February 2011


St Anthony’s Church, Kochchikade: A Wondrous Shrine
February 2011




One of Sri Lanka’s great wonders is its spiritual intensity due to a multi-denominational society in which all four major religions intermingle. This intensity manifests at holy shrines, an example being St. Anthony’s Church at Kochchikade, Colombo, where not only Catholics but people of other faiths converge to venerate the Saint and request his assistance.

Words: Richard Boyle | Photography: Waruna Gomis

I have lived in Sri Lanka for several decades but confess that until recently, I hadn’t visited the famous shrine of St. Anthony’s Church, located not in a leafy suburb but in the bustle of Kochchikade, very close to the edge of Colombo’s port. This area is refreshingly different, providing a dip into a more indigenous Sri Lanka.

Here the shops are traditional single-storey structures. Near the church many specialise in providing devotees with the needs of worship such as small statues of the saints to yellow candles. As I walked down the street towards the Italianate neo-classical façade of the church, with its twin bell towers and prominent statue of St. Anthony, I reflected on my newly-acquired knowledge of the Saint.

He was born in Lisbon, Portugal, c.1195, entered the Augustinian Order at 15, but later joined the Franciscans and went to Morocco to preach. He fell ill and sailed for Portugal but his ship was blown off course to Sicily. His health improved, he proceeded to Assisi and spent the rest of his life in Italy and France. At first he was an ascetic, but became a highly-skilled preacher after being commanded to deliver a sermon. Apparently his rich voice, arresting manner, and moving eloquence, held the attention of his audiences.

He served as an envoy to Pope Gregory IX at the Papal court, his preaching hailed as a “jewel case of the Bible”. He is said to have possessed the power of bilocation, being in two places at one time. But he fell ill with dropsy (oedema) and died at Padua on June 13, 1231, aged just 36. Subsequently, he was known as both Anthony of Lisbon and Anthony of Padua. Miracles were so numerous after his death that he became the quickest canonised saint in the history of the Catholic Church – achieving the feat less than a year after his death, on May 30, 1232.

Today St. Anthony is a universal saint, respected and venerated even by non-Catholics. He is the patron saint of sailors, fishermen and travellers; the elderly, the oppressed and pregnant women; harvests, horses and swineherds; but most importantly the seekers of things lost.

In Sri Lanka, St. Anthony has many devotees and several churches have been erected in his honour, but the most popular that attracts people of every religion and race, from every corner of society, is the church of St. Anthony at Kochchikade. On Tuesdays, thousands come to pray to St. Anthony to ask for favours, make vows or give thanks. Many are the stories, for instance, of those cured of illness, babies born to infertile women and finding of things lost. Fridays are popular with Hindus, who venerate St. Anthony after going to the nearby kovil (temple). I chose to make my visit on a Friday as I wanted to experience the multi-denominational aspect of the church.

The special sanctity of the Church was recognised in 1912 when Governor Sir Henry MacCallum wanted to acquire the land for the Colombo Port, but advisers opposed the move: “The Church is held in peculiar veneration by the Roman Catholic population, not only of the western littoral but of the whole Island. It is visited daily by numerous pilgrims – there is specially a large attendance on Tuesday.”

I entered the church via one of its three glass doors. As the door closed behind me, the sounds of the traffic outside faded and I entered a different world, a sacred oasis, tranquil and silent apart from the odd footfall or murmured prayer.

Indeed, there were many Hindus inside, ash-smeared foreheads an indication of their main faith and recent visit to the kovil. The first representation of St. Anthony encountered is contained in a raised wooden casing at the entrance. Devotees reached out to touch in veneration the glass panes through which the statue can be viewed, a vital aspect of prayer. Others added candles to the number with flickering flame already placed in front of a statue of St. Anthony.

Some, in penance, made their way on their knees up the aisle towards the railing that encloses the main altar, above which, in the wall behind, is a recessed statue of St. Anthony surrounded by traditional motifs designed in brass, as are the representations of the sun and moon. To the right of the altar is the glass-enclosed, blue-lit Blessed Sacrament Chapel, outside which devotees pray.


To the left, on a side altar, resides the most important and oldest aspect of the church, the Miraculous Statue of St. Anthony, a small but glorious representation over 200-years-old. A line of devotees always patiently wait to touch the protective glass nearest the statue, to pray, to ask for St. Anthony’s help to overcome the obstacles of life.

Several important events have occurred in recent decades. On January 20, 1995, the church received an unexpected visit by John Paul II. In March 2010, the Relic Room beyond the Miraculous Statue at the rear of the building was graced with holy relics of St. Anthony brought from the Basilica of Padua to mark the church’s 175th anniversary. One of the relics was given to the church: its curious multi-facetted design is well worth observing.

The existence of the holy shrine of St. Anthony’s is attributed to one Friar Antonio of the port-city of Cochin, in India. During the late 17th Century, when the Dutch ruled the coastal area of Ceylon and Catholicism was proscribed, Friar Antonio was sent to Colombo to administer to the needs of Catholics.

As priests could not exercise their ministry in public, Friar Antonio held clandestine services for the faithful at night.

The Dutch discovered the Friar’s residence but he escaped to a neighbouring fishing village where the fisherman promised to protect him if he could request God to prevent the erosion of the beach that prevented them drying their nets. Friar Antonio placed a wooden cross at the spot most threatened by the advancing sea and prayed, surrounded by the fishermen who thwarted the Dutch attempt to detain him.

On the third day of prayer, the waves miraculously receded and a protective sandbank was revealed. The soldiers reported the incident to the Governor who, realising the repercussions of arresting the priest, gifted him a plot of land nearby. Here Friar Antonio built a small kadé (shop) which he managed during the day and ministered to the local Catholics at night. As he was from Cochin, the place gained the name Kochchikade – “the kadé of Cochin”.

The mud hut built by Friar Antonio lasted until 1806 when it was enlarged.In 1822 the Miraculous Statue of St. Anthony was brought from Goa and positioned in the altar of the small chapel, supposedly the spot where Friar Antonio placed his cross. In 1826 further enlargement began and when the façade was completed the blessing of the new church took place on June 1, 1834.

My tour of the church accomplished, I made for the doors but was reluctant to leave the spiritual intensity of this wondrous shrine and step outside into the secular world. I made a vow to return. After all, my middle name is Anthony.


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    Devotees revere the first statue of St. Anthony encountered in the church

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    Father Clement Rosairo, administrator of St. Anthony’s, observes the devotees

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    Yellow is the colour for candles lit before a statue of St. Anthony

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    Statues of saints for sale at a specialist shop opposite the church

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    Garlands of jasmine flowers being prepared for worshippers

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    Interior of St. Anthony’s with a statue of St. Anthony above the altar and to the right the Blessed Sacrament Chapel

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    The Miraculous Statue of St. Anthony, brought from India in 1822, is the devotional focus of the church

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