blaise in Amboli,” he said.
In 1967, Father Bruno Venturin, the first priest of the church, had held a midnight mass in the lane leading to the church and noticed an overwhelming number of people attending the event.
He had then requested the Diocese to establish a church. When it was time to name the church, the name ‘Our Lady of Velankanni’ was selected due to the presence of members of the East-Indian community in the area.
During the Novena, the church also oversees healing services availed by people. “People pray to Mother Mary with the belief that she requests or ‘intercedes’ as we call it, to Jesus and that their prayers are heard,” said Father Ravi.
One of highlights of the nine-day celebration is the grand procession held before the feast, which sees the statue of the ‘Lady’ carried around Irla.
Irla resident Ruben Mascarenhas (31), a parish member since childhood, said: “Velankanni is also known as the ‘Lourdes of the East’, Lourdes being a famous church in France. This was the first church in Mumbai dedicated to the Velankanni apparition. You could call it an extension of sorts to the one in Tamil Nadu.”
Choreographer Terence Lewis, a former parishioner, added: “It is important to have a way to connect to the ‘Lady’, for a certain sense of kindness comes from her — the feeling of a loving mother. Those who are sick and have certain ailments look up to her for strength.”