The miraculous statue of St. Anne, Thalawila
Given the religious fame and veneration attached to this shrine a first time pilgrim might expect a magnificent cathedral, but in lowly contrast the first view from a distance is the façade of a small church, painted in a lighter shade of brown. Humility is a Christian virtue and thus the church of St. Anne reflects the true spirit of Christendom-for all earthly structures are transient.
It is interesting to note that Kalpitiya is a historic area, and is the landing point of Prince Vijaya after his banishment from India. Further north to this area one can encounter Kudiramalai. Every place of worship has a story of inspiring faith, from humble beginnings to steadfast religious congregations. There are two legends associated with this church in Thalawila.
A shipwreck and a divine dream
The first version is accepted by a majority of believers and involves quite an adventurous narrative culminating in a shipwreck. It is said that a trading vessel set out to sea, her mast head having the hand carved figurine of St. Anne. Usually, such vessels carried a cargo of elephant tusks, expensive ebony and wax. Encountering turbulent waters the European owned vessel ran into rocks.
According to legend the ship’s captain, a man of faith had prayed for the safety of his crew, and had promised that once they were safe, he would build a chapel on this site close to Thalawila. On shore they rested under the cool shade of a large banyan tree, where they placed the figurine of St. Anne. Subsequently, they were rescued and sailed back to Galle. News of the shipwreck reached members of the fishing community who sailed in small craft hoping to steal any items that were afloat - thus to this day, a point of this area is called “Kappalladi”- derived from the Tamil words kappal (ship) and adi (vicinity of the shipwreck). It is sad to note that they would respond to a shipwreck in this selfish mindset - wanting to steal.
These plundering fishermen also sought the shade of the banyan tree and were surprised to find the statue of St.Anne. Initially, overcome by fear (and maybe guilt) they knelt and prayed. Soon some claimed of miraculous manifestations and the banyan tree became a famous spot on the beach. After making progress in business the European Captain honoured his divine oath and revisited Kalpitiya with his family and is said to have built a small chapel.
It is believed, he made many visits here with his family. Mariners were stunned in 1943 (exactly 100 years after the building of the present shrine) when the hull of an ancient ship loomed out of the now serene waters, causing much frenzy, some opining that it was from the very same European ship which floundered here decades ago!
The second story relating to the origins of the shrine is based on a poor Portuguese man. He is said to have travelled from Mannar to Colombo looking for a job and failed in his quest.
Somewhat similar to the stories in the Old Testament, such exhausted men find refuge under trees, where they have a life changing divine encounter. This weary soul had fallen asleep, and was soon engulfed in a trans-like dream where he witnessed a radiant light. Having woken up in total surprise he claimed that he saw the manifestation of St.Anne, the mother of the Blessed Virgin Mary. Shortly he was miraculously bestowed with some gold coins, which enabled him to sail back to his country. He too is said to have raised money and returned to Kalpitiya and built a small chapel on this site. The two stories are indeed centered on contrasting human characters, one a wealthy sea merchant, the other an impoverished vagabond. But the fact remains, one of them did initiate the building process.
Faith under fire
Behind this timeline we must remember the political and cultural landscape of ancient Ceylon in 1606. With the Portuguese administration, records indicate that the Jesuit Priests (Society of Jesus) came to the island as missionaries from South India. These prudent and persistent monks propagated their faith, which the coastal communities embraced with zealous passion.
Over the next few decades the defiant Dutch would begin to lay siege on the fortified bastions of the Portuguese, targeting the approach ways to small harbours. As the administrators focused on counter attacks, the forgotten Jesuit priests had to fend for themselves and would have prayed Ductore sic te praevio, vitemus omne noxium - through all perils lead us safe, beneath thy sacred wing. They endured much hardship.
In 1687, venerable Joseph Vaz came to Ceylon entering via Jaffna disguised as a humble labourer.
He then reached Negombo, and administered the holy sacraments to the Catholics living in fear of the Dutch. News of an intruding priest had reached the Dutch and Joseph Vaz came to Puttalam in 1690. Motivated by his example other Catholic priests entered the island led by Fr. Gonsalves.
In 1796, the Dutch Governor Van Angel Beck surrendered Colombo to the British. Thankfully, the British were quite tolerant to the weary Catholic community and soon the Catholic priests began their work with earnest Magnificat anima mea dominum – My soul glorifies the Lord.
Triumph through Trials
As the fame and miracles of the shrine gained momentum, in 1837 Fr. Pedro Caetano is said to have laid the foundation stone for a new church and in 1843 the task was complete. The little chapel within was built in 1877. Thus, for more than 150 years this coastal church has attracted thousands of pious devotees from every province of Sri Lanka and even visitors from India. The church has been a radiant beacon of hope. Its present parish priest is Fr. Nelson.
The dedicated work of all the clergy at St. Anne’s Church over the decades can be best summed up in Latin Ad maiorem-Dei Glorium (for the greater glory of God).