Edifice of St. Lucia: The first Cathedral in Ceylon | Sunday Observer

Edifice of St. Lucia: The first Cathedral in Ceylon

Soul of my saviour
sanctify my breast
Body of Christ,
be thou my saving guest
Blood of my saviour,
bathe me in thy tide
Wash me ye waters,flowing from his
(Hymn from the 14th century)

Kotahena has been a predominantly Catholic town for decades. This area covering the Municipal Ward of Colombo 13 was once a quaint fishing hamlet in the 17th century. Many opine its name is derived from the hundreds of Kottan trees that stood there, causing the village to be called ‘Kottanchena’. It was somewhere in 1760 that the pioneering clergy of the Oratorian Order came to Ceylon and decided to build a small chapel. This humble house of prayer took the form of a hut. By 1779, the Catholics of Kotahena had selected this hill to be the centre of their religious worship. The Dutch Government had granted 10 acres of land to the Bishop. One must pause here to consider the landscape around this area in that era. It was in this era that the Dutch also set about building their Reformed Church on the hill at Wolvendaal, which stands in Colombo 12.

Wolvendaal loosely translated means ‘dale of wolves’- which shows how these parts of Colombo once had dense forests. In 1796 the Dutch and British soldiers were encamped on either side of the Kelani River, and a gun battle was imminent. It is said, the citizens on the Colombo side had taken refuge on the hill where the church stood.

From chapel to Cathedral

The humble catholic chapel began gaining attention and pious devotion. By 1763 brick work was added to the chapel. By 1838 the little church was elevated to a Cathedral. In January of the same year Rev. Vincente de Rozairo was installed as the Vicar Apostolic of Ceylon. He came here from Goa. Records indicate that the construction of the present Cathedral began, with the foundation stone being laid in 1852. However, the process of building began in 1873 and the first phase was completed in 1881.

The presiding Bishop at this time was Bishop Clement Pangnani. The majestic Cathedral was built and completed in 1887 under the leadership of Bishop Christopher Bonjean, OMI. The road leading to the church was known as Bonjean Road for many years, until it was changed. The presence of God’s house led to various religious formations and schools to blossom at Kotahena.

Birth of Catholic schools

St. Benedicts Institute was founded by Abbot Hilarion Sillani OSB, in 1865. Today, St. Benedict’s College has grown into one of the finest Catholic boys’ schools in the island, many of its students faithfully enrolling in the seminary and becoming the next generation of clergymen. The De La Salle Brothers came to Ceylon in 1867. These dedicated men influenced generations of Catholics, and the La Sallian brothers continue to perform a great service to the students of Sri Lanka. The Christian zeal gained momentum with the arrival of the Good Shepherd Order in 1869. These religious sisters were welcomed and loved by all in Kotahena, and they too continue to faithfully uphold the shining light of their spiritual witness. The sisters soon began the Good Shepherd Convent in May 1869, where thousands of girls have received a holistic education. St. Lucia’s College was built in 1918. It was from this cathedral that the much loved Society of St. Vincent de Paul (SVP) was introduced to the Ceylonese in 1907. Today, SVP does a tremendous service manned by volunteers. The radio training Laboratory was begun by Fr. Ignatius Perera in 1962.

A house of prayer

Walking into the Cathedral of St. Lucia as a writer was something refreshing for me. As a child I had been marvelled by its high domes, impressed by the sacrifice and martyrdom of the Christian saints who adorn its aisles and captivated by the sound of her massive bells. One of her long serving priests was the French missionary Fr. Marc Berra, who came to Ceylon aged 19, and died here aged almost 90. His eloquent use of the Sinhala language was a trait that impressed us.

Fr. Kithsiri Thirimanne, the present parish priest met me with one of his assistant priests Fr. Ruben. Fr. Thirimanne pointed out, “This is a magnificent Cathedral enriched with Catholic history. We are thankful to God for his mercy, for this long journey of faith and the good work of the clergy who laboured here. It was this Cathedral which impacted the boys of St. Benedict’s College and the girls of Good Shepherd Convent. We celebrate the feast of St. Lucy on December 13; in addition we celebrate Corpus Christi and the Month of May festival”. The Cathedral is the seat of the Archbishop of Colombo.

Fr. Ruben accompanied me and we walked round this colossal church. Its façade has four majestic pillars rising into the ceiling. On the topmost border there are statues of Blessed Mary, St. Lucia, St. Anthony, St. Peter, St. Paul and St. Francis of Assisi. A clock with Roman numerals still indicates the time. The large dome was once subject to a crack when the Japanese bombed Ceylon in April 1942. The crack began to widen and in 1957 it took a full year to repair it. The aisles are long and wide. On the massive columns that support the structure there are many statues among which the popular ones are of Saint Aloysius, Saint Francis Xavier, Saint Vincent de Paul, Saint Cecelia and Saint John de La Salle. The main altar has a crucifix with Christ, and the words INRI engraved at the top.

Sancta Lucia

Behind this altar a figurine of St. Lucy is enshrined. The story of Santa Lucia dates back to the 3rd century. Lucy was born to a rich noble family. Her father died when she was five- years-old.

As a young woman she had pledged her life to the church, and was hoping to spread her dowry to the poor. Not knowing the intentions of her daughter, Lucy’s mother Eutychia had arranged for her daughter’s marriage. When her heathen suitor (non- catholic) found that his bride to be was already promised to the church, he complained to Governor Paschasius. The pagan governor threw Lucy in jail and ordered her to be defiled. Legend says, when the guards came to take her away they could not move her. So they brought firewood into her cell, and tried to light the logs. The logs would not burn. At this stage an enraged Paschasius ordered her eyes to be gouged out. Lucy was killed by the sword. When her body was taken to the family mausoleum, people were shocked to see her eyes restored. It was this encounter which drew attention to the departed Lucy. Since then paintings depict her holding her eyes on a golden plate.

Another important feature of the Cathedral is her four bells. They were christened in 1903.The largest bell weighs 4,300 pounds and is called Anthony Thomas; the second bell, Henry Lucia Emilia weighs 2,000 pounds, and third bell, Francis Theresa weighs 1,400 pounds. Weighing 950 pounds the small bell is christened Jean Baptist Edward Anna. A plaque celebrates the beatification of Fr. Joseph Vaz, Apostle of Sri Lanka in 1995 by Pope John Paul 11. This Pope visited the cathedral during this event. The Cathedral of Saint Lucia will remain as a testament to the resilient and faithful catholic clergy and thousands of parishioners.