Indian-American Catholics flock to Basilica in annual pilgrimage to Our Lady of Good Health, Vailankanni

 Jefreena Packianathan, vice president of the Indian American Catholic Association, walks across an aisle of the Upper Church at the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception in Washington, Saturday, Sept. 8, 2018. Hundreds of Catholics of South Asian descent convened for IACA’s 21st Annual Pilgrimage to Our Lady of Good Health, Vailankanni. (Lindsey Leake/American University)

Jefreena Packianathan, vice president of the Indian American Catholic Association, walks across an aisle of the Upper Church at the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception in Washington, Saturday, Sept. 8, 2018. Hundreds of Catholics of South Asian descent convened for IACA’s 21st Annual Pilgrimage to Our Lady of Good Health, Vailankanni. (Lindsey Leake/American University)

WASHINGTON — Gray wisps of incense smoke rose above the altar, snaking toward the church’s towering, ornate ceilings. As the haze cleared, the faithful prayed.

Many of the women’s saris and men’s sherwanis were embellished in gold splashes that mirrored those of the ecclesiastical artwork surrounding them; nearly every churchgoer at the Catholic mass was of South Asian descent.

On Saturday, the Indian American Catholic Association hosted the 21st Annual Pilgrimage to Our Lady of Good Health, Vailankanni. Hundreds traveled through a late summer downpour to congregate at the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception in Washington. 

“It is believed that Mary appeared in a city or a town called Vailankanni in India,” said IACA Vice President Jefreena Packianathan, explaining the apparition behind the blessed virgin’s titles Our Lady of Good Health and Our Lady of Vailankanni. 

The Basilica is home to her glass-enclosed statue — “Indian Mary,” Packianathan calls it. The glass is opened annually on Sept. 8, the feast day of Our Lady of Good Health.

Saturday’s festivities included confessions, a procession, rosaries, a children’s blessing and a community reception in addition to the holy mass in the Basilica’s Upper Church. The afternoon gathering drew worshippers from the elderly in wheelchairs to an infant who appeared just days old. 

 A young boy walks down the aisle of the Crypt Church at the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception in Washington, Saturday, Sept. 8, 2018. Hundreds of Catholics of South Asian descent convened for the Indian American Catholic Association’s 21st Annual Pilgrimage to Our Lady of Good Health, Vailankanni. The Blessing and Dedication of Children ceremony took place in the Crypt Church. (Lindsey Leake/American University)

A young boy walks down the aisle of the Crypt Church at the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception in Washington, Saturday, Sept. 8, 2018. Hundreds of Catholics of South Asian descent convened for the Indian American Catholic Association’s 21st Annual Pilgrimage to Our Lady of Good Health, Vailankanni. The Blessing and Dedication of Children ceremony took place in the Crypt Church. (Lindsey Leake/American University)

“Happy feast, good to see you,” said a woman outside the Crypt Church, as she embraced a fellow pilgrim.

Packianathan says while attendance was down —  “it’s kind of mellowed down this year because we didn’t have the cardinal; last year was way bigger” — she was glad to bring the South Asian-American Catholic community together.

Every year, this is our biggest event.
— Jefreena Packianathan, IACA vice president

According to a 2009 report in the National Catholic Reporter, there are roughly 17.6 million Catholics in India, accounting for only 1.6 percent of the densely populated nation. 

However, Packianathan stressed that IACA doesn’t just cater to Indian Americans. 

“I say Indian, but it’s really the Indian subcontinent,” she said. “It’s not just the country India, it’s Sri Lanka, Nepal, Pakistan … every year, this is our biggest event.”

Packianathan says the pilgrimage attracts Catholics from as far away as New York. A woman eyeing jeweled rosary beads in the Basilica gift shop said she had traveled from Atlanta.

Saturday was devoted to the virgin Mary but Mother Teresa of Calcutta, too, received adoration. A statue of the saint stood in the depths of the Basilica. Several worshippers, many of them older women, stopped to touch its feet and give the sign of the cross. 

“[Teresa] went, at the age of 18, to India and started the congregation of charity,” said a priest with a thick accent. “The saint of the poor, saint of love, mercy and compassion.” 

For Packianathan, the Indian feast day in the Romanesque church was not only an opportunity to engage the minority community she serves but also a reminder of personal growth. 

“I actually started coming to this event when I was 12,” the 28-year-old said. “I’ve been in the … Christmas Nativity play. I was a donkey and now I’m vice president of the organization.”

Lindsey Leake