Wednesday, September 06, 2006

Mangalore's Feast of Mary's Nativity - Monthi Fest

Children Have Big Role In Blessed Mother's Nativity Feast

September 6, 2006

MANGALORE, India (UCAN) -- Sheethal and Atul get up half an hour earlier these days.

As the first sunbeams touch the earth, the siblings are out with a wicker basket to gather flowers. In the evening, they carry the basket to church and offer the flowers to the Blessed Mother as the Infant Mary.

"We want to collect the best flowers before our friends do," Sheethal said as her brother, two years younger, tugged at her dress for her to hurry up. "It is like a flower festival," Sheethal said as the two entered their Hindu neighbor's garden.

They return home by 7:30 and get ready for school, which begins at 9. When school ends at 4 p.m., the children rush home, bathe and put on colorful clothes to take their basket to the church.

For nine days starting Aug. 31, children in colorful clothes carry their flower-filled wicker baskets around Mangalore, a Catholic stronghold in the southern Indian state of Karnataka. They do this in preparation for the Sept. 8 celebration of the Nativity of the Blessed Mother.

This year, as usual, local churches have been holding evening Masses and novenas that schoolchildren can attend easily on these special days.

During the novena held after the evening Mass, children queue in front of the statue of the Blessed Mother and throw flower petals on it. The parishes arrange to have the empty baskets filled with sweets and gifts. This encourages the children to come regularly for the nine days of prayers, says Lawrence Albuquerque, 70, of Darebail parish.

According to Albuquerque, this special way of celebrating the Blessed Mother's birthday is unique to Mangalore, 2,290 kilometers south of New Delhi. He and Clara D'Cunha, mother of Sheethal and Atul, said their own most memorable childhood days are connected with this feast.

"We have not lost our enthusiasm to dress nicely and accompany children," D'Cunha, 32, told UCA News Sept. 3. She recalled rushing two kilometers home from her school in the church compound and then returning to the church to offer prayers to the Infant Mary.

Sister Sunita D'Souza credits the custom with helping instill devotion to the Blessed Mother. "They begin to trust and love the motherly figure," the St. Ann nun told UCA News. They also develop virtues "symbolizing the purity and beauty of flowers," added Sister D'Souza, a school principal in Mangalore.

D'Cunha said the practice promotes family prayer, since family members recite the rosary and other prayers together after returning from church.

She pointed as well to an interreligious aspect, saying her mostly Hindu neighbors allow children to collect flowers from their compounds to take to church. "My children often go with the Hindu children to collect the flowers for the Infant Mary," she noted.

According to diocesan records, the custom of venerating the Infant Mary started around 1799, when Catholics were freed from bondage to Tipu Sultan, a Muslim ruler who tortured Christians, suspecting them to be supporters of British colonists.

The sultan had confiscated Christians' estates in the region in 1784 and deported them to Srirangapatinam, 200 kilometers southeast of Mangalore. Many died in captivity. The British helped liberate the Christians 15 years after the ordeal began and allowed survivors to return to their original land.

Church historian Alwyn D'Sa told UCA News all churches were destroyed or desecrated during the sultan's purge except one church in Farangipet (foreigners town), 40 kilometers outside Mangalore, which was left untouched. The sultan spared it out of respect for his father's friendship with the local priest, the historian explained.

According to D'Sa, this church had a custom of solemnly celebrating the feast of Mary's nativity. Catholics from all over Mangalore diocese went to the parish to observe the feast until 30 years ago, when each parish began to celebrate the feast separately.

The Nativity of the Blessed Mother also is a harvest festival for Catholics and an occasion for family reunions. "This is the time all our uncles and aunts come home, sweet dishes are prepared, and we play all the day," said Connell, a Catholic boy. Parishes distribute blessed new corn and sugarcane during the feast-day Mass on Sept. 8. Families make a drink of corn flour and milk, and drink it before a festive vegetarian meal symbolizing the harvest.

"Normally there will be more than nine dishes, which are peculiar to the festal meal," D'Cunha said. Churches usually organize games and cultural programs in the afternoon, especially for children.

Reproduced by Konkani Catholics with permission from UCAN (

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