When the tsunami hit the eastern Sri Lankan town of Thirukkovil, just before 9 a.m. on Dec. 26 last year, Father Ranjeevan Xavier cut short morning Mass at St. Joseph's, told his congregation to head for higher ground, tucked his cassock into his sash and ran toward the sea a few hundred meters away. "Almost immediately I found the body of a woman lying on a fence," says Father Ranjeevan, 30. "Her long hair had tangled in the barbed wire and trapped her. We'd had floods before, but I'd never seen that. I picked up her body, carried it to dry land and went back." Thirukkovil was largely under water and littered with naked corpses: the force of the waves had torn clothes off the victims. Father Ranjeevan carried 70 people and 200 bodies out of the water that day. "Everyone was looking for their mother or their children," he says. "But as a priest with no family, it was easier for me. I could just keep pulling people out."
The surrounding district of Ampara was the worst hit in Sri Lanka. Of 38,000 dead, 10,000 were from Ampara, including a tenth of Thirukkovil's population of 6,000. Father Ranjeevan says he eventually buried 750 people--most in two mass graves on the beach--as bodies from elsewhere washed up on the tide. He ministered to the dead for a week, then started on recovery. He coordinated aid groups, distributed self-written pamphlets on the science of tsunamis, set up patrols to stop looters and opened a nursery, a students' dormitory, a nutrition center and a teacher-training facility. He even held a kite-flying contest to encourage children to return to the beach. "What didn't he do?" asks police inspector Thushara Sena, 32. "He pulled people out, buried the dead ones and fed the live ones. He was the man people went to for everything. Still is."
Father Ranjeevan believes the tsunami brought good too. Aid flooded a poor area, the waves broke down divisions built by religion and a 22-year civil war, and disaster brought people closer to their gods. "The church is packed," he says, beaming, "and I'm building a new one to the south. The youth are with me. To feel closer to the sacrament, people have been leaving personal things--glasses, handkerchiefs--on the altar." Father Ranjeevan is unimpressed by the notion that that might have more to do with him than with his god. He tells the story of how, on the evening after the tsunami, he came across a girl kneeling by her mother's body, laid out with hundreds of others in the corridor of the town hospital. "The girl suddenly shouted, 'My mother is alive! Come on, mother! Come on, mother!' And there was motion. She was alive." Amid the misery, he says, that day had its miracles.