Vijaywada (Andhra Pradesh) [India]: The Gunadala Matha Shrine, also known as Our Lady of Lourdes or Mary Matha Church, situated in the heart of Vijayawada, is celebrating a hundred years of its spiritual heritage.
As one of the most revered Catholic pilgrimage sites, it annually draws about one million devotees during its grand festival. It has established itself as the second-largest place of worship dedicated to Mary, the mother of Jesus, following the Basilica of Our Lady of Good Health in Velankanni, Tamil Nadu.
The Gunadala Mary Matha festival, observed annually on February 9, 10, and 11, holds immense significance, attracting pilgrims not only from the state but also from neighbouring Telangana, Tamil Nadu, and Karnataka. The festival route extends from Padavala Revu, a site historically busy with boats heading to Machilipatnam, along Eluru Road to the Ramavarappadu Junction.
Pilgrims embark on a spiritual journey, ascending on foot to pay homage to the statue of Our Lady of Lourdes, enshrined in 1925 within a grotto midway up the Gunadala hill.
Devotees also offer prayers at the 18-foot-high holy cross adorning the summit. The festival encompasses prayers and cultural programs at the nearby Bishop Grassi High School ground.
Beyond religious boundaries, individuals from diverse backgrounds visit this sacred site, believed to possess healing properties. Many devotees, as a symbol of faith, offer their hair and break coconuts at the shrine. Infants are brought by worshippers seeking blessings from the Mother.
The remarkable development of Gunadala, especially the Mary Matha Shrine, is the fruit of the visionary efforts of Catholic priest Huges Pezzoni. Commencing with the establishment of an orphanage, Father Pezzoni laid the foundation for numerous Catholic institutions in Gunadala. In 1923, he acquired a 25-acre area through donations and purchases, overcoming challenges with the assistance of the first manager, Fr. P Arlati.
On June 24, 1924, the St. Joseph's orphanage was inaugurated, featuring a small statue of Our Lady of Lourdes installed by Fr. Arlati in a natural grotto on the slopes of Gunadala hill.
The Diocesan festival commenced in 1937, marked by Fr. Arlati placing a new statue in the Grotto in 1937. Renovations and improvements were diligently carried out, including widening pathways and constructing a church, consecrated in 1971, solidifying the annual celebration of the Feast of Our Lady of Lourdes on February 11th. The centenary celebration marks a century of unwavering spiritual tradition and devotion at Gunadala Matha Shrine.