The recent appointment of a resident spiritual rector at Bangladesh’s most popular Catholic shrine, dedicated to St. Anthony of Padua
, sparked a surge in pilgrims for its annual feast day. About 80,000 pilgrims, mostly Catholics but also non-Christians from all around Bangladesh, flocked to pray and honor St. Anthony at Panjora village in Gazipur district on Feb. 1. Cardinal Patrick D’Rozario
of Dhaka presided over a Mass for devotees. Thousands waited in long queues to pay respect to the saint by touching and kissing his statue. Many offered St. Anthony manots
(gifts for fulfilling a wish) in the form of candles, ornaments, money, pigeons and rabbits. Prior to the feast day, the shrine held nine-day novena prayers and Masses that drew thousands of devotees. Church officials say the increased number of pilgrims resulted from better management including expansion of the pilgrimage site, added security and low-cost food as well as the appointment of a first resident spiritual rector. The Archdiocese of Dhaka appointed diocesan Father Leonard Poresh Rozario, 72, to offer spiritual care to the shrine and pilgrims all year round in response to long-standing demands from devotees. The priest joined the shrine on Jan. 18. “I am happy to join St. Anthony’s shrine to assist individual and group pilgrims who come here to pray and pay honor to the great saint. I am able to help them in taking part in confessions, meditation, reflection and to offer spiritual solace for various kinds of problems and petitions they have,” said Father Rozario. “For a long time, I have preferred a monastic life, a life in seclusion. I believe the new role suits me best.” Devotees