Catholics place candles in front of the statue of Mother Mary at a popular shrine during the annual pilgrimage in Nobai Bot Tola on Jan. 15. (Photo: Stephan Uttom/UCA News)
Thousands of Catholics defied Covid-19 risks and flocked to a shrine dedicated to Mother Mary in northern Bangladesh to seek special blessings.
About 10,000 people, mostly Catholics, attended the annual pilgrimage to Mother Mary, the Protectress, in the Nobai Bot Tola area of Rajshahi district, 300 kilometers north of capital Dhaka, on Jan. 16.
The program included an evening rosary prayer on Jan. 15 and a feast day Mass on Jan. 16.
Bangladesh's government continues to discourage large public gatherings, fearing a surge in coronavirus cases.
The number of participants was confirmed by Carlus Marandy, a member of the pilgrimage committee. “We ensured everyone used masks and hand sanitizers during the program,” Marandy, 72, an ethnic Santal Catholic, told UCA News.
Bishop Gervas Rozario of Rajshahi celebrated Mass on the feast day and encouraged the faithful to pray to Mother Mary for protection from the virus.
“As we know Mother Mary protected villagers from Pakistan's military in 1971, she can similarly save us from Covid-19. We should also pray humbly to Mother Mary for peace and harmony in the world,” the prelate said during his sermon.
A legend associated with the shrine has grown in popularity in the past decades.
Nobai Bot Tola was a village in Andharkota Parish of Rajshahi Diocese. In 1971, during Bangladesh’s War of Independence, Pakistani soldiers lined up dozens of ethnic Christian villagers under a large banyan tree and prepared to fire. Christians closed their eyes and started praying to Mary and suddenly the soldiers left without firing.
The miraculous escape from death prompted local Christians to gather and thank Mother Mary for saving their lives.
Marandy said that as young boy he was witness to the miraculous incident.
“In order to thank Mother Mary, we started praying on every Jan. 16 and people came to know about it. Slowly, it became a popular shrine as people started to come here with various wishes to make to Mother Mary,” he added.
A Catholic mother attended the pilgrimage with her 12-year-old son, Barshan Sarker, who suffers from sporadic fainting.
“We joined the pilgrimage to pray to Mary Mother for my son’s recovery from a critical illness. We have seen several doctors but his condition has not improved. I believe Mother Mary, the Protectress, will help him recover,” she told UCA News.
Thanks to the shrine's growing popularity, Rajshahi Diocese declared it a major shrine in 2004 and elevated it to a full parish in 2014.
In Bangladesh, popular devotion to shrines dedicated to Mother Mary and saints like St. Anthony of Padua spans generations. They attract tens of thousands of faithful all year round, especially during annual feasts.