When you see a church anywhere else in the world, normally it is a building with a typical Christian cross attached somewhere on top of the building. Rarely do you find components of another religion on its architecture. However, that’s what you’d find in the church named Graha St. Maria Annai Velangkanni in the Indonesian city of Medan (North Sumatra province). In fact, it doesn’t look like a church at all!
Is it a temple or a church?
When you see this church from some distance, you will not recognize it as being a church. To me, it looks like a Tibetan style Buddhist temple, due to the presence of both Indian and Chinese characters on the building’s architectural design. The building itself was designed in an Indo-Mughal style. The combinations of brown, grey, and red colors on the building, and its pyramidal pagoda on top, give you the impression of a Buddhist or Hindu monastery somewhere in India. However, there are two winding staircases (one on the right, and one on the left side of the building) leading you to the second floor, which resemble the palaces you can see in the Forbidden City in Beijing, China!
You may not have any idea about what kind of shrine it is until you see several symbols of the Christian cross on the building. Nevertheless, even after seeing the crosses, one may get confused by this extremely unique design. Is the building for the Buddhists, Hindus, or Christians? Or is this building a pilgrimage site for people of these three different faiths to do their rituals together? It must be a place where they all love to visit!
It's a Catholic church
It’s very normal to get confused due to the mixed characteristics on the outer appearance. However, as you enter into the building, it’s totally a different image. It’s a church (Catholic), not a Buddhist temple. On the bottom floor, it is the Chapel of St. Mary, the highlight of this church where pilgrims pray and get holy water. Go to the second floor and just like any other Catholic churches, the architecture of this community hall (the place where Christians/Catholics gather every Sunday for a regular communion service), you will find the statues of Jesus and his apostles, Mother Mary, along with angels and saints,and pictures of them painted on the very tall ceilings and glass walls.
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Miracles of Our Lady of Velankanni
Annai Velangkanni is not Indonesian. It’s Tamil (the language spoken by the majority of people in India), which means Mother of Velankanni. Annai means mother and the name Velangkanni’ was derived from an Indian town of Velankanni in Tamil Nadu state. This is the place where a church (also named Velankanni church) was built in the 17th century to be devoted to Mother Mary, who is believed to have shown Herself and Her Little Boy to some people of Velankanni and have made some miracles as well.
On Her first apparition, She and Her Baby appeared to a boy whose job was to deliver milk to people’s homes and She asked if the boy was willing to give some of the milk to Her Baby. The boy agreed and let the Baby drink some milk. However, he found out later that the milk was not reduced at all.
The second miracle was made for a crippled boy selling buttermilk. Her Little Boy asked for some buttermilk and the boy gave Him what He wanted. Then She asked the crippled boy to go to the next town to meet a person and on the way there, he realized his feet had been healed and he was no longer crippled.
Some years later, She was believed to have helped Portuguese sailors to escape from a deadly storm and landed in Velankanni. The sailors then built a chapel that has now become the most sacred pilgrimage site for Catholics/Christians in India.
Written in four languages
There is another unique aspect that you’ll find here. Everywhere in the church, you will find information (e.g. bible quotes, signs, etc.) written in four languages: Indonesian, English, Tamil and Chinese. Due to the large number of Chinese and Indian Catholics living in Medan, and the high number of international visitors, these languages are important to be displayed.
It's a new church
If you think this is a several-century old shrine, like what you can find in many other places throughout Indonesia (e.g. Borobudur, and Prambanan in Central Java), then you got this wrong. This church was just founded in 2005 by Father James Bharataputra S.J., an Indian Jesuit missionary, with donations from all over the world! Isn’t it amazing that people have managed to build a church with this kind of unique architecture in the present time?
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