Saint Anne, the Blessed Virgin Mary and Jesus | Sunday Observer
Prayerful and penitential pilgrimage to the miraculous national shrine of St. Anne at Talawila

Saint Anne, the Blessed Virgin Mary and Jesus

In the liturgical calendar of the Catholic Church, the feast of Saint Anne and her spouse, Saint Joachim is celebrated on July 26. Saints Anne and Joachim were the parents of the Blessed Virgin Mary, the Mother of God and the grandparents of Jesus. They were childless for many years. Nevertheless, God, in his Wisdom and Mercy, granted them a child, and Mary was born and raised in Jerusalem.The couple offered their little daughter Mary to God in the Temple.

As a young girl, she spent time in service to the Temple, working and learning. However, it was probably her parents, who taught her to read, love and follow God’s word and to know and understand the Scriptures. Mary loved her mother and father. In this, she is a beautiful example for children. Anne and Joachim loved their daughter and followed God’s plan in raising her. In this, they are a shining example and intercessors for Christian parents.

The Chief Shepherd of the Diocese of Chilaw, Rt. Rev. Dr. Devsritha Valence Mendis has announced a curtailed program for this year’s feast of the national shrine of Saint Anne at Talawila in view of the Covid-19 restrictions. The Administrator of the shrine, Rev. Fr. Laily Fernando has made elaborate arrangements to meet the needs of the pilgrims who are expected to visit the holy shrine from dawn to dusk during the festive week from July 26 to August 2.

God’s Merciful Love

In the golden sands of Talawila, the trammels of civilisation and the artificial conventions of society are cast aside for plain living and simple thinking; religion begins to occupy its rightful place, which is the first place. The sense of Christian charity and Catholic solidarity begins to grow in the pilgrim’s heart.

No human power drew them there; neither worldly gain nor love of pleasure or profit or fame brought them there for centuries. An old fashioned church and in it a rough image of a saint, who had lived and died even before the birth of Christianity; these have been the attractions. They have come animated by a sense of an unseen, yet real, power; they have come to worship God and honour His saint, to invoke Divine assistance and offer thanks for favours received.

Year after year, for 60 long years, I have journeyed initially with my dear parents and later with my loving family to the golden sands of Talawila to invoke the blessings of Saint Anne. These pilgrimages are full of hallowed memories. We have personally experienced the miraculous power of St. Anne all along our lives and owe much to her. We have known the holy shrine and spent memorable times under its sacred shadow. Talawila is certainly one of God’s chosen means to manifest His mercy and love!

Saint Anne is the Patron of Christian mothers and Saint Joachim the Patron of fathers. Saint Anne is also the patron of unmarried women, housewives, women in labour and grandmothers. Besides, Saint Anne is also a patron saint of sailors and the protector from storms.

The role of the Messiah’s grandparents in salvation history was commonly depicted in early medieval devotional art. In John Everett Millais’s 1849-50 work, ‘Christ in the House of His Parents’, Anne is shown joining her daughter Mary in Joseph’s carpentry shop caring for young Jesus’ injured hand.

Emblem of St. Anne

It is said that after an archangel has separately informed them of Anne’s pregnancy the couple met at the Golden Gate of Jerusalem and embraced- This moment stood for the Immaculate Conception. This subject of Joachim and Anne in ‘The Meeting at the Golden Gate’, the Birth of Mary, the Presentation of Mary and the Marriage of the Virgin were usual components of artistic cycles of the Mary’s life in which Anne is normally shown.

The emblem of Saint Anne is a door. She is frequently shown with the infant Christ in various subjects. Saint Anne is sometimes believed to be depicted in the scene of the Circumcision of Christ. There was a tradition that Anne separately trekked to Egypt and re-joined the Holy Family after their flight to Egypt. Anne is not seen with the adult Christ, so was regarded as having died during the youth of Jesus. Saint Anne is also shown as the matriarch of the Holy Kinship, the extended family of Jesus.

The church gives us valuable guidance to use the image of ‘Saint Anne instructing the Blessed Virgin Mary in the Ten Commandments’to inspire our prayer. The Blessed Virgin Mary who was “preserved immune from all stain of original sin” by a “singular grace and privilege of almighty God and by virtue of the merits of Jesus Christ” nevertheless had to learn her Jewish faith under the tutelage of Saint Anne, her mother. She must have learned about the important women of the Old Testament whose missions foreshadowed her own. Indeed, “after a long period of waiting, the times are fulfilled in Mary, the exalted Daughter of Sion, and the new plan of salvation is established.”

