Feast of St. Anne’s Shrine at Talawila today
God’s merciful love to mankind
By Commodore Shemal Fernando
The main feast of St. Anne’s national Shrine will be celebrated at Talawila presided over by His Eminence Malcolm Cardinal Ranjith, the Archbishop of Colombo on the invitation of His Lordship Rt. Rev. Dr. Devsritha Valence Mendis, the Bishop of Chilaw.
No human power drew the pilgrims to Talawila, neither worldly gain nor love of pleasure or profit or fame brought them there for centuries. An old church and in it a rough image of a Saint, who had lived and died even before the birth of Christianity; these have been the attractions.
The pilgrims have come animated by a sense of a unseen, yet real, power; they have come to worship God and honour His saint the good Grandmother, to invoke Divine assistance and offer thanks for favours received.
Year after year, for half a century, I have journeyed to the golden sands of Talawila. These pilgrimages are full of hallowed memories to me and my family.
We have personally experienced the mighty miraculous power of St. Anne all along our lives and owe much to her.
We have known the shrine and spent memorable times under its sacred shadow. Talawila is certainly one of God’s chosen means to manifest His mercy and love!
In the golden sands of Talawila, the trammels of civilization and the artificial conventions of society are cast aside for plain living and simple thinking; religion begins to occupy its right place, which is the first place.
The sense of Christian charity and Catholic solidarity begins to grow in the pilgrim’s heart at the historical shrine where our forefathers have knelt, prayed and offered their supplications and thanksgiving.
Very Rev. Fr. Luke Nelson Perera, the energetic Administrator of the hallowed shrine has launched a series of meaningful projects for the development of the shrine and its environs. Also, he has made elaborate arrangements to launch the 250th Jubilee of the National Shrine in a befitting manner drawing special attention to the spiritual needs of the pilgrims expected to throng to Talawila from all corners of the island.
The main attractions for the pilgrims this year would be the newly constructed ‘Blessed Sacrament Chapel’ as well as ‘Reconciliation Chapel’ which have been long felt needs. In addition, a tower in the style of a Light House which will serve as a beacon for seafarers is nearing completion behind the historical shrine.
Saints Anne and Joachim
In the liturgical calendar, the feast of the Saints Anne and Joachim is celebrated on July 26. Saints Joachim and Anne were the parents of the Blessed Virgin Mary, the Mother of God and the grandparents of the Jesus.
St. Anne is the Patron of Christian Mothers and St. Joachim the Patron of Fathers. Anne and Joachim were childless for many years. At the time that they lived, this was considered to be a punishment of God among the Jews. But God, in his Wisdom and Mercy, granted them a child, and Mary was born and raised in Jerusalem.
The couple offered their little daughter to God in the Temple. As a young girl, she spent time in service to the Temple, working and learning with other girls. But it was probably her parents who taught her to read, and certainly Joachim and Anne who taught her to love and follow God’s word and to know and understand the Scriptures.
Mary loved her mother and father. In this she is a beautiful example for children. Joachim and Anne loved their daughter and followed God’s plan in raising her. In this, they are a shining example and intercessors for Christian parents.
It is against a background of small beginnings, rapid progress, severe trials and joyous triumphs, that the history of the famous sanctuary of St. Anne at Talawila has been silhouetted by written records and authentic traditions. History reveals that Kalpitiya and the district around it nurtured the earliest contacts between Sri Lanka and India. The landing place of Prince Vijaya is just across the lake, a few miles to the north of Puttalam and further north is Kudiramalai, Pliny’s Hippuros, once a busy trade centre. Kalpitiya itself was an important port for the trade between Sri Lanka and India and at times, the waters around Kalpitiya ran blood when contending nations fought for the control of sea routes.
Growth of the Shrine
Christian missionary work began in the peninsula around 1606 and the Fathers of the Society of Jesus from South India were the first to preach the Gospel in these parts.
However, with the recapture of Negombo by the Dutch shortly after 1644, the Jesuit Fathers had to quit the peninsula and the Catholics were without mass or sacraments or adequate religious instructions for early half a century but they remained steadfast in the faith. In 1687, Venerable Fr. Joseph Vaz (now Blessed Joseph Vaz), an Indian oratorian, taking pity on the deserted flock of Christ in Sri Lanka smuggled himself into Jaffna in the guise of a labourer. In 1690, he came to Puttalam and the presence of a priest just across the water, could not have been long hidden from the afflicted Catholics in the peninsula.
He arrived at a time when the Dutch persecution of Catholics was very bitter and when there was a price set on the head of any Catholic priest who might be found in Dutch territory.
In 1705, five new missionaries including Fr. Jacome Gonsalves arrived in Sri Lanka.
But a priest was not always secure at Kalpitiya as long as the Dutch held it but in spite of the danger, the priests continued to minister the Catholics of the peninsula.
In 1796, Colombo was surrendered to the British by the Dutch and from that date Dutch rule in Sri Lanka became extinct and in 1806 all disabilities and restrictions imposed by the Dutch on the Catholics were removed. And an era of freedom at long last dawned on the church.
First Traditional Account
The first traditional account on the origin of the shrine is that in the 17th century, a Portuguese traveller, in poor circumstances, trekked from Mannar to Colombo to try and find a livelihood there, but failing to do so was returning by the coast, when he happened to fall asleep under a large tree which then grew at Talawila in the site of the present shrine.
He dreamed that he saw an image at the foot of the tree, with lighted tapers burning on each side. Waking up from his sleep he received with astonishment that the image was actually there.
In his confusion at this sudden and strange realisation of the dream he prayed loud and while so occupied was suddenly dazed and awestruck by the “great awakening light”.
And St. Anne herself in bodily presence stood before him and told that the image he had seen was intended as a representation of her and that he should build a church there, and name it after her, and preserve in it the relic that had so graciously been revealed to him.
Deeply impressed with what he had witnessed the poor man set about building a small Chapel.
St. Anne appeared to him again and left him some gold coins which enabled him shortly to return to his country where he raised funds for the construction of a permanent church at Talawila.
He was, however, a third time favoured with a vision of the beautiful saints, upon whose instructions he built a larger church in its place.
The second traditional account of the origin is very popular though matter of fact and the age old litany to St. Anne is based on the same. During the 18th century, an European trader was shipwrecked off the coast of Talawila.
In those days, people living in the forests collected forest products such as elephant tusks, skins, horns, honey and wax and ebony and shipped off to the southern ports in sailing craft.
It was one such trading craft that came to grief off Talawila. As the vessel was dedicated to St. Anne and carried her image, the crew sought her protection and was saved. As the land offered them no shelter they looked around in distress and saw on a spot where the present church stands a large banyan tree whose cool shade seemed to beckon them.
After reverently placing the sacred image in a hollow of the banyan tree, they rested. But, before they left, the Captain of the ship vowed to St. Anne that if his business prospered, he would revisit the spot and build a church, where he would place her image for veneration.
As there was no hope of rescuing his vessel or its cargo he went back to Galle, where he had his home and his business. Some fishing craft from Kattaikadu saw the wreckage and made for it in the hope of securing the goods afloat on the shore.
The news spread and more people came to the spot, which gradually acquired the name of Kappaladi which means ‘the place of the shipwreck’.
From the shore they strayed on to a large banyan tree, probably to assess their finds under its cool shade. And what was their wonder, to see, in a hollow of the tree, an image of St. Anne! Thus, the first repository of the venerated miraculous image of St. Anne was nature’s handiwork – the hollow of a banyan tree.
Reports of favours granted spread all over the country and attracted many a pious Catholic. In the meantime, the merchant from Galle prospered in business and revisited Talawila as vowed. He built a little Chapel and placed in it the venerable image and made a pilgrimage to the Chapel annually when business brought him to Kalpitiya.
The religious enthusiasm of the pilgrims attains it climax at the High Mass on the feast day. The joy of a good conscience and the feeling that they are about to pay the last public homage to the good Mother, St. Anne, working them up to it.
As the procession returns with the miraculous statue, the Administrator of the shrine places it on the altar. Then the prayer to St. Anne is recited. And the Chief Celebrant blesses the crowed. With bowed heads or outstretched arms they receive the blessing. Then there follows a deafening clapping of hands. The feast is now over. But before departing to their homes each one comes once more to the feet of St. Anne to take her leave. It is not without emotion one departs from the sacred spot. One needs to console oneself for the forced separation, to cherish the hope that one may have a chance again. Then, the heart overfull of sweet consolation and the ears ringing with the haunting melody of the well-known hymn to St. Anne, “Santana Maniyene”, one seizes the Pilgrim’s Flag Staff for the homeward journey, narrating the miracles one has seen and heard, the devotedness of those who coordinated the spiritual and temporal welfare of the pilgrims and above all the humanly inexplicable confidence and love St. Anne has won by her goodness to her children.