Sri Lankan Catholics in the southern town of Matara have celebrated the return of a statue that disappeared during the Asian tsunami disaster only to be found days later unscathed.
Around 100 Catholics held mass on Sunday at the Our Lady of Matara Shrine, where some 200,000 Sri Lankan pilgrims typically converge for a major feast in September each year, priest Charles Hewawasam told AFP.
"Everyone loves Our Lady of Matara," he said of the statue of the Virgin Mary cradling the infant Jesus, near the tsunami-ravaged church built across the road from a sweeping beach on the Indian Ocean.
Its waters rose viciously and smashed into the island nation on December 26, creating its worst disaster yet, with a death toll nearing 30,000.
The statue disappeared from its glass encasing when the first wave swept across the church grounds as a congregation of around 100 celebrated mass inside on Boxing Day.
"A 12-year-old boy who saw it disappear says she slipped out of her glass case and headed straight out to sea like an outboard motor," he said of the statue, found by Sri Lankan fishermen in 1907 and whose origins remain unknown.
He said Matara’s Catholic community of around 200 people, 18 of whom were killed and two are missing, believe she kept the sea at bay after the first wave for several minutes before a second struck.
This allowed people to clear away some dead bodies and collect injured people and then flee the scene themselves, he said.
"Her solidarity with the people led to her facing the same struggle as the people, with Jesus, and she came back after the journey with them," said Hewawasam.
The statue was found a few days later hundreds of metres (yards) away in the backyard of a Buddhist resident who returned it to the church, but it was taken to the nearby town of Galle for safekeeping.
On Sunday the statue was brought temporarily back to Matara for mass.
"The people were really happy to get her back, because they were so worried for her," he said, adding that while the jewellery from the statue was taken by the sea, the infant Jesus crown balanced on its head was still there.
The statue is particularly revered because of its chequered history.
When it was first found in poor shape by fishermen in 1907, the bishop of Galle sent it to his home country Belgium to be repainted.
"An atheist (in Belgium) found her and demanded money that we couldn’t afford and refused to pay and he was so angry he smashed her," Hewawasam said.
The pieces were collected, it was repainted, and the bishop collected it personally when he was on vacation in Belgium.
When he arrived in Sri Lanka and retrieved his luggage, he was told the statue had been discarded because the cargo ship was overloaded, but two weeks later it turned up in a parcel, sent by another ship.
Lalith Fernando, secretary to the bishop of Galle — and who survived the tsunami by clinging to a toilet block — said retrieving the statue was the church’s greatest priority when the waters receded.
"The buildings, people’s property, they can be bought again. But this statue is unique."