Like all Divine works, the shrine at Talawila began in a small way and developed in spite of difficulties and hostile surroundings. Then in God’s good time and against all human calculations, it sprang to fame as a rallying point of Catholic piety. However, how did it all happen? It is against a background of small beginnings, rapid progress, severe trials and joyous triumphs, that written records and authentic traditions have silhouetted the history of the famous sanctuary..

History reveals that Kalpitiya and the surroundings nurtured the earliest contacts between Sri Lanka and India. The landing place of Prince Vijaya is just across the lake, a few miles to the north of Puttalam and further up is Kudiramalai, Pliny’s Hippuros, once a busy trade centre. Kalpitiya itself was an important port for trade between Sri Lanka and India and at times, the waters around ran blood when contending nations fought for the control of sea routes. In 1591, Andre de Furtado de Mendonca had a fierce encounter with the famous corsair, Cutimurca, and gained a decisive victory for the Portuguese power in the East.

The country around the shrine is a waste of bleak sand, dotted over with copses of low growth and topes of tall palmyrahs, Around the shrine, however, there is a fair acreage of fully-grown coconut palms, like an oasis in a desert.. In spite of the deep blue sea, which is hardly one hundred meters from the church; the climate is hot and enervating.

Growth of the Shrine

The Christian missionary work began in the peninsula around 1606 and the Fathers of the Society of Jesus from South India were the first to preach the Gospel in these parts. However, with the recapture of Negombo by the Dutch shortly after 1644, the Jesuit Fathers had to quit the peninsula and the Catholics were without mass, sacraments or adequate religious instructions for nearly half a century but they remained steadfast in the faith.

In 1687, Venerable Fr. Joseph Vaz (now Saint Joseph Vaz), an Indian Oratorian, taking pity on the deserted flock of Christ in Sri Lanka smuggled himself into Jaffna in the guise of a labourer. He arrived at a time when the Dutch persecution of Catholics was very bitter and when there was a price set on the head of any Catholic priest who might be found in Dutch territory. In spite of incredible hardships, he visited, consoled and ministered to the Catholics in Jaffna and the Vanni.

In 1690, he came to Puttalam and the presence of a priest just across the water, could not have been long hidden from the afflicted Catholics in the peninsula. In 1705, five new missionaries including Fr. Jacome Gonsalves arrived in Sri Lanka. Nevertheless, a priest was not always secure at Kalpitiya as long as the Dutch held it but in spite of the danger, the priests continued to minister to the Catholics of the peninsula.

With the decline of the Sinhalese power and the gradual ascendancy of the Dutch in coastal areas, the obstacles to missionary work increased. Nevertheless, the church progressed especially in the King’s territory and the Dutch were aware of it.In 1747, King Sri Vijaya Raja Sinha died and many other calamities befell the kingdom, which were generally believed to be retribution for injustices done to Catholics. At least, so thought his successor, Kirthi Sri Raja Sinha who therefore, showed favour to them.

In the meantime, the relations between the Catholics and the Hollanders in the peninsula had improved to such an extent, that the priest at Kalpitiya was not only allowed to get about his work freely, but was even regarded as a friend by the Dutch. In 1796, the Dutch surrendered Colombo to the British, in 1806, all disabilities and restrictions imposed by the Dutch on the Catholics were removed, and finally an era of freedom dawned for the church.

Origin of the Shrine

The first traditional account on the origin of the shrine is in the 17th century. A Portuguese traveller, in poor circumstances, trekked from Mannar to Colombo to try to find a livelihood there. However, failing to do so he was returning by the coast, when he happened to fall asleep under a large tree, which then grew at Talawila at the site of the present shrine. He dreamed that he saw an image at the foot of the tree, with lighted tapers burning on each side.

Waking up from his sleep, he realised with astonishment that the image was actually there. In his confusion at this sudden and strange realisation of the dream he prayed aloud and while so occupied was suddenly dazed and awestruck by the ‘great awakening light’.

Saint Anne herself in bodily presence stood before him and said that the image he had seen was intended as a representation of her and that he should build a church there, and name it after her, and preserve in it the relic that had so graciously been revealed to him.

Deeply impressed with what he had witnessed the poor man set about building a small Chapel. Saint Anne appeared to him again and left him some gold coins, which enabled him shortly to return to his country where he raised funds for the construction of a permanent church at Talawila. He was, however, a third time favoured with a vision of the beautiful saint, upon whose instructions he built a larger church.

The miraculous image now exhibited in the shrine is said to be the identical statue discovered by the Portuguese traveller in the manner narrated here.

Ship dedicated to St. Anne

The other traditional account of the origin is very popular though matter of fact. During the 18th century, a European trader was shipwrecked off the coast of Talawila. In those days, people living in the forests collected forest products such as elephant tusks, shins, horns, honey, wax and ebony and shipped them to the southern ports in sailing crafts. One such trading craft met with disaster off Talawila. As the vessel was dedicated to St. Anne and carried her image, the crew sought her protection and was saved.

As the land offered them no shelter, they looked around in distress and saw on a spot, where the present church stands a large banyan tree whose cool shade seemed to beckon to them.After reverently placing the sacred image in a hollow of the banyan tree, they rested. However, before they left, the Captain of the ship vowed to St. Anne that he would revisit the spot and build a church, where he would place her image for veneration. As there was no hope of rescuing his vessel or its cargo, he went back to Galle, where he had his home and his business.

Some fishing craft from Kattaikadu saw the wreckage and made for it in the hope of securing the goods afloat on the shore. The news spread and more people came to the spot and it acquired the name of Kappaladi, which means ‘the place of the shipwreck. From the shore, they strayed on to a large banyan tree, probably to assess their finds under its cool shade. Moreover, what was their wonder, to see, in a hollow of the tree, an image of St. Anne!

In the meantime, the merchant from Galle prospered and revisited as he had vowed. He built a little Chapel, placed in it the venerable image, and made a pilgrimage to the Chapel annually when business brought him to Kalpitiya. Some say that the banyan tree stood near a pool of water, from which the early pilgrims drank and later built into a well. In 1943, by some strange coincidence, exactly a hundred years after the erection of the present church, there appeared the hull of a wrecked vessel of which the present generation has no recollection whatsoever.

The crowds that flocked to view it, in the pious belief that it was the vessel, which had once borne the image of St. Anne, testify to the persistence of the tradition. Thus, the first repository of the venerated image of St. Anne was nature’s handiwork - the hollow of a banyan tree. Then man made for it a cadjan shanty and very soon replaced it with a structure of daub and wattle. As the pilgrims increased a church of brick walls and a tiled roof was erected.

On a personal note, the strong relationship between the Sri Lanka Navy and the national shrine for decades have contributed towards the religious harmony in the Kalpitiya peninsula. The sailors of the Naval Establishment, SLNS Vijaya have taken part in the procession of the Miraculous Statue of their Patron Saint with great reverence. In addition, the Navy lend a helping hand in conducting the Holy Masses and Novenas. Besides, the sea coverage, the Navy looks after life saving as well. It is indeed a rare blessing for me to coordinate these facilities during the passage of the last 30 years.

Religious enthusiasm

The religious enthusiasm of the pilgrims attains it climax at the Festive High Mass on the feast day. The joy of a good conscience and the feeling that they are about to pay the last public homage to the good Mother, Saint Anne, working them up to it. As the procession of the Miraculous Statue, returns the Administrator of the Shrine receive it. Then the Prayer to St. Anne is recited.

The Chief Shepherd of the Diocese, coped and mitred, walks up and blesses the crowd. With bowed heads or outstretched arms, they receive the blessing. Then there follows a deafening clapping of hands. The feast is now over. However, before departing to their homes each one comes once more to the feet of Saint Anne to take her leave. It is not without emotion one departs from the sacred edifice. One needs to console oneself for the forced separation, to cherish the hope that one may have a chance again.

Then, the heart overfull of sweet consolation and the ears ringing with the haunting melody of the well-known hymn to St. Anne, Santanan Maniyene, one seizes the Pilgrim’s Staff for the homeward journey. Musing all along, the way over the things one has seen and heard, over the devotedness of those who have watched over the spiritual and temporal welfare of the pilgrims, above all over the humanly inexplicable confidence and love Saint Anne has won in Sri Lanka by her goodness to her children.

The author penned his maiden article in honour of Saint Anne and it was published in 1988 in the Sunday Observer