Sunday, 18 November 2018 10:01

St. Anthony’s Church, Kollupitiya: Venerating the saint from Padua

The humble saint clad in a brown habit (cassock) and tonsured head, has drawn the affection of millions of Catholics globally. St. Anthony of Padua, a Franciscan friar is probably the most popular figure in the galaxy of venerated saints. There are many shrines, chapels and churches dedicated to this prudent priest. One such church is in Colpetty ,Colombo 3.

During the 17th century this area was a village called Barandeniya. Its radical name change is linked to a Kandyan Chieftain. In 1664, King Rajasinghe 11 wielded his influence, which was not appreciated by some powerful chiefs of the central hills. Three such disgruntled chiefs formed a secret alliance and plotted to kill the king and place his 12-year-old son on the throne. The main conspirator was Udunuwara Ambanwela Appuhamy. King Rajasinghe got wind of the plot and soon arrested the three chiefs. He had two of them violently beheaded as a warning. The main culprit Ambanwela Appuhamy was handed over to the Dutch, the defiant King wanting him to be tortured. Surprisingly, the Dutch were merciful towards the renegade chief and he soon took on the name of Van Rycloff.

For this act of induced conversion Ambanwela Appuhamy was bestowed with some land and a farm in Barandeniya. With time he extended his coconut plantation by invading the lands of innocent citizens. Infuriated but afraid to retaliate to Ambanwella Appuhamy (Van Rycloff) who enjoyed Dutch support, the villagers called his lands ‘Kolla-kae-pitiya’ translating as “lands taken by fraudulent acts”. Thus, Barandeniya became Kollupitiya and pronounced Colpetty by the refined British citizens in the years ahead.

Coastal conversions

During the time of Pope Alexander V1, missionaries were sent from Portugal to India.

In November 1505, a fleet commanded by Lorenzo de Almeida came ashore on Ceylonese soil. Some believe their ships were driven aground by strong winds, perhaps, a divine act. Once ashore the crew built a small chapel dedicated to St. Lawrence. Subsequently, other missionaries came to the island, with zeal to propagate the Catholic faith. During this time one of the greatest missionaries, Fr. Francis Xavier came to India. He is one of the co founders of the Jesuit Missions. Fr. Xavier convinced other priests to visit Ceylon. Having died in India he was beatified and is venerated by millions of ardent devotees. During this time there were colonies of Christians living in ancient Ceylon - a fact validated by a Nestorian Cross found in Anuradhapura, in this corresponding timeline. By 1658 the Dutch sailed onto our shores and influenced our forefathers with their protestant doctrines, causing tension to the Catholic community. In this backdrop a daring Catholic priest entered the island via Jaffna, disguised as a common beggar. Young Fr. Joseph Vaz would go on to make an immense contribution to the church, and earned his beatification as the Apostle of Sri Lanka.

By 1913 the Catholics of Kollupitiya had reached a reasonable figure as a group and humbly demanded that they get a new church in their hometown. They sent a request to Archbishop. During 1914 the Slave Island parish covered the spiritual needs of the Kollupitiya residents under the leadership of Fr. Dominic OMI. The faithful people once again asked the visiting Monsignor Dontenwill, Superior General of the Oblates for a new church. By this time the Archbishop Coudert had given permission to conduct divine services in a ‘tenement’ house, by the seaside, bordering the railway line.

During the turbulent times in Colombo at the height of the Second World War this house was taken over by the military. By this time the Kollupitiya toddy tavern had blossomed nearby, and was the meeting place for an assortment of men who gulped down the toddy and were often garrulous. During this time Fr. Vincent Croos, OMI took up duties as parish priest of the Slave Island church.

Permanent building

He was a man who would draw up projects and then move others to work as a team and get results. Still there was no permanent building for the Catholics of Kollupitiya. The only small building was used as accommodation for the nuns of St. Francis Xavier. The Archbishop of Colombo donated a plot of land used for manioc cultivation, from the Palm Lodge property.

On October 15, 1934 four priests blessed the new land. Workmen began clearing the trees. The first donation received was Rs 10. It was used to clear the land. The foundation stone was laid by Fr. Theobald de Silva. By 1938 a portion of the church was completed. In this backdrop some sisters of the Legion of Mary came to Ceylon. These nuns were keen to begin teaching the children and appealed to Archbishop, Masson, for a school.

St. Euphrasia’s Convent was started in 1940. Today, this operates as St. Anthony Balika Vidyalaya, and is under the Apostolic Carmel nuns. During her golden days the church organist was Mr. Ferguson. Since then many priests served the church making improvements to the buildings. It is from this church that the famous stage drama “Well Mudaliyar” took shape at the Lionel Wendt decades ago. It was staged by the young people to collect funds. The present parish priest is young Fr. Julian Patrick. Born as Fernando Martins De Bulhoes on August 15 1195, he was the son of wealthy parents from Lisbon, Portugal. At age 15 he entered the Augustinian Abbey. After his ordination he was entrusted to take care of the hospitality of the Abbey. During this time he heard of five Franciscan friars who had been killed. This impacted him and he wanted to join the Franciscan way of life. He joined the order adopting the name Anthony. His visit to Morocco had to be cancelled due to his ill health and he was reassigned to a hermitage.

Humble disposition

During this time Anthony got the attention of the founder St. Francis of Assisi, who loved his kind and humble disposition. He placed Anthony to instruct junior friars. Anthony also excelled as a preacher. There is an interesting story about one of his books of Psalms. A young priest had taken this book, and set off on a journey. Anthony had prayed that the book would return. Shortly the guilty young monk returned the book of psalms, which is today preserved in Bologna. Anthony was elevated as Provincial Superior of the Franciscans and lived in Padua, Italy. In 1231 he became ill and rested in a hut built under a walnut tree. He died aged only 35, and entered into his celestial abode.

He was canonised by Pope Gregory IX in 1232. Ad Maiorem Dei Glorium - For the greater glory of God’.

(Sunday Observer)

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