Some years ago, while on a trip to Europe, my daughter and I had planned to go to Italy. She was going to take me to see the Vatican. It had been a long-unfulfilled dream to visit the Vatican and maybe, just maybe, get a glimpse of the Pope. I had heard of the Pope [...]

The Sunday Times Sri Lanka

The altar cloth – A story in fabric and thread

Textile artist Andrea Boekel who together with Sandra Wanduragala of Selyn and women from different parts of Sri Lanka created the altar cloth for the Pope’s Mass at Galle Face writes of what they felt was a blessed effort

Some years ago, while on a trip to Europe, my daughter and I had planned to go to Italy. She was going to take me to see the Vatican. It had been a long-unfulfilled dream to visit the Vatican and maybe, just maybe, get a glimpse of the Pope. I had heard of the Pope who turns up on the balcony to bless all those present at Holy Mass.

At the altar: Pope Francis celebrating Mass at Galle Face Green. Pic by M.A. Pushpa Kumara

The trip did not materialise but some years later, my dream was to take a more dramatic turn, when one morning I received a phone call from my dear friend Sandra Wanduragala who told me excitedly that not only was the Pope going to visit Sri Lanka but we had a chance to be in the thick of the arrangements.

Sandra Wanduragala is the founder and Chairperson of Selyn, the Handloom House. Endowed with steely determination, an immeasurable capacity for work and blessed with the most compassionate of hearts, Sandra runs her successful business imparting her unique brand of loving kindness. We had been friends for many years; a mutual calling to uplift women by imparting skills to them brought us together.

Selyn had been approached to create the altar cloth that was going to cover the table at the Holy Mass celebrated by Pope Francis on January 14 on Galle Face Green. “You will be on board too won’t you,” she asked me animatedly. I was beside myself with excitement – what an incredible honour to be a part of this wonderful event! There was no question about it that not only would I be a part of the process but would throw my all into creating a work of art that was going to tell “The story of Sri Lanka”.

From that moment on “Team Altar Cloth”consisting of myself, Sandra, her gorgeous daughter Selyna and around 30 women from different corners of the island began the journey. I was tasked with creating the design. We had a meeting with the ever-affable Father Priyantha Silva and

Team work: Andrea and Sandra

the rest of the steering committee to listen to the brief. Father Priyantha, a most gifted artist, pitched in to guide and inspire me and also told me about the boundaries within which we had to work. There was so much to learn. This man of God, with his gentle demeanour, told me about the sacred numbers, symbolic colours – blue for the earth, red for divinity, gold/yellow for things heavenly, white for purity and also about symbols such as the square and octagon that had Christian significance. They were fascinating facts; but a trifle daunting.

I prayed quietly and sought inspiration; I knew it would come somehow. My design was born inspired by the darkness and desolation our beautiful island had been through and the resilience we had shown in coming through the storm. I sketched furiously as on the paper, dark clouds from which golden rays emerged. The island of Sri Lanka was held in God’s protective embrace while the Sri Lankan cross lay on the circle of divinity.

Two passages from the Bible inspired me:

Romans 5:2-5 ….through whom we have gained access by faith into this grace in which we now stand. And we boast in the hope of the glory of God.  Not only so, but we also glory in our sufferings, because we know that suffering produces perseverance;  perseverance, character; and character, hope.  And hope does not put us to shame, because God’s love has been poured out into our hearts through the Holy Spirit, who has been given to us.

Jeremiah 17:7 – Blessed is the man who trusts in the Lord And whose trust is the Lord.  For he will be like a tree planted by the water, That extends its roots by a stream And will not fear when the heat comes; But its leaves will be green, And it will not be anxious in a year of drought Nor cease to yield fruit.…

My design included a lush tree with two doves nesting on its strong branches. My doves were depicted as birds typical of Sri Lankan art traditions. The tree was featured with its roots in the water where fish swam – the fish being a symbol of Christianity. On the edge of the altar cloth, little squares of hand-embroidered fabric in Sri Lankan tradition featured the ‘liyawala’ design that ran through the stage art work.

Worked on with great joy: Women of different faiths helping make the altar cloth

A meeting took place once more where I rolled out my artwork on paper; but Father Priyantha shot down my dark clouds! He did not want anything gloomy. I am so glad he did because the design that emerged spoke of joy and beauty and splendour.

As part of the preparations, we travelled to Nayakakande Convent, Hendala to take a look at the altar table. It was huge. My design had to be expanded to fit its proportions. Selyn set about weaving the fabric where weavers of different communities sat at their looms, arms and legs in motion as a cloth of exquisite loveliness emerged. In a gorgeous shade of soft fawn, the fabric had silk threads that produced a soft sheen. The weavers of mixed faiths refused to take payment for their work as they believed it was a meritorious act to produce the fabric for the Holy Father to celebrate Mass.

Elsewhere, in the East, Central, Southern and North Western provinces, women sat with embroidery frames, carefully laying in tiny stitches for the borders. It took all our coordination skills to manage this project – it was a logistical nightmare! On one occasion, I had to reject some of the embroidery because it was not up to standard.

Some of the women who worked on this project were the ones that had experienced a great deal of tragedy in their lives. They came from former conflict areas. Some others were women who found joy and peace in being involved in this work. The central motif was embroidered by Seelawathie – a Buddhist by birth. Seelawathie considered it the ultimate meritorious act for her to stitch night after night, the cloth as an offering to the Holy Father. These tales of overwhelming love and compassion made me so proud to be a Sri Lankan woman and to share in the glorious tradition of respecting diverse faiths. Somehow, even before the Holy Father touched our shores, he was reawakening this culture.

As the days approached, the frenzy grew. The dynamic lady coordinating this whole project – Felicia Adihetty has to be acknowledged for her untiring efforts in ensuring we stayed on track. Selyna Pieris, the pocket-sized dynamo, was another reliable shoulder to lean on (and sometimes cry on, when things went out of sync). It took a very bold lady – Marie Ariyaratne, to tailor the altar cloth to perfection. Handling the voluminous swathes of fabric and lining almost physically engulfed her at times; but again the joy she derived from putting it together was almost palpable.
Finally, the cloth was completed and although the team was in different locations, I know we were all giving each other high fives. On an appointed day, Sandra and her brother Hilary drove down from Kurunegala and we handed over the completed cloth to Father Priyantha. It was a moment of unspeakable joy for all of us as we received the gracious priest’s blessings.

However, as things go, last minute dramas always make events memorable! I was summoned to Galle Face Green on Tuesday night as there was a little hiccup with the cloth. Along with my daughter Tanya, we journeyed to the place where Pope Francis was going to celebrate Holy Mass the next day. It was around 8 p.m. and the Green was encircled in a soft glow. The spiritual feel of the place was simply amazing. People were taking their places on the Green, soft hymns played in the background and the Indian Ocean lapped gently as my daughter Tanya and I ‘fixed’ the cloth.
As the special moment dawned the next morning when the Holy Father arrived at the altar and as I watched him take his place and begin Mass, the cameras panned over to the cloth our team had produced. In that moment, I saw up close, a manifestation of our deep devotion and faith and the love that bound us together. I was not able to be there in person but I will never, for as long as I live, forget that moment of watching Pope Francis stand behind our offering that was born on a sheet of paper on my dining table and created with love by the women from all corners of our island.

The aura that surrounded the Holy Father; the love that emanated from him; the joy I saw on the faces of fellow Sri Lankans told me that we were in for a new period in our beloved island’s history. There was something inexplicably special – it felt as if Sri Lanka was being showered with millions of blessings and watching the spectacle unfold on TV made me weep.The tears spoke of my immeasurable emotion for the opportunity to have been a part of the Holy Father’s visit and the wonderful gift we had been given.

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