From the ashes, nay from the blast, the smoke, the destruction, the grief and the tears, has risen a beautiful church-by-the-sea to which men, women and children are coming back in their numbers. The barricades are still there and the security checks are ongoing, all needed in the face of the threats of terrorism, but [...]


The resurrection of Kochchikade

Devotees are back at the much-revered St. Anthony’s Church two months after the Easter Sunday devastation, thanks to the untiring efforts of the Sri Lanka Navy

The shrine today and (inset) a young family seeking blessings. Pix by Ishanka Sunimal

From the ashes, nay from the blast, the smoke, the destruction, the grief and the tears, has risen a beautiful church-by-the-sea to which men, women and children are coming back in their numbers.

The barricades are still there and the security checks are ongoing, all needed in the face of the threats of terrorism, but the flock has not abandoned their beloved saint – St. Anthony – who has been with them through thick and thin and trial and triumph.

Within the altar as is usual is the battered and bruised Christ on the Cross and the two-word declaration in bold letters – ‘Priest’ and ‘Victim’.

As one steps into St. Anthony’s Church, Kochchikade, that seems apt in the light of all those who sacrificed their lives in the Easter Sunday suicide bomb blast, innocents who came to this place of worship to rejoice in the resurrection but fell victim to the machinations of terrorism.

“This is a miraculous shrine,” is the echo of all, with devotees ardently kissing the statues, some even creeping under the statue of St. Anthony kept on a pedestal at the entrance and then going on their knees to the rails of the altar, along the main aisle of the church. While outside some devotees are lighting candles, many are in deep prayer seated within. Others who have bought medals and small statues stand in line to get them or just themselves blessed by a priest.

To the left of the church sanctuary, is a cordoned off area with pockmarks on the floor, a grim reminder of the location where the suicide bomber blasted himself, while on the corridor just beyond is a black plaque with white lettering listing the names of 54 who perished here.  There is space left as there may be still some victims who are unidentified.

No. 37 has drawn much interest. It is Mohomed Rizwan and that in itself indicates the multi-cultural, multi-religious nature of the devotees who gather at this ‘shrine of many faiths’. Mohomed Rizwan was a 15-year-old who was at the Easter Sunday service on that fateful day.

For many, it is unbelievable that just two months after the blast, St Anthony’s Church is vibrant and pulsating with life once again, having been re-consecrated (declared sacred) on June 12 by the Archbishop of Colombo, Malcolm Cardinal Ranjith, with the feast of St. Anthony being celebrated the very next day on June 13.

“We have been seeking succour at this shrine from a long time ago. Our prayers have always been answered by St. Anthony. We will never stop coming here,” is what a woman from Moratuwa tells us as she queues up behind a couple and their toddler for the blessing and the wide-eyed little boy looks with curiosity at the priest as holy water splashes over him.

Another devotee from Negombo, Kamani Edirisuriya, who stops by the shrine whenever she comes to Colombo, is insistent that we take a photograph of her. “My daughter in Italy was very scared when I told her I would be coming to Kochchikade, but I cannot be without visiting here. Now she will know that everything is alright,” she smiles.

While the devotees are in prayer, there is the humming and buzzing generated by ongoing construction activity, with blue-clad workers, wearing face-masks carrying out many a chore.

The credit for the expeditious completion of the major work at the much-beleaguered shrine is showered upon the Sri Lanka Navy by both the Administrator of the shrine, Fr. Jude Raj Fernando and Assistant Fr. Dilusha Chamara Perera.

“From the moment that the blast occurred, the navy has been by our side,” says Fr. Chamara, explaining that not only have navy personnel provided security but also thoroughly cleaned the church and rebuilt it.

“They were there from the very first moment and have done and are doing a wonderful job. It is a personal commitment from all of them, going much beyond the call of duty,” he says, as we see groups of navy personnel engaged in different activities inside and outside the church.

What it was after the Easter Sunday blast and men in blue working with dedication. Pix courtesy the Navy

Fr. Chamara adds that the navy personnel have worked nonstop, day-in-day-out and that is how the church was able to celebrate its feast so soon  (less than two months) after the tragedy.

Yes, the photographs reveal all – the shell of the church after the blast, with roof shattered, the glass in smithereens and the floor-tiles with gaping holes.

It is with much humility that Naval Spokesperson Lieutenant Commander Isuru Suriyabandara says that they were the “first responders” when the blast shook the shrine on April 21. They did all the work in 45 days, starting the clean-up on April 23 and beginning the renovations on April 27.

While 350 personnel worked at ground level, valuable advice had been garnered on how to handle the interior including the murals from the naval design team who had produced the beautiful Kachchativu Church, it is understood. The blast spot is to be covered up with scratch-proof glass.

The personnel, both male and female, put their shoulders to the wheel without considering the time of day, says Lt.-Commander Suriyabandara, adding that immense support flowed forth from Navy Commander Vice Admiral Piyal De Silva and the government.

A close friend of the Commander, Joseph E. Farrell of the Resolve Marine Group based in America had generously donated US$ 60,000, the first donation from the public, Lt.-Commander Suriyabandara added.

And so, the St. Anthony’s shrine stands tall, serene and beautiful due to the toil and labours of many dedicated workers, the faith of its clergy and the unshakeable devotion of its multi-cultural, multi-religious flock……a symbol that good does triumph over evil.

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