A beacon of prayer, faith and hope | Daily News


June 13 marks the feast day of St. Anthony:

A beacon of prayer, faith and hope

St Anthony’s Church,  Kochchikade
St Anthony’s Church, Kochchikade

The most prominent landmark of Kochchikade is undoubtedly the beautiful Catholic shrine, where Sri Lankans gather to pray. It is a landmark that has now come to be remembered by the citizens of Colombo, with greater zeal.

The Shrine of St. Anthony reached international news in 2019, as it was the first church to be targeted by radicalized extremists. For centuries after Christ, the Christian church was surely established on the blood of martyrs. The church by the harbour has its own history of courage, sacrifice and faith all uniting in divine symphony to create a house of prayer that has served for more than 185 years. This shrine and its recent victory in literally rising from the ashes, is very significant, as I witnessed the remarkable faith and courage of this congregation, in the rapid journey of restoration.

Milestone of faith

Almost 200 years ago, Ceylon was in the process of change. It was a time of colonial intrusion of sorts. The wider area of Colombo 13 today referred to as Kotahena and Kochchikade had a very different landscape. It was also an era of religious transformation for some communities. The Dutch troops had steadily attacked the fortified positions of the Portuguese, who were slowly outnumbered. Prior to this, the Portuguese priests and friars began to preach the Bible and many islanders embraced the gospel. Catholic missions gradually sprung up in Ceylon.

Once the Dutch exerted their dominance over Ceylon, they began to get rid of the Catholic priests and the Catholic devotees became silent with fear. It was at this time that Fr. Joseph Vaz came to Ceylon, concealing his real identity. Dressed in the clothes of a common man, he boldly went about encouraging the Catholics. A few years later, Fr. Antonio sailed to Ceylon, where he resided with some fishermen in Kotahena. He had come from Cochin, India.

We must pause here to understand the sacrifices made by these pioneer clergy who came to our island, risking their lives. Fr. Antonio could not go out to sea, so in order to maintain his concealed identity, he began a small boutique. Some of the seniors in Kotahena attribute his boutique with the origins of the term Kochchikade - the small boutique (kade) of the man from Cochin.

The first divine sign

One morning, when the fishermen were ready to sail, they saw that the tide was rising and their humble huts would soon be at risk. Knowing that Fr. Antonio was a man of persistent prayer, the fishermen surrounded his hut, with their wives and children and pleaded with him to intercede for God’s mercy. Fr. Antonio loved this poor community. He made a cross with two pieces of wood, and went to the shoreline and planted it there. He remained in faithful prayer for three days and nights. The fishermen knelt down with him, often glancing at the shoreline in doubt. On the third night, the threatening water receded.

In this era when people desire instant miracles, this is a solid reminder that God does hear and answer prayers, in His time. The delighted fishermen fell on their knees, in gratitude to Almighty God. This single incident was the spiritual spark that inspired the faith of the people and soon Fr. Antonio was able to celebrate mass in many houses. The community now desired for a place of worship.

In 1806, with the help of local men, Fr. Antonio built a small mud hut on the same location where the church stands today. Some years later, people collected money and began building a sturdier building. In 1822, the statue of St. Anthony (the saint from Padua, Lisbon) was brought to Ceylon from Goa, India. The work on the church steadily continued and by 1834, the facade was completed. Yet there were challenges to overcome.

In 1912, the then British Governor Henry McCallum wanted to acquire the church (total land) to expand the harbour. This decision was met with fear and anger by local residents. Thankfully some of the British administrators realized the impact of this Church on the community, and they advised the Governor to refrain from perusing this idea. The church has celebrated the feast of St. Anthony traditionally on June 13. The late Pope John Paul II made a surprise visit to this shrine when he was in Sri Lanka. For decades the feast has drawn thousands of Christians and non-Christians. It is one of the most celebrated and venerated feasts in Sri Lanka.

A day in 2019

Easter Sunday of 2019 is now a day of remembrance and solidarity in Sri Lanka, for our brothers and sisters who were murdered inside the Church. Remembering violent explosions (at three churches) is not a pleasant thought. Yet we have to look back in retrospect, it is only then that we can appreciate Almighty God for his grace towards his people, in moving forward.

It must be mentioned that the Sri Lanka Navy was the first responder (from the camp inside the harbour) who helped to rush the injured to hospital. It was the sailors who carried shocked people to safety. I recall the support of present Navy Commander Vice Admiral Piyal De Silva, who permitted me to visit the church a few days later (it was a crime scene). Bloodstains were washed away by the sailors. Over the next few weeks, the Navy began restoring the church with great effort. I visited Kochchikade twice to observe this process. In the meantime led by Rev. Fr. Jude Raj Fernando many members of the clergy built the shattered lives of the affected Catholics, through prayer and kind counseling.

The journey forward

The late Mahatma Gandhi said, “Forgiveness is the attribute of the strong.” In the Bible, the topic of forgiveness is emphasized many times by Jesus Christ. Over the past year, the congregation of St. Anthony’s Church has forgiven those who caused this carnage. Yet they wait earnestly for justice, it is their right. They demand justice on behalf of the Christian community in Sri Lanka. Those who were involved in this cowardly attack must be punished by law. This year’s annual feast has been marred by the COVID-19 pandemic.

Rev. Jude Raj Fernando said, “The church is open for prayer from 5am to 7pm daily, and we are maintaining strict adherence to health guidelines.” However, at the time of going to print there was no indication of any special Mass this year to commemorate the annual feast. For decades this feast was a jubilant celebration. This year we will not see the flags and coloured lights, or the women vendors who come from Negombo selling their sweets, seated with glowing lanterns.

The Church of St. Anthony has surpassed her boundary of Kochchikade and reached across Sri Lanka. The essence of the feast remains alive in the heart of the faithful devotees. At the end of the day, the Christians’ inspiration is centered on the love, mercy and grace of Lord Jesus Christ. The flags of Christ’s joy, freedom, peace and strength must fly continuously inside every true believer’s heart.

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