From Padua to Sri Lanka: A saga of reverence

By Hiranthi Fernando

Braving the intense afternoon heat, a long queue of people stood outside St. Anthony’s Church, Kochchikade last Monday. They had come from far and near - Catholics as well as those of other religions to venerate the Holy Relic of St. Anthony brought to the church last Sunday.

The St. Anthony’s shrine is popular among not only Catholics but also non-Catholics andTuesday is a special day for devotion. A Catholic from Ragama A. Andrew said he comes every Tuesday to the shrine as he has a lot of faith in St. Anthony.

Edward Jayasinghe, a Catholic from Wattala also comes every Tuesday. Kanageshwara, a Hindu from Negombo, said he comes to the church every Sunday as it is his off-day. A Buddhist from Hunupitiya, comes every first Tuesday of the month. “My whole family comes here to the shrine. We have had our prayers answered here.”

Inside the church the sacred relic enclosed in glass was attached to a golden statue of St. Anthony carrying the child Jesus. The statue itself was in a glass case within the altar rails. This statue is often seen in churches.

Rev. Fr. Nuwan Rodrigo, Assistant Priest of St. Anthony’s shrine, said the Holy Relic was brought to Sri Lanka on a request by Archbishop of Colombo, Rt. Rev. Dr. Malcolm Ranjith in honour of the 175th jubilee of the shrine in June this year. The Relic which was flown to Sri Lanka from Padua in Italy was transported in a flower-bedecked chariot from the airport to the Kochchikade church.

The sacred relic is also being taken to all eleven dioceses in the country and will remain in Sri Lanka until March 23. It will be brought back at the Kochchikade shrine from March 19 – 21 and then be taken to St. Anthony’s shrine at Liyanagemulla, Seeduwa, from where it will be flown back to Padua on the night of March 23.

Archbishop of Colombo, Rt. Rev. Dr. Malcolm Ranjith said that when the Saint’s tomb was first opened in 1263, the tongue and vocal chords right down to the thoracic area were found intact. It is a part of the vocal chords that has been brought here for veneration.

He added that St. Anthony was reputed to be an extraordinary preacher. The Archbishop says the sacred relics are sometimes taken for veneration outside Padua and had been taken to some parts of India. However, the tongue is placed in a reliquary and not taken out of Padua.

The crowd at Kochchikade

Archbishop Emeritus of Colombo Rt. Rev. Dr. Oswald Gomis said St. Anthony was born in Lisbon, Portugal and had joined the Augustine monastery when he was 15. When he heard of the new congregation, the Franciscans, founded by St. Francis of Assissi, he joined them and preached all over Italy and France, drawing large crowds. He died aged 36 on June 13, 1231.

During his life and after his death several miracles were attributed to him and within a year of his death Pope Gregory IX had canonized him as a Saint of the Catholic Church on May 30, 1232.

The tomb of St. Anthony was first opened in the presence of St. Bonaventure, Minister General at the time in 1263. In 1981, the tomb was opened for the second time on the occasion of the 750th anniversary of the death of St. Anthony.

Finally the tomb was opened in 1995, in anticipation of his 800th birthday. The skeleton was then exhibited in a glass case and other relics were obtained for presentation to some shrines of St. Anthony.

Why Kochchikade?

Outlining the history of the 175-year-old shrine, Fr. Nuwan said that according to tradition the Shrine of St. Anthony at Kochchikade owes its existence to a miracle. When the Dutch took over the lands held by the Portuguese in Sri Lanka, the Catholic priests were forced to carry out their ministry in secret. Fr. Antonio, who came with Rev. Joseph Vaz from Goa, was in charge of Colombo and lived among the people as a fisherman.

When the Dutch soldiers were coming to arrest him he fled along what is now known as Reclamation Road and fishermen of the area promised to protect him if he could stop the sea erosion. In the meantime the Dutch soldiers caught up with him and decided to watch for the result as they were sure the priest would not be able to perform a miracle. However, Fr. Antonio placed his cross on the place where the erosion was worst and prayed. It is said that even as he prayed, the waves receded. The fishermen refused to allow his capture.

When the incident was reported to the Dutch Governor, he realized that arresting the priest would have dire consequences and instead gave him a small plot of land in the area. So Fr. Antonio who was from Cochin, built a little hut for worship, dedicated to St. Anthony and the area came to be known as Kochchikade.

The little hut was gradually transformed into a church, which was consecrated in 1834. By that time it is said that the miracle witnessed by the fishermen spread and people from many communities and religions flocked to the shrine to seek the intervention of St. Anthony, the miracle worker.

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