Set amidst a rectangular block of land at the “best spot” on a lush coconut estate in Ratnagiriya, is a tiny, inconspicuous church. Surrounded by shady kohomba, benjamina and teak trees through which rustles a gentle breeze, is St. Peregrine’s Church, where those living close-by say many haskam (miracles) take place. Although the church’s name [...]

The Sunday Times Sri Lanka

A little church that holds hope for the hopeless

Built in 1993 St. Peregrine’s in Ratnagiriya dedicated to Peregrine Laziosi, the ‘Cancer Saint’, draws not only Roman Catholics but also those from other religions due to its power of healing

Set amidst a rectangular block of land at the “best spot” on a lush coconut estate in Ratnagiriya, is a tiny, inconspicuous church.

Surrounded by shady kohomba, benjamina and teak trees through which rustles a gentle breeze, is St. Peregrine’s Church, where those living close-by say many haskam (miracles) take place.

In prayer at St. Peregrine’s Church. Pix by M.A. Pushpa Kumara

Although the church’s name evokes images of the better-known falcon than the saint, here is where men, women and children gather in fervent prayer with heavy hearts but hopes soaring high for a cancer-cure.

Designated the patron saint not only for those wracked by cancer but also other death-dealing illnesses, the succour expected of this saint is heartrendingly obvious by the numerous vows made at a small statue in a niche on the wall off the right corridor.

Along with coins tied up in white cloth are photographs of those on whose behalf miracles are sought as well as pieces of paper on which are scribbled yearnings and heartfelt ‘thank-yous’ for wishes granted.

It is on Monday of the Holy Week that we visit the church deserted except for a couple of elderly women in earnest prayer. “This is the only church dedicated to this saint and for victims of cancer in Sri Lanka,” says C. Pradeep Suranjana, 33, whose late father, C. Benedict Fernando, had willingly taken up the task of looking after this place of worship.

While the flock of St. Peregrine’s parish consists of only 40 Catholic families, nearly 500 people attend the healing service held every first Saturday of the month as well as the Feast Day service on May 1, he says.

Built in 1993 under the Chilaw Diocese by Fr. Quintus Fernando, crowds and not only Roman Catholics but also those from other religions, converge on this humble church as word has spread of its power of healing.

Photographs and vows at the Saint’s statue

“We don’t advertise, we don’t print leaflets,” says Pradeep who runs a small salon close to the church, adding that people come from far and wide.
It was when Fr. Fernando was in the seminary that his interest was aroused about St. Peregrine, on receiving some leaflets about the saint in the mail. Intent on dedicating a church to this saint who had had a chequered life, Fr. Fernando’s dream had become a reality, after many attempts, when finally the quarter-acre block was donated by the couple who owned ‘Sadasaranawatte’ and he was able to mobilize support from the families in the area to put up the church.

When contacted, the donors who had given the best spot on theircoconut estate to build the church said that many are the tales of healing they have heard from those who come to the church. They cite the case of the priest who had celebrated the festive mass on May 1 two years ago, although he was very ill. Last year, this same priest was back at the altar for the mass on the feast day having been healed and attributing it to St. Peregrine.

With the gradual increase in the numbers drawn to the church and to provide shelter free of charge to those who may wish to stay overnight after an intense day of prayer, the generous owners have now built the cozy and comfortable ‘Sarana Medura’ with all facilities.

From a minute novena booklet at the church and also research on the web we are able to garner information about the life and times of Peregrine

Anti-papal activist, now a saint

Laziosi, the ‘Cancer Saint’. Born around 1265 in Forli, which was part of the papal-states governed by the Pope, in Italy, Peregrine was of a family that was active in the anti-papal party. This anti-papal activity had led to the city being placed under the church penalty of interdict, which meant that mass and the sacraments could not be celebrated there.

Around that time the Prior General of the Servants of Mary, St. Philip Benizi, had ventured forth to Forli to preach reconciliation. “Young Peregrine, very intense in his political fervour, not only heckled Philip during his preaching, but, in fact, struck him. Philip, instead of responding with anger and violence to the attack, turned and forgave Peregrine.”

This had been the defining moment for Peregrine who had then joined the order of the Servants of Mary in Siena, Italy. Later he had returned to Forli, an ardent preacher, dedicating his life to the underprivileged including the sick and the poor.

It was when he continuously indulged in the penance of standing whenever it was not necessary to sit that he had developed varicose veins, which later deteriorated into an open sore on his leg, eventually being diagnosed with cancer, with a local surgeon advising amputation.

Like the millions of Christians who for thousands of years have laid down their burdens and still do, before the crucified Christ, not only on Good Friday but throughout the year, Peregrine had done the same.

And similar to the hope of resurrection that is held out on Easter Sunday, there had been renewal for Peregrine. For when he woke up, the website states, his wound had been healed. He had lived to a ripe old age of four score years, until May 1, 1345.

Peregrine’s canonization had been on December 27, 1726, with him being named the Patron Saint of those suffering from cancer.

As the Peregrine followers prepare not only to celebrate Easter today and also the saint’s feast on May 1, Fr. Fernando refers to one breast-cancer sufferer who had said that she was cured on the very first day that the church celebrated mass back in 1993.

The faith in the powers of this saint is vocalized by Pradeep when he says that never has the church collected money, but random people give of their mite voluntarily.

One person built the altar-rail and another has promised to re-do the entire roof, he says with awe. “No one asked them, they seek out the needs of the church and help,” adds Pradeep.

(The church is accessed by turning right from the Negombo-Chilaw Road, at Madampe (just past the petrol station), passing the railway crossing and getting on to the Kuliyapitiya Road on the right and travelling a distance of about 10km to the Dummalasuriya Junction. Here a small signboard guided us onto the Willaththawa Para on the left, 5km down of which is the church on the left.

To book ‘Sarana Medura’ for an overnight stay, please contact mobiles: 0718616583 or 0777280650.

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