Destroyed Colombo Church’s Indian Connection
St Anthony’s Church was destroyed in a terror attack
COLOMBO: The popular St.Anthony’s church in Kochchikade in north Colombo, which was destroyed in a suicide terror attack during an Easter Sunday mass on April 21, has a historical connection with India.
The church, which was but a humble mud hut put up by Fr.Antonio, an Indian Catholic priest from Cochin in Kerala, gradually grew to be a major center of attraction in Colombo for tourists as well as the faithful because of its ability to answer prayers.
The ability was rooted in the fact that the church itself was a product of a miracle wrought by the founder of the church. Fr.Antonio’s intense prayers for three days had saved the area from sea erosion which was threatening several fishing villages dotting the North Colombo coastline.
In the 18 th.Century, when the Protestant Dutch held sway in Sri Lanka, following the exit of the Catholic Portuguese, Catholics were persecuted. All kinds of pressures were exerted to make them abandon Catholicism. The Dutch even made an attempt to revive and strengthen Buddhism to prevent conversion of Buddhists to Catholicism.
There were no local Sri Lankan Catholic priests to take the place of White Portuguese priests who had to flee after the Dutch took over. Indian priests from Portuguese settlements in India like Goa, Cochin and Tuticorin, were not allowed by the White- dominated Catholic orders to preach outside the shores of India.
It was at this time of stress that Fr.Joseph Vaz from Goa, defied the Church authorities in Goa, Kerala and Tamil Nadu, and secretly came to Sri Lanka in a Dutch vessel, disguised as a laborer.
In Sri Lanka, Fr.Vaz moved round gingerly and cautiously disguised as a beggar. But he was secretly revered by the hoi polloi as a “Mahaswami” since he was a holy man of Brahmin origin.
Following Fr.Vaz, other Goan priests came to Sri Lanka and contributed a great deal to the survival and revival of Catholicism in the island in spite of Dutch persecution. Fr. Antonio from Cochin in India was one of them. He disguised himself as a trader and took up residence in what is now Maliban Street, in Colombo. His mission was to revive Catholicism in the Colombo region right in the heart of Dutch ruled Sri Lanka.
But the Dutch discovered his presence and his hideout too. Fr.Antonio fled to Mutwal, further north on the coast. The villagers of Mutwal were willing to put him up and protect him but on one condition: the priest had to stop the erosion of the coastline which was threatening fishing villages.
The Dutch caught up with Fr.Antonio in Mutwal soon enough. But the fishermen told the Dutch that they will not hand over Fr.Antonio until he stops the sea from eroding their land. The Dutch agreed, and the priest went to his abode in Maliban Street and came back wearing his priestly garments and holding a wooden cross in his hand.
He chose the worst-hit spot (where the church came up later) and planted the cross there. He continuously prayed to God to Manifest His Glory and stop the erosion. After three days of intense prayer, the sea receded to everyone’s relief.
The Dutch Governor was impressed, and acceded to Fr.Antonio’s request to allow him to put up a small church there dedicated to St. Anthony of Padua, the priest’s patron saint.
It was in honor of Fr.Antonio from Cochin or Kochi, that the area around the church was named Kochchikade.
According to church records, the little chapel which was built was nothing but a mud hut. It was enlarged in 1806 after the Dutch left Sri Lanka and the island went into the hands of the British who were not anti-Catholic though too were Protestants like the Dutch.
In 1822 a statue of St. Anthony was brought from Goa and solemnly placed on the altar of the chapel.
“This is the very image that is today held in great veneration at St. Anthony’s Church, Kochchikade, and the side altar on which it rests, is the altar of the ancient Church and stands on the very spot sanctified by miraculous event to which the origin of the same sanctuary is due,” Kiriella says in an article in Lanka.com.
The arrival of the statue of St. Anthony from Goa gave an impetus to the enlargement of the chapel. The expansion of the premises was completed in 1828. The church was blessed on Sunday the June 1, 1834, by the then Vicar General Very Rev. Fr. Caetano Antonio.
“A tiny piece of the incorrupt tongue of St. Anthony of Padua is enshrined is a special reliquary and placed in one of the glass cases with a statue of the saint, at the entrance to the Church,” Kiriella says.
As the church is traced to a miracle, it began attracting followers of other religions too. People with problems, irrespective of their faith, began to flock to the church especially on Tuesdays.
This created a space problem. The church was therefore enlarged in 1940. A Chorister’s gallery, large wings on side, the Mission house and meeting room behind the main altar were added. On February 16, 1940, the Most Rev. Dr. J.M. Masson O.M.I. the Archbishop of Colombo, blessed the new Church.
In his Lenten pastoral of that year, Masson wrote: “The Venerable building hallowed by over a century of Catholic piety could no longer serve the growing needs of the present day. It called for replacement; a new and more spacious structure has now taken its place. It is indeed a monument of love and devotion to St. Anthony raised by all, rich and poor, but mostly latter, in Colombo, as well as in the whole of Ceylon. May Anthony protect this City and this Island and all his devout is and lovers therein!”
The church has kept its connection to the sea and seafaring. When it was destroyed on April 21, 2019, it was the Sri Lankan navy which took over its reconstruction.
It is this newly built modern structure which Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi visited on June 9. It was here that Modi declared that terrorism will never win.
Has the senseless destruction of the church shattered the belief that it works miracles?
“Absolutely Not,” said parish priest Fr. Leo Perera in an interview to BBC.
"You cannot keep people away from here just because of something like this. They will keep coming back because this is the time they want the presence of God in their life. There is no way this will affect the power of this church and the faith of its believers," Fr.Perera said.
“St Anthony's church is so much more than just a place of worship. It is a symbol of Sri Lanka's plurality and tolerance. A reminder that in a country, still bruised by the memories of a brutal civil war and inter-religious violence, its diverse communities have traditionally lived together peacefully and embraced each other's beliefs and differences. That perhaps explains why so many of them still came together to stand in front of the church, to express sadness and horror at what took place within,” the BBC said.
On June 13, the re-built church held its first mass conducted by Cardinal Malcolm Ranjith.
The Cardinal said that many people in Sri Lanka are living in confusion in the aftermath of the attacks and are wondering if the country will be able to overcome this situation.
“Many are questioning if we can trust our leaders to do what is right,” he said.
Referring to the terror attacks, he said:“There is nothing more valuable than a human life. Therefore no one has the right to snatch away another’s life. Every human life is equally valuable. We completely reject the use of human life to achieve political goals. There is no place in heaven for those who carried out the attacks. They will only go to hell.”