Stephan Uttom and Rock Ronald Rozario, Gazipur
Updated: February 16, 2018 05:09 AM GMT
Devotes line up to touch and pay respect to the statue of St. Anthony of Padua in Panjora, Gazipur district of central Bangladesh to attend an annual feast there on Feb. 2. (Photo by Rock Ronald Rozario/ucanews.com)
Jolekha Begum is eight months pregnant but the Muslim primary school teacher still traveled more than 150 kilometers across Bangladesh on a wintry morning in late January to worship at a miracle-bestowing shrine that has gained fame nationwide.
The 31-year-old drove from northern Siranjganj district to St. Anthony of Padua shrine in Panjora village of central Gazipur district to thank the Portuguese saint for a "great favor."
"I got married seven years ago but I failed to conceive. My in-laws became frustrated and used to abuse me verbally and physically,"Jolekha said.
"I came to know about St. Anthony's miraculous power and visited the shrine last year with the intention of having a child. My wish has now been fulfilled," she told ucanews.com.
Jolekha said she also prayed for a healthy child.
"I will continue to travel here [to give thanks] for as long as I can," she said.
Devotees hold biscuits and statues of St. Anthony of Padua during the feast day on Feb. 2. (Photo by Rock Ronald Rozario/ucanews.com)
Hindu couple Rajesh Das, 38, and Sunita Debi, 25, are also believers.
They visited the shrine with their 10-year-old son from Munshiganj district, about 100 kilometers away. They took with them a pair of pigeons to give blessing.
"Our son became ill from a disease the doctors were unable to diagnose about two years ago and his health was deteriorating," said Sunita, a housewife.
"I heard about St. Anthony from a Christian man so we came here to pray to the saint for our boy's recovery. And now he has completely healed," she added.
At the shrine, such stories of faith and miracles being bestowed are increasingly common.
It now draws hundreds of devotees of all faiths and ethnicities year-round.
During an annual feast that is usually celebrated in February, it turns into the largest annual Christian gathering in Muslim-majority Bangladesh.
Volunteers collect pigeons from devotees offered to St. Anthony of Padua as thanksgiving gifts on the day of the feast. (Photo by Rock Ronald Rozario/ucanews.com)
This year, about 50,000 devotees flocked there to attend the feast on Feb. 2, which was presided over by Cardinal Patrick D'Rozario. Traditionally, it is celebrated ahead of Lent, which begins on Feb. 14 this year, rather than on June 13, St. Anthony's feast day in the church's liturgical calendar.
Most devotees are Catholics from Dhaka Archdiocese's Bhawal region, one of country's oldest and largest Catholic strongholds covering seven parishes.
Panjora village is part of St. Nicholas of Tolentino Church in Nagari, which falls under the jurisdiction of the Bhawal region.
On the day of the feast, thousands lined up and waited for hours to touch the statue of the saint to pay their respect.
Many carried with them a manot, a gift for granting a favor, in the form of candles, gold ornaments, pigeons, biscuits and so on.
There are about a dozen Catholic shrines in Bangladesh but the frenzied devotion seen at the St. Anthony shrine in Panjora is unparalleled.
Over a period of nine days in early February about 5,000-6,000 people attend two novena masses and prayers there.
A devotee holds a Rosary to be blessed during the feast. (Photo by Rock Ronald Rozario/ucanews.com)
While non-Christians like Jolekha and Sunita don't put their faith in Jesus, they consider St. Anthony as a "demi-god."
Alexander Ascension, 74, a Catholic from Panjora village, says he has witnessed the miraculous power of the saint.
"I believe St. Anthony helps find lost objects. Once my boat was stolen and I got it back after I prayed to the saint," he told uncanews.com.
"Similarly, my daughter had problems with her eyes and she got cured with the blessing of St. Anthony," he added.
St. Anthony is a symbol of interfaith harmony, says Abdul Kadir Mian, a Muslim and chairman of the Nagari Union Council, a local government body.
"He is a saint for all people and we feel proud and honored to receive people from all over the country in our area. This feast is a great example of interfaith harmony in Bangladesh," Mian said.
The origins of this annual outpouring of devotion at the shrine are unclear but local people claim the practice has been going on for nearly 200 years. Legend has is that a small statue of St. Anthony appeared and reappeared several times in the place where the shrine is now located, and people started going there to pray.
A devotee prays during the feast at the revered shrine, also on Feb. 2. (Photo by Rock Ronald Rozario/ucanews.com)
Later, Catherine Peries, a local Catholic woman, donated the land and a local church authority built a small chapel there.
Dom Antonio da Rosario, a 17th century Bengali Catholic preacher who was the son of a Hindu king, is also believed to have helped popularize the shrine.
Arakanese pirates are said to have kidnapped him when he was a child and then sold him to a Portuguese Catholic missionary.
The priest later baptized him and named him Dom Antonio. Dom is the Portuguese word for "prince."
Antonio learned catechism, language skills, music and dance. He became a prolific preacher.
His eloquent preaching, accompanied by devotional music and dance, helped spearhead the conversion of thousands of lower-caste Hindus in Bhawal and other areas of what today ranks as the Dhaka Archdiocese.
A family offers manot, a thanksgiving gift, to St. Anthony of Padua at the shrine. (Photo by Rock Ronald Rozario/ucanews.com)
Antonio is believed to have composed Thakurer Geet, a devotional folk song about the life of St. Anthony that is still hugely popular in the region.
"Dom Antonio didn't just preach and convert people. He also made St. Anthony popular, but not many people are aware of his contribution," Father Proshanta T. Rebeiro, a Canon Law professor at Holy Spirit Major Seminary in Dhaka, told ucanews.com.
Last year, in recognition of people's unwavering devotion, two Franciscan friars from St. Anthony of Padua Basilica in Italy took an 800-year-old relic of the saint on a nationwide tour of Bangladesh.
Father Rebeiro says the time has now come to recognize the high esteem in which the saint and shrine are held.
"The shrine needs to be extended and a basilica can be built, and it needs national and international recognition. I have been in Padua and I can say St. Anthony of Panjora surpasses St. Anthony of Padua," added Father Rebeiro.
Over 50,000 people visited the shrine for this year's annual feast day, making it the largest annual Christian gathering in Bangladesh. (Photo by Rock Ronald Rozario/ucanews.com)
Father Joyanto S. Gomes, the parish priest of St. Nicholas of Tolentino Church, said the archdiocese will develop the shrine.
"There is a plan to extend it and set up a basilica here. We want to see a resident priest assigned to look after the shrine, and a permanent place to accommodate pilgrims," he said.
St. Anthony was born in Lisbon, Portugal on Aug. 15, 1195. He was ordained a priest and later became a Franciscan friar.
He was widely acclaimed for his unwavering love of the poor and the sick, as well as his expert knowledge of scripture.
He died in 1231 at the age of 35 in Padua, Italy from a chronic case of edema. The Vatican canonized him a year later and in 1946 he was declared a Doctor of the Church.