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Sri Lanka’s St. Anthony cathedral promotes religious harmony, cultural diversity

Diocese of Kandy Sri Lanka’s St. Anthony cathedral promotes religious harmony, cultural diversity

St. Anthony Cathedral at Wahakotte in Kandy is a melting of cultures and religions in Sri Lanka. Wonder worker St. Anthony of Padua is a highly respected saint among Sri Lankans of all ethnicities and faiths.

Thousands visit this pilgrimage site all the year round. On the feast of St. Anthony on June 13, this national Catholic shrine draws tens of thousands of faithful from all over the country.

The focal point of veneration: the statue of St Anthony of Padua, which is only taken out of its alcove on three days of the year

Built in 1877, the St. Anthony Cathedral is situated on Castle Hill in Wahakotte, some 147 kilometers northeast of Sri Lankan capital Colombo.

Catholicism arrived in Sri Lanka in early 16th century, thanks to Portuguese explorers. However, Catholic Church picked up momentum through great evangelization efforts by Indian missionary Father Joseph Vaz who came from Goa and reached Wahakotte in 1687.

Kandy became a Catholic stronghold when Dutch colonizers, who were Protestants, persecuted Portuguese Catholics, forcing them to flee from other parts of Ceylon (old name of Sri Lanka). Father Vaz began serving the local Catholics and carried out his evangelization efforts from his first mission center in a hideout, due to hostilities towards Christians in the area. Pope Francis canonized Father Joseph Vaz during his visit to Sri Lanka in 2015.

A shrine marks the spot where St Joseph Vaz was hidden from the Protestant Dutch rulers, in a cattle shed, in the late-17th Century

Local Catholics believe a miracle of St. Anthony in early 20th century helped in gradual drop in hostilities towards Christians from the Buddhists. A severe drought hit Kandy and Buddhists prayed for days for rain, but nothing happened. Then, the Catholics led by Father Vaz prayed to St. Anthony for three days and torrential rain drenched Wahakotte and Kandy.

The incident moved the Buddhists so much that they flocked to revere the saint and offered him lavish gift in accompaniment of traditional Hewisi music band. Until then the music was restricted only to the Buddhist religious ceremonies by a royal decree.

Today, Hewisi music is an essential part of St. Anthony feast day celebrations in the cathedral. As part of the celebration, thousands participate in a procession with the miraculous statue of St. Anthony through the streets of the city, making stopovers at important Catholic landmarks including the hideout of St. Joseph Vaz.

The approach up the shaded driveway reveals the church in quite spectacular fashion on the brow of the hill

The influence of Catholicism on local culture is strongly felt in areas around St. Anthony Church in Wahakotte. Every year, faithful from various religious groups join in to participate in Wap Magula, a traditional ceremony that marks the beginning of annual sowing season. In other parts of Sri Lanka, Buddhist or Hindu priests officiate the ceremony. In Wahakotte, Catholic priests lead a unique “farmers’ mass” in the paddy fields close to St. Anthony’s cathedral. Priests also bless the seeds, plows, tractors, and other materials brought by Catholic farmers on the day.

Today’s red-roofed St. Anthony’s cathedral came up in 1938 and it was designed by Italian Benedictine monk, Augustine.

Your trip to Kandy will remain incomplete if you don’t pay a visit to historic St. Anthony Cathedral at Wahakotte.

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