The multi cultural Catholic shrine of Colombo | Sunday Observer

The multi cultural Catholic shrine of Colombo

Shrine of Saint Anthony , Kochikade
Shrine of Saint Anthony , Kochikade

All Sri Lankans are aware of the Shrine of Saint Anthony, located at Kochikade. For decades this church has attracted thousands of devotees, especially, on a Tuesday. The simple shrine has positioned itself as a strong religious icon on the map of Sri Lanka. From the tourism perspective it is globally known as the Catholic shrine by the Colombo harbour. Yet, with all the fame that abounds around her this shrine had very humble beginnings, and her administration remains modest - placing the devotee as her top priority.

The power of prayer

Some cathedrals and churches have great legends associated with them. The story of this shrine is simple - but shows one of the important traits of Christianity, the power of genuine prayer which makes the impossible become possible.

The area we now know as Colombo 13 was very different 200 years ago. Previously I have written about the Cathedral of Saint Lucia and the Dutch church at Wolvendhal outlining the way people lived in that bygone era.

Kotahena and her precincts were quiet, serene villages, where fishermen lived along the harbour. During this time the Dutch had laid siege on Colombo and invaded the fortified bastions of the Portuguese. Thus, Catholic priests were subject to persecution and maintained a low profile, at times living in fear.

The defiant Dutch were keen on propagating their protestant form of divine worship. It was during this time that Fr. Joseph Vaz came to Ceylon and silently began his legendary mission among the people.

A few years later, his friend Father Antonio (also referred to as Anthony) sailed to Ceylon from Cochin, India. He made his way to Kotahena and found a few faithful Catholics. He had to conceal his identity and therefore, operated a small boutique, staying with a fisherman. He worked here during the day and as dusk fell he silently conducted mass in the homes of his flock. According to legend when the followers of the Dutch found out about his dual role they referred to his boutique as ‘kochiyage kade’ which later became Kochikade.

One morning when the fishermen were ready to launch their boats they found the tide to be high and rising. The poor families feared for their lives as their homes were close to the shore. They had pleaded with the amiable priest to intercede for mercy. Father Antonio being disciplined in prayer planted a wooden cross on the shore and began praying for three days with fasting. On the third day a large sand dune appeared out of nowhere and pushed the rising tide. The fishermen were jubilant and recognized this as a sign of God’s divine intervention. As the Holy Bible proclaims, ‘Call upon me in the day of trouble and I will answer you’. News of this miracle spread to the Dutch. A few days later the fishing community asked the priest to build a shrine. In 1806 Father Antonio built a mud hut and named the place after Saint Anthony.

Some years later the people began to build a new church. In 1822 a statue of the venerated saint was brought from Goa, India, and placed in the sanctum. The structure of the shrine remained simple, yet displayed a unique charm. By 1834 the façade was completed. In 1912 the British Governor Henry Mac Callum wanted to acquire the church and the land for the development of the Colombo harbour. The Catholics were anxious. However, senior administrators warned the Governor not to do this and he accepted their advice.

When I entered this shrine on Friday morning it was crowded. Fr. Jude Fernando the administrator found time to meet me and explained, “This shrine is unique. It comes directly under the Archbishop of Colombo. We have no fixed parish or congregation. This is open to thousands of people who attend mass. As you know Tuesday is our busy day. According to history, Saint Anthony of Padua (in Lisbon) died on a Tuesday and that is the significance of this day for our devotees. There are foreigners who come here directly from the airport- making this shrine their first stop.”

The church has a program of feeding 200 poor people every day. In addition, counselling is offered to those who seek answers to life’s challenges. During the visit of Pope John Paul 11 he made a surprise visit to this shrine, which is considered a special honour by the clergy and the devotees.

For those who are keen in history the shrine has a small museum on the first floor. At the entrance is a set of wax images that beautifully portray the scene of Father Antonio praying as the fisher folk watch in earnest anticipation. The life story of Saint Anthony is depicted in great detail, with religious artifacts from many nations.

June 13 is a golden day for the shrine - the day of their glorious feast. People begin to plan and prepare for it weeks ahead. Large flag masts come up along the road leading to the church. Coloured bulbs adorn the church and every building nearby. Catholics from all over the island flock to the shrine causing this area to be heavily congested. This celebration lasts a few days with special mass being conducted. The right side of the road has many shops selling religious artifacts used in the Catholic tradition of worship.

This humble shrine built on the faith and persistent prayer of a solitary priest has blessed generations since then.