By Chenelle Fernando
I ran outside to catch my Uber, this time around at four in the evening instead of the usual five. All the roads were empty – not because it was early, but because everyone stayed in, away from the roads and any place that was likely to gather large crowds. I decided to engage in conversation with the driver of my Uber ride.
“We just want all of this to end, we want freedom and peace, that is all we want now,” he said, while speaking of his friends who succumbed to the Easter Sunday attacks that hit Sri Lanka last Sunday (21 April).
Easter Sunday marks itself as a day of great prominence in the Christian calendar. A day which usually unfolds in religious observances, fellowship with friends and family was replaced with shock, fear, and bloodshed.
A place of worship, a safe haven, was now left with doubt and heartache as the entire nation was shaken by the Easter Sunday bombings. The attacks were a sequence of coordinated explosions that hit three churches across the island as well as three luxury hotels. St. Anthony’s Shrine, Kochchikade, St. Sebastian’s Church, Negombo, and Zion Church, Batticaloa were the churches attacked.
Rich in history
With a rich history of nearly 190 years, St. Anthony’s Shrine, Kochchikade is visited by large numbers, inclusive of both Catholics and non-Catholics, for its miraculous powers and dignifying rich history.
In the early 1800s, Fr. Antonio, to whom the origin of the church is accorded, worked alongside the fishing community in the area of Kotahena. Erosion, which posed a problematic situation at the time, prevented fishermen from drying their nets. It is believed that it was Fr. Antonio’s miraculous payers that caused the sea to recede, subsequently enabling villagers to resume their daily activities.
The Dutch, who learnt of the phenomenon, granted the land to the priest, thereby enabling him to practice Catholicism. Today, this story is depicted through the paintings at St. Anthony’s Shrine.
Interestingly, the shrine derives its name from the priest himself, whose origins stem from Cochin, India. Teachings were carried out of a small hut, referred to as the one where Cochin had a shop, hence the name Kochchikade. At present, the church which holds veneration of the entire nation hosts numerous pilgrims and attests to large gatherings, especially on Tuesdays.
Dilanke is a part of the company Pepper Life, which operates travel experiences in Sri Lanka. One of its core principles includes the showcasing of Sri Lanka’s ethnic and cultural diversity through their experiences. He shared: “There is one travel experience called ‘Colombo’s culture’. It showcases how different ethnicities in Colombo live together in a very close-knit community and how Colombo functions so well. Kochchchikade Church (St. Anthony’s Shrine, Kochchikade) was an integral part of this walk we hosted. It essentially is a visit to four religious places and the Catholic aspect of it is the Kochchikade Church. We speak to travellers about how Fr. Antonio started the church. The church is an integral part of this walk and it shows travellers the way in which Catholicism is spread in Colombo.”
‘We won’t stop going there’
Dilanke continued: “When the attack happened, we were really disappointed and sad. Even though it is in a bad state, we will still not stop going there.
“It has such an interesting history and all the people from that community come to this church. The attacks will not stop us from going there. Even though I’m an atheist, I respect every religion and what it has got to offer.”
Romesh, a long-time attendee of the church, however reflected a contrasting view over the matter. “On Tuesdays, by the time I reach Kochchikade, it’s around 5.45 p.m. and the mass happens at 6 p.m. It’s always crowded with both Catholics and non-Catholics. Generally, we don’t feel insecure when we enter a church, we feel safe. But now, I may have second thoughts. I don’t feel that it’s safe anymore. Wherever the crowd is, it’s not safe. Not even a temple, kovil, or any religious place.”
Bringing whole communities together
Renowned as one of the main martyrs, St. Sebastian is one from whom many seek divine intervention, as he had proved to have successfully overturned even the most harshest of circumstances. With numerous churches devoted to St. Sebastian throughout the island, the church located in Negombo is believed to have harnessed miraculous powers and a plethora of loyal devotees. The church was designed by Fr. G. Gannon, Parish Priest of Sea Street, who replaced a smaller church for the purpose of accommodating the flood of parishioners who visit the church. This year, the church celebrated its 150-year anniversary in January.
The church is an integral part of the residents of Katuwapitiya. This became evident when we conversed with a resident of the area who also happened to be present at the church at the time of the explosion. “The church is dedicated to St. Sebastian. We celebrated the 150-year anniversary of the church in January. Since St. Sebastian is a saint that blesses an entire village, there is a legend amongst the residents that says that during the days of the church feast, he arrives on horseback and miraculously cures various diseases such as smallpox. Due to this, both Christians as well as non-Christians visit the church. I’ve been visiting this church since I was three years old. I have been involved in many church activities including its choir, and this tradition has continued up until now, and even my son is an altar boy at the church.
“After the explosion, I saw around 100 bodies on the ground. I was not in a clear state of mind at the time. My entire family was at the church at the time and we attended the service later than usual so we were outside the church. None of us got hurt, thankfully, but we lost a lot of people we knew to the blast – we feel unbearable sorrow. Lots of people around the area lost their lives; children, parents and sometimes families. It truly is a heinous act of terrorism.
“We have no fear in going back to church…St. Sebastian is an entity that has blessed us in many instances,” he said.
The Zion Church in Batticaloa was the most recent establishment amongst the three places of worship, and was founded by Rev. Inpam Moses in 1974. The church, which is affiliated with the Lighthouse Church, Kandy, is also a member of the Fellowship of Free Churches of Sri Lanka. This evangelical church is regarded a charismatic church within the region of Batticaloa.
According to tweets made by State Minister of Finance Eran Wickramaratne, currently the Government is committed to the restoration of all three churches.