A spiritual confluence of prayer and faith | Daily News
Feast of St. Anthony tomorrow

A spiritual confluence of prayer and faith

Interior of the church refurbished by the Navy
Interior of the church refurbished by the Navy

In the Old Testament book of 1 Chronicles 16, it says “Look to the Lord and his strength; seek his face always”. This scripture is brought to life at the Shrine of St. Anthony where people gather for one purpose alone - to pray.

Irrelevant of their ethnic backgrounds Sri Lankans come here in their thousands to make pious intercession and have been duly rewarded by God’s blessings. In the New Testament book of Ephesians, the apostle urges us to “Pray in the Spirit, and always pray for all the Lord’s people”. Further in Mark Chapter 11, Jesus Christ reminds his believers “Whatever you ask in prayer, believe that you have received it, and it will be yours”. Thus prayer and faith work in unison to bring us answers and miracles. The Shrine of St. Anthony is located on the border of the Colombo Port and is embellished with its inspiring story of courage, sacrifice and faith all uniting in a divine symphony which established a house of prayer and hope. The sanctuary has served its devotees for more than 185 years.

St. Anthony

Almost 200 years ago, Ceylon was in the process of change. It was a time of colonial intrusion and influence of sorts. The wider area of Colombo 13 today, referred to as Kotahena, that also includes Kochchikade, had a very different landscape back then. It was 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, including Franciscan Missionaries began to preach the gospel and many islanders embraced the Catholic faith.

Catholic missions gradually sprung up in Ceylon. Once the Dutch exerted their dominance over Ceylon, they began to aggressively get rid of the Catholic priests. The Catholic devotees were stifled with fear. They were unable to gather for Mass. It was at this time when Fr. Joseph Vaz, the daring missionary priest entered religiously turbulent Ceylon. The prudent friar concealed his real identity. Dressed in the clothes of a common man, he discreetly 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 the Cochin region of India. We must pause here to understand the sacrifices made by these pioneer Catholic clergy who came to our island, risking their lives. Fr. Antonio could not go out to sea with the local fishermen, so in order to maintain his concealed identity, he began a small boutique. Some of the seniors in Kotahena attribute his boutique to the origin of the term ‘Kochchikade’ - the small boutique (kade) of the man from Cochin (Kochi - among local dialect).

A divine sign

One morning, when the fishermen were ready to set sail, they observed that the tide was rising and their huts would soon be at risk. Knowing that Fr. Antonio was a man of 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 with some doubt. On the third night, the threatening water receded. 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 fisherfolk and soon Fr. Antonio was able to celebrate mass in many Catholic houses. The rejuvenated community now desired for a decent place of worship.

Annual processions

In 1806, with the help of local men, Fr. Antonio built a small mud hut in 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 Sir Henry McCallum wanted to acquire the church (total land) to expand the Colombo Harbour. This decision was met with fear and anger by local residents.

Processions – Previous years

Thankfully some British administrators realised the deep influence of this church on the community, and they advised the Governor to refrain from perusing this idea. The Governor accepted their advice and left the matter.

For decades the church has celebrated the feast of St. Anthony traditionally on June 13. Let’s pause for a moment to learn some facts about St. Anthony of Padua. He was born as Fernando Martins de Bulhões (1195 – 1231) in Lisbon, Portugal. He belonged to a wealthy family. At age 15, Fernando Martins enrolled in an Augustinian Community and took his holy vows. At age 19, he was the guest master at the Abbey in Coimbra. Some Franciscan Friars visited this town and the young priest Fernando was impressed by their brotherhood and love for the community. He subsequently joined the Franciscan Order and took the name of Anthony. His ability to preach and teach was duly recognised by the founder, St. Francis of Assisi. After a few years, Anthony took ill and was assigned to the rural hermitage in San Paolo. He died on June 13, 1231, aged just 35 years. He was buried in the small church of Santa Maria Domini as per his wish. Later this church became part of a larger Basilica and was named Cappella Della Madonna Mora (Chapel of the Dark Madonna). Less than a year after his death, Anthony was canonised by Pope Gregory IX at Spoleto, Italy.

Journey to victory

For decades this colourful celebration on June 13 in Colombo has drawn multitudes of Christians and non-Christians. It is one of the most celebrated and venerated Catholic feasts in Sri Lanka. Over the past two years, the congregation of St. Anthony’s Church has physically and spiritually risen to manifest the love of Jesus Christ after the Easter Sunday attacks. Their demand for justice has certainly been heard by Almighty God. In Isaiah 51:4, God says “My justice will become a light to the nations, my righteousness draws speedily and my arm will bring justice”. In terms of physical restoration of St. Anthony’s Shrine, it is good to look back and appreciate the Sri Lanka Navy who rendered a great service to rebuild the church. The officers and sailors did a sterling task working day and night for many weeks.

Mass in progress

This year’s annual feast has been marred by the COVID-19 pandemic, just like last year. It is the duty of Christians to obey the law of the land and wisely adhere to all health guidelines. This year we may not see the flags and coloured lights, or hear the harmonious rendition of hymns. Yet we can continue to seek our omnipresent God through faithful intercession. It is God who answers the prayers of his people. During these challenging times let us reflect God’s love to others by our caring actions.

Crowds during past years

St. Anthony said, “The spirit of humility is sweeter than honey. Whoever is filled by this sweetness produces fruit”. The Church of St. Anthony has surpassed her physical boundary of Kochchikade and reached across all provinces of Sri Lanka. The essence of the feast remains alive in the heart of the faithful people. At the end of the day, the Christians’ inspiration is centred on the love, mercy and grace of Lord Jesus Christ. I am reminded of the words of St. Augustine “To fall in love with God is the greatest romance, to seek him the greatest adventure, to find him the greatest human achievement”. I conclude with the inspiring words of hymn composer Edward Mote “On Christ, the solid rock, I stand; all other ground is sinking sand”.

Main Altar
The Shrine


Add new comment