Image of Mary enshrined in Bloomington as presence of Indian Catholics grows
BLOOMINGTON — As she always has, the Blessed Virgin Mary brought people together and then pointed them to her Son as the Indian Catholics of Bloomington-Normal celebrated the feast of her nativity on Sept. 8 at St. Patrick Church of Merna.
The Mass included the blessing of a statue of Our Lady of Good Health, which was purchased at the Shrine Basilica of Our Lady of Good Health in Vailankanni, India, and given to the Bloomington parish in thanksgiving for the warm welcome the Indian Catholic community has received there. Processed through the church as the Glorious Mysteries of the rosary were prayed, the statue was enshrined in a place of honor just inside the doors of the worship space.
Father Dustin Schultz, pastor, said it was appropriate for the Indian Catholics to be able to see the statue of Our Lady of Good Health as soon as they enter church. There it will give them a familiar and well-loved image to remind them of home and provide an opportunity to pray in a special way for those who are sick or struggling.
“I know for many of you it was a leap of faith to leave your homes and go where God was calling you and leading you,” he told them. “We’re blessed that you’re here in our town and our parish. You provide a witness of faith and you enrich our community. Thank you for your presence.”
During his homily, Father Schultz said presenting petitions for healing and help to Mary under the title of Our Lady of Good Health allows Jesus to give his Mother a birthday gift by answering those prayers.
“We know that God always responds,” he said. “It is with that confidence that we go to Mary with our petitions, knowing that she will take them to her Son and he will take our petitions and abundantly bless us with his grace.”
After blessing the statue, Father Schultz sprinkled holy water on those present as a spiritual and visible way of entrusting those who are sick to the Lord. Then he invited them to come forward and offer their prayers before Our Lady of Good Health.
A luncheon of traditional Indian dishes followed in the parish hall.
The Nativity of the Blessed Virgin Mary is a major feast in India. It is a school holiday for the children and many people take part in a novena to Our Lady of Good Health, also known as Our Lady of Vailankanni.
“In fact, if we were not here we’d be at the shrine of Vailankanni. We’ve been there several times,” said Felix Maria Asir, who brought his family from Jefferson City, Missouri, for the celebration at St. Patrick Church of Merna.
He noted that his mother usually spends the entire period of the novena at the shrine. It is important because of the graces received there, he said.
“What we are today is because of Our Mother,” Asir explained. “My family has always been devoted to our Mother Mary and they’re so devoted they named me Maria, even though it sounds kind of feminine.”
Akalya and David Augustine moved to Bloomington for work at State Farm, but are from a town near the Vailankanni shrine in India. David said it is not unusual for his family to spend four or five days, walking as many as 200 kilometers, to get there.
He pulled out his phone to show a livestream of the Vailankanni celebration his parents were sending him and said they enjoyed being able to observe the feast together, despite the miles between them.
David Augustine said that having the statue of Our Lady of Good Health at the Bloomington church gives him and Akalya a sense of their country and their people. It also gives them comfort to know that when they see the same statue, they are worshipping the same God in the universal Catholic Church.
“A BEAUTIFUL WITNESS”
Devotion to Our Lady of Good Health dates back to the mid-16th century and two unrelated apparitions of the Virgin Mary with the Christ Child. One was to a sleeping shepherd boy and the other was to a young buttermilk vendor who was physically disabled in the town of Vailankanni, in the Indian state of Tamil Nadu. Both were Hindus.
The devotion started to spread in the 17th century when Portuguese sailors, grateful for the Blessed Mother’s intercession during a storm and their safe arrival at Vailankanni on Sept. 8, constructed a chapel in her honor.
Miracles and graces were reported through the centuries and the shrine was declared a minor basilica by Pope St. John XXIII in 1962. Pope St. John Paul II called it the “Lourdes of the East.”
The Indian Catholics of Bloomington-Normal have been a growing presence in the area for several years, sharing their cuisine and information about their culture with the parish staff at St. Patrick Church of Merna. The late Msgr. Gregory Ketcham started a formal conversation with the community and Father Schultz extended an invitation to bring their monthly rosary, catechesis and fellowship to the parish facilities.
“The Indian community really is a gift, their presence is a gift to our culture and to our parish,” Father Schultz told The Catholic Post.
“Their fidelity, their devotion to Our Lady really does give our culture a beautiful witness,” he said. “As much as we strive to do things for them, they’re really doing things for us by God’s grace.”