Footprints in the City of Negombo | Sunday Observer

Footprints in the City of Negombo

28 February, 2021
The façade of St. Mary’s Church, Grand Street
The façade of St. Mary’s Church, Grand Street

The ‘City of Negombo’ can be christened as the ‘City of Peace’ in Sri Lanka due to the serenity that triumphs amid its multi-religious, multi-ethnic and multi-cultural background. It is a coastal city dotted with churches that has lingered over 500 years. The city is popularly known for its beaches, lagoons, catamarans and coconut trees. The economy of Negombo is mainly based on tourism and the fishing industry.

For centuries, Negombo has lived up to its image as Sri Lanka’s ‘Little Rome.’ The city has never experienced sectarian violence even during years of racial riots or in the aftermath of the recent Easter Sunday carnage. No one was hurt here and no property destroyed. Everyone felt safe. It is a safe haven for all. A major credit for this tranquility goes to the city’s predominant Roman Catholics.

The name ‘Negombo’ is the Portuguese tainted name of its Tamil name Neerkolombu. The Sinhala name Mee-Gomuwa means ‘Village of the Honeycomb,’ gaining its name from a legend revealed in the 17th-century historical chronicle ‘Rajaveliya.’ The army of King Kavantissa found bee honey in a canoe near the seashore, for Viharamahadevi who was pregnant with Prince Dutugemunu.

The famed Negombo Lagoon is a large semi-enclosed coastal water body with plenty of natural resources. The fishermen at the Negombo lagoon use outrigger canoes carved from tree trunks and nylon nets to bring in modest catches. Their boats are made in two forms – ‘oruva’ (a type of sailing canoe) and ‘paruva’ (a man-powered catamaran fitted with kurlon dividers).

Early history of Negombo

The shallow waters of the Negombo Lagoon provided safe shelter for seafaring vessels and became one of the key ports. The Kingdom of Jaffna that controlled greater parts of the North-West coast used Negombo for trading activity.

As many other coastal towns, Negombo was an important spice port long before the Portuguese set foot on the island. The enterprising Moors set up a trading system, whereby native labour hauled cinnamon to the coast. The Portuguese took over Negombo about 1600 and raised a small fort.

The Dutch claimed the stronghold in 1640 and refortified it. The legacy of the Dutch can be seen in the fort constructed in 1672, churches and the extensive canal system that runs 120 km from Colombo to Puttalam. The British found the fort abandoned in 1796. Sir Thomas Maitland, Governor of Ceylon granted the Catholics their religious freedom and the British helped the Catholic faith to flourish and mingle with other religions.

St. Mary’s Church, Grand Street

The influence of the early priests still dominates the spiritual essence of Negombo. In the heart of the city stands an elegant and majestic building of splendid grandeur, popularly known as St. Mary’s Church, Grand Street and its imposing presence ushers an aura of calm.

The locals call the spectacular church the ‘Maha Veediya Palliya’. Every year on the Sunday after September 8, the church celebrates the feast of our Heavenly Patroness. St. Mary’s Church has been a spiritual haven for centuries and continues the good work.

Under the Dutch, the Catholics suffered severe oppression, victimisation and humiliation. The first church was destroyed in 1603. The late Bishop Rev. Edmund Peiris in ‘Early Christianity in Ceylon’ refers to it, ‘In the fortress of Negombo. we have a beautiful church dedicated to the Mother of God.’ The Catholic population was about 2,000 in 1628.

After the arrival of the British, a second church was built at the site where the convent now stands. In 1796, when the Dutch handed over the Maritime Provinces to the British, there were 14,000 Catholics in Negombo. In 1811, the third church was built and in 1822, the fourth church was built on the site where the present church stands. The majestic Mission House was built in 1851.

The city was blessed with the services of an Italian priest, Rev. Fr. John Vistarini (1817 - 1895). He had been ordained a priest in 1840 in Lombardo, Italy, and arrived in Sri Lanka in 1846. He was made the Parish Priest of Grand Street in 1857 and served for 38 years. All Catholics of Negombo cherish his name with love and devotion as ‘Sammanas Swamy’, the angelic priest.

His cheerful labour among the poor and the sick is unique. The foundation for the present church, the fifth, was laid on June 4, 1874 by late Rev. Fr. Vistarini.  In recognition of his services to the church, the Holy Father honoured him with the title ‘Monsignor’ to mark his Golden Jubilee of the Priestly Ordination in 1890.

The life of Monsignor Vistarini was like a many sided gem, the beauty of which can be admired by looking at it from different angles. He died in 1895 and was laid to rest at the side altar where his grave is identified with his statue in repose.

The art and architecture of the church demonstrate the cultural amalgamation of European practice with Sri Lankan art and architecture during the early years of the 20th century. Along the aisles are pillars on which the statues of saints are mounted. On each side are long spacious aisles - in black and white marble tiles.

The bells of the church with their distinct and melodious sounds, imported from France were installed in 1911. The set of statues depicting the ‘Coronation of Our Lady’ above the main altar have truly enhanced the beauty and majesty of the church.

The stained glass windows are another delight. The magnificent altar keeps you totally mesmerised. The three large paintings that adorn the main dome depict the Birth of Jesus, Mary’s Ascension to Heaven and Jesus’ Death. On the right side of the altar is the picture of Adam and Eve in Eden looking up at the Lord and on the left is the painting of the rising of the dead.

The walls at the upper level are fixed with sculptures of religious saints, and twelve murals adorn the church walls depicting the life of Christ. It is heartening to see the enthralling workmanship of Norbert Stephen Godamanna (1914 - 1994). The work of a local Buddhist artist in the church aptly accentuates how all communities have lived in religious tolerance in Negombo.

These efforts of Godamanna earned him the nickname, ‘Little Michelangelo of Little Rome.’ The most impressive to me among his masterpieces is that of the miracle of ‘Feeding the 5,000.’ His brush strokes of Winsor and Newton oil paints have captured this story in perfect reality.

St. Mary’s College, Grand Street

St. Mary’s College always reminds me of a child who has grown up without ever straying from its mother’s side. The mother, of course is St. Mary’s Church, which has a close influence on the lives of its Catholics known for their daunting courage, intrepid bravery and all-round versatility.

The bond between mother and child indeed is very close. They share the same compound and lie within the same walls, which is an outward sign of the inward links that have always made the church and the College inseparable. If you look closely, you are sure to find the blessings imparted for 150 long years.

The late Monsignor Vistarini saw the necessity and importance of English education and took steps to start an English school for the benefit of the youngsters of Negombo. He sheltered the embryo school in the Mission House and later established the College in a new building in 1871. He also started the Sodality of the Immaculate Conception in 1884.

My first Rector was the late Rev. Fr. Neville Emmanuel who stepped into the breach and steadfastly held the alma mater with unparalleled courage and determination. And for him the Providence reserved the singular honour of seeing the centenary through in 1971.

My second Rector was the late Rev. Fr. Stanley Mellewa, a brilliant administrator. His silent and determined approach stimulated all concerned with enthusiasm and devotion. During his era, the college achieved magnificent victories in sports and reached higher echelons in academics.

The nostalgias of that era were the College Anthem, the College Logo and the College Motto, Viam Sapientiae Monstrabo Tibi (I will show you the way of wisdom) and the beautiful bronze statue of Our Lady of the Holy Rosary in the niche of the main building.

Distinguished son of ‘Little Rome’

Archbishop Nicholas Marcus Fernando (1932 - 2020) of revered memory was a product of Negombo. He was beckoned by God while he was a student at St. Mary’s College. The effusive showering of talents and the providential timing of his birth made him more and more conscious of his obligations before God.

These ideas and ideals which matured in him from childhood made him a priest in 1959 and an Archbishop in 1977. He became the first Diocesan Priest and the youngest to be elevated to the office of the Archbishop of Colombo at 44.

I remember how the bells of the grand old church peeled and the people of all walks of life thronged to the precincts to share the joy of his appointment. A scholar, preacher and spiritual colossus, Archbishop Fernando, during his 25 years as Chief Shepherd from 1977 to 2002, expanded the Archdiocese in several directions. He was a spontaneous and a compelling priest, whose interests gave him new strength and greater depth.

As I linger down memory lane, many nostalgic events of my association with him flash before my mind. His Grace installed me as the youngest President of the Old Boys’ Association of St. Mary’s College. I was privileged to confer on him the prestigious award, ‘Old Maryite of the Century’ and deliver the keynote speech at the Silver Jubilee of his Episcopal Ordination.

He chose St. Mary’s Church that nourished him, to celebrate his Golden Jubilee of the Priestly Ordination in 2009. He passed away in 2020 and was laid to rest at the side altar. His entire life has been nothing short of miraculous events.

The Karavas, names and surnames

Most of the Karavas in Sri Lanka show a traditional military heritage and confirms the Kshatriya origins of the group as claimed by Karava legends and family accounts. A Karava typically has a Clan or ‘Ge’ name preceding the personal names and a Surname following the personal names.

Some scholars believe that all Karavas in ancient times had a distinct clan name and identity. Such identities are still strongly evident in Negombo.

This ‘Karava pride’ has been observed even by the modern author Bryce Ryan of ‘Caste in Ceylon’ fame. He says, “The Karava, whether village or urbanite, never covers up his caste; to the contrary he is usually proud of it

It is recorded that Colonel Olcott’s design for the Buddhist Flag was based on the colours of the stripes of the Karava flag which are blue, gold, red, white and purple.

The use of surnames by Sri Lankans commenced during the Portugese era. The Dutch and the British followed with their own influence on Sri Lankan names and surnames. The westernised elite were the first to take on surnames. However, it is important to note that most surnames of Sri Lankan families date from the British period.

Impressions from Grand Street

I am truly blessed to have sailed the early years of my life on the course steered by my loving Dad. We were born and christened at St. Mary’s Church, Grand Street; educated at St. Mary’s College, Grand Street and grew up in the confines of St. Mary’s Church, Grand Street.

In life, a good first impression is of vital importance. My parents have done the honours by giving me a unique name ‘Shemal’. In the Register of Baptism at St. Mary’s Church, my name appears as ‘Kurukulasuriya Joseph Conrad Shemal Fernando’ and to my greatest joy I was baptised on December 25, the Christmas Day.

I vividly remember kneeling and praying with my Dad at the majestic St. Mary’s Church on my way to the college on the first day. I spent a good nigh decade at the hallowed portals and the first memories are winning the first gold in 50m in athletics and receiving the first College Report with 91 to 100 marks for all subjects.

I owe all my achievements in academics and sports to my parents - the late Camillus and Freeda Fernando. It was my Dad, who groomed me to excel in sports. He was my athletic and cricket coach. His presence and encouragement surely motivated me to make a sheer commitment and ensure that I reach all the goals set in life.

It was my Mom who planted and nurtured the first seeds of good within me. She opened my heart to God; awakened my understanding and extended my horizon and her percepts exerted an everlasting influence upon the course of my life.

Our 25th Wedding Anniversary was a milestone. Archbishop Fernando renewed our vows at a Holy Mass celebrated by Bishop Valence Mendis. His Holiness Pope Francis blessed us in the Vatican with a Private Holy Mass and a Private Audience warmly welcoming, “Children are a blessing to be cherished and nurtured.”

We have christened our three daughters with the names of the Blessed Virgin Mary and Saint Anne – Mary Anne Shanil, Mary Anne Shalini and Mary Anne Shenali. We named our only son after Saint Joseph, the spouse of the Blessed Mother Mary, and combining three generations, ‘Joseph Camillus Shemal’. All these blessings resulted through our infinite love for the Blessed Mother and Saint Joseph instilled in me and my wife, Carmel at St. Mary’s College and Ave Maria Convent.

Our youngest daughter Shenali and Sherveen, son of Lloyd and Rukmani Fernando of Negombo will be united to each other with Jesus in marriage at St. Mary’s Church - Grand Street. It will be a breathtaking experience for us to trace footprints of our lives and times in the city of Negombo.

The dear church stands as a steadfast monument to the undying devotion of the people of Negombo to the faith of their forefathers, a testimony of their trust, confidence and love for the Mother of Jesus. Thankfully, that good spirit still continues and the church continues to draw her flock. As Jesus himself said in the Holy Scriptures, “My House shall be a House of Prayer”.

The life-size statue of late Monsignor John Vistarini erected before the left façade of the church is truly a living monument that inspired many for 100 years. Let me urge the parishioners to erect a similar marble statue on the right façade in memory of Archbishop Nicholas Marcus Fernando, the greatest churchman produced by St. Mary’s Church, Grand Street.

(The author maintains a lively interest of his birth city where he has been touched by many legends)