St. Mary’s Church, Negombo: Two centuries and beyond | Sunday Observer

St. Mary’s Church, Negombo: Two centuries and beyond

The altar
The altar

Affectionately referred to as ‘Little Rome’, the town of Negombo boasts of almost 40 churches and chapels - belonging to the Catholic and Anglican denominations. The massive community of Christians here are mainly adherents of the Catholic faith. Since the arrival of the Portuguese to Ceylon in 1505 the influence of the early Franciscan priests still dominates the spiritual essence of Negombo. It was here that the blessed Saint Joseph Vaz ministered to the fishing communities. One of the oldest and spectacular churches is located at Grand Street. Locals call it the “Maha Veediya Palliya - Church on Grand Street’.

The St. Mary’s Church rises majestically above the other buildings. Yet its imposing presence ushers an aura of calm. I walked into the Mission House, where the kind parish clerk ushered me into the office of the resident priest, Rev. Fr. Clement Rozairo. The old Mission House built in 1851 is a lovely structure. Fr. Clement explains, ‘This is a very historic church. During the reign of the British, Sir Thomas Maitland - Governor of Ceylon granted the Catholics their religious freedom, as the Dutch were not that tolerant. In 1811 a marshy land was given to the church. A church was built here. Initially it was 160 feet x 60 feet. The church was fully completed in 1922. Back in the day we were blessed with the good service of an Italian priest Fr. J.B Vistarini - he devoted 38 years of his life to this church. He came here in November 1857. He was instrumental in upgrading this church and her spiritual mission to this community”. At the entrance to the church a life size marble statue of Fr. Vistarini is mounted on a pedestal. This dedicated soul began the St. Mary’s College, which still functions today.

The outside of the church is painted in a shade of creamy yellow. On each side are long spacious isles - with black and white marble tiles, similar to a chequer board. Along the isles are pillars on which 14 statues of venerated Christian saints are mounted. A solitary statue of the crucified Christ adorns the right side wall. Fr. Clement explains, ‘Look at the ceiling son. These amazing paintings were done on alabaster’.

During the time of Fr. Sebastian he was able to convince a Buddhist artist named N.S. Godamanne to do some paintings on the upper walls. ‘It was heartwarming to see the paintings of a Buddhist artist in a church. Godamanne has painstakingly brought to life stories from the Bible. Perhaps the best artwork is that of the miracle of feeding the 5,000 - from the New Testament. His brush strokes have captured this story in perfect reality. It also accentuates how all communities lived in peace and religious tolerance in Negombo. Thankfully that good spirit still continues. The magnificent altar keeps you totally mesmerized. Some opine it was brought down from Europe decades ago. The church draws her flock in daily prayer. As Jesus himself said in the Holy Scriptures, “My House shall be a House of prayer”.

Today the church has five priests. They minister to almost 3,000 people from the English, Tamil and Sinhala congregations. In addition the Sunday school attracts 900 children from all age groups. Fr. Clement adds, “We have an SVP group - Society of Vincent de Paul. Made up of adult volunteers SVP engages in social work, visiting of parish homes and prayer”. It was this parish that produced one of our most eminent priests, Emeritus Bishop Nicholas Marcus Fernando.

Negombo has a long history of sending many young seminarians who serve as ordained clergy. Another striking feature is the confession stall - hand carved in wood. Mass is conducted at 5am in Tamil, 7.30 am in English and 9am in Sinhala on Sundays. Every year on the Sunday after September 8 the church celebrate its grand fest in honour of our Lady. Thousands attend this feast from all parts of the island. As we walk towards the back of the church there is a black and white stair case. Adjacent to this are two large ropes - which facilitate the ringing of the church bells. The stained glass windows are another architectural delight. Busloads of tourists visit the church. When I asked the resident priests to take their photograph they smiled and refused - a sign of true humility. But I managed to kindly convince them to stand in front of the Mission House. St. Mary’s Church has been a spiritual haven to the people of Negombo for two centuries. Her good work continues with pious devotion. As I leave the old priest Fr. Leon stands and waves, his smiling face is testament to a life of genuine altruism and service.