I live not far from St Anne’s Catholic Church, Thalawila – the oldest Catholic Shrine in Sri Lanka. It is right on the beach, halfway along the Kalpitiya peninsula, on the west coast of Sri Lanka, 3 1/2 hours from Colombo. I have been there several times, but not seen anything like I did last weekend!

thalawila-5The history of the church goes back to the 17th century. St Anne is the mother of the Virgin Mary. One story claims a poor Portuguese man was travelling from Mannar to Colombo looking for work. He was not successful, and whilst walking back along the coast, stopped to rest under a tree which is now the location of the church. Whilst sleeping he had a vision of St Anne. Upon waking he could still see the image, and built a small chapel dedicated to her. The other story claims that a European trading boat was shipwrecked off the coast. The area was very arid and inhospitable but the crew took shelter under a large banyan tree. They placed an image of St Anne in the tree. The captain kept his promise to build a church there upon the success of his business.

thalawila-4Last Sunday was the one of the most important feast days of the year for St Anne’s church. It is known for many miracles and blessings. Families from all over Sri Lanka had been gathering in the 10 days leading up to the feast day. Many come hoping for their own miracles and blessings.

thalawila-3I visited last Sunday evening and spent some time wandering around chatting to people, as well as visiting the church itself. Some estimate that up to 400000 people had gathered for the event. People come by private and public bus, by car, by tuktuk, and packed into the back of flatbed trucks – with everything needed for their stay tied on! A makeshift town had quickly been established – with all that was needed to support this many people in a normally very sleepy part of Sri Lanka!! Food stalls, mobile phone charging stations, public showers, large tanks with water for drinking… Some families camped on the beach, others on mats in front of the church, many were in tents on the bare land in front of the church.thalawila-8

thalawila-1Everyone wanted to say hello. And even if we couldn’t say much more than that to each other, they wanted me to sit and meet their families. Fernando introduced me to his wife, children and grandchildren, as he very proudly told me, ‘I am Christian.’ A large extended family from Negombo had driven up 10 days earlier to be here for the entire festival period. Another man waved at me through the bus window with a big smile on his face, ‘I am going back to Colombo.’

 

praying hands-1As I got closer to the church, candles, tapers and other religious items were being sold; and people with various disabilities, others suffering illnesses, lined the paths hoping for alms. After entering the gateway, I came upon a large stone cross, on the way to the church. This was the scene of much activity. Some people were lighting candles and stopping for a prayer. Others were seeking to touch the cross which had had blessed oil poured over it. As I was watching, a man came with a new bottle of oil and began to pour it over the cross. The crowd surged forward to reach for the oil – and many were trying to capture some of the oil in their own bottles to take with them, to use for future prayers and supplications.thalawila-6

Despite the huge numbers that had descended upon this tiny, remote community, there was a sense of calm and a sense of purpose. I saw no other foreigners during the time I was there, although I did bump into several locals I know. I nearly didn’t recognise Sarath, a local fisherman – I don’t think I’ve ever seen him with long pants, a button down shirt, and his hair all slicked back! Looking very smart with his family and he stopped to chat with me. I was welcomed by everyone. I asked questions, and I had questions asked of me. And after we ran out of the few English, Sinhala and/or Tamil words that we had in common we just smiled at each other!

boy-1Just another one of those days where I felt blessed to be welcomed to an event that was so special for so many people. I’ve had some wonderful opportunities lately and continue to thank the people I meet along the way for their friendliness and openness.

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