Remembering the Saint of Soldiers | Sunday Observer

Remembering the Saint of Soldiers

The town of Moratuwa is synonymous for two things - good quality wooden furniture and refined musicians. At the centre of the town, across the Railway Station, a church rises majestically like a spiritual sentinel. The Church of Saint Sebastian has been here since 1875, making it one of the foremost of sacred sanctuaries. The feast of Saint Sebastian is celebrated today, January 20.

As I entered the vast compound of this church, the young assistant priest Rev.Fr. Dilantha Fernando was in his office. We were shortly joined by the senior parish priest Rev. Fr. Lalith Felix. As we walked towards the church Rev. Fr. Felix said ‘This church has stood here for 144 years. Today we are a vibrant congregation of 1,700 families with around 5,200 men, women and children’. At the main entrance is a statue of the wounded Saint in his military uniform. The aisle leads to a marble altar. On the left is the statue of Saint Sebastian in a glass box, along with a reliquary. Towards the right stands a statue of Blessed Mary. Gazing towards the top of the ceiling one can’t imagine how it was erected to reach such a height, decades ago. The entire wall around the church (a few feet below the ceiling) is intricately lined with green and yellow stained glass. The floor of the church displays another beautiful element of ornate marble tiles.

As we walk back towards the main door Rev. Fr. Fernando points at a heavy wooden pulpit on the left wall. This structure rises about eight feet from the ground. Inside it is a statue of Christ carrying his cross. Father explained, ‘This is a big church. A century ago there were no sound systems. The priest had to perform some rites at the altar, then walk back and climb the pulpit and deliver the Bible reading and sermon. That’s why this structure is in the exact middle of the church. His loud voice had to be heard by all present’.

In the garden a few men are straightening out heavy ropes. I observed the long and heavy flag pole (kodi-gaha) which is hoisted to herald the annual feast. Lakshman, a man in his late fifties said, ‘This flag mast is chiseled out of a single tree. This is the third flag mast brought to this Church. I was a child of eight years when they dragged this heavy log by bullock cart, nearly 50 years ago. I still remember how the men struggled to unload it as it weighs almost 200 kilograms. Today it takes about 40 men to hoist and fix this flag pole”.

Lakshman and his faithful team of volunteers have painted the log red and white.

Steps of faith

Every church has its unique heritage. In 1602 Moratuwa was assigned under the spiritual care of the Jesuit Fathers. They referred to this village as Morotto (later called Moratuwa - derived from mura attuwa, where a sentry point once stood). The Franciscan monks had visited this area bearing the gospel to the village of Moratuwa. In the early days the aspiring Franciscans built a small chapel on a hill south of Moratuwa and the place is still called Palliyagodella - meaning church on the mount. The Dutch invaded Kalutara, setting their eyes on Colombo. The Fort of Colombo was captured after a long siege which lasted six months and 27 days. The triumphant Dutch began to persecute the devout Catholics.

Thus Catholic priests were driven out of the island. By 1698 Ven. Fr. Joseph Vaz came to Moratuwa and Kalutara areas inspiring the Catholic community. It is recorded that by 1831 the Superior of the Oratorians Rev. Fr. Caetano Antonia resided in Moratuwa. The Ceylon Chronicle indicates during this time there were 3,730 Catholics residing in Moratuwa, Panadura, Ratmalana and Galkissa (Mount Lavinia).

It is recorded that the site where St. Sebastian’s Church stands today, had three smaller churches built before - to cater to the ever growing congregation. On January 21, 1959 Rev. Fr. J.P. Perera laid the foundation stone for the present building.

In 1861 Rev. Fr. Benedict Bondoni, sailed from Italy to Ceylon. It was his first missionary assignment. He took charge of the Moratuwa parish. The dedicated young priest worked hard and inspired his flock to complete the church. The merchant magnates and landlords of Moratuwa contributed generously. A person named Jusey de Silva had given 40,000 rupees, which at that time was indeed a significant amount. Fr. Benedict could not see the completion of his beloved church, he died in 1867 (six years after being in Ceylon) and was buried in the church. A few weeks later Rev. Fr. Aloysius Maver took the reins and managed to complete the building of this church which was blessed on January 19, 1875. It is said that on this day the entire Southern Vicarage was present, and the presiding Bishop had arrived by horse drawn cart.

The soldier- saint

Saint Sebastian was killed during the Roman persecution of Christians which was spearheaded by Emperor Diocletian. He is commonly depicted in paintings tied to a tree and shot with arrows. Many firmly believe that this did not kill him. Sebastian had enlisted in the Roman Army under Emperor Carinus.

Because of his courage he became one of the captains of the elite Praetorian Guard under Emperor Diocletian and Maximian, who were unaware that he was a Christian. The Praetorian Guard was a highly effective bodyguard team that served the Emperor and selected Senators of Rome.

Sebastian had managed to conceal his faith, but it was subsequently detected. Diocletian was angry and reprimanded him for his supposed betrayal, and commanded him to be led to a field and there to be bound to a tree so that archers would shoot at him. The archers shot at him till he was full of arrows and his body bleeding from the many entry wounds. They left him there for dead. Miraculously, the arrows did not kill him. Irene a widow went to retrieve his body to bury it, and she discovered he was still alive. She brought him back to her house and gradually nursed him back to health.

Sebastian later stood by a staircase where the emperor was to pass and confronted Diocletian for his cruelties against Christians.

This verbal warning from a soldier, who was supposed to have been dead, astonished the emperor causing much panic. Shortly Diocletian recovering from his surprise, gave orders for Sebastian to be seized and beaten to death with cudgels, and his body was thrown into the common sewer.

A pious lady, called Lucina privately removed the body, and buried it in the catacombs at the entrance of the cemetery of Calixtus, where now stands the Basilica of Saint Sebastian.

The present church at Moratuwa conducts daily mass at 6.15am, with a healing service held every Friday at 6pm. There is an active society of St. Vincent de Paul (SVP) that engages in many charitable deeds. The Church continues to serve the people of Moratuwa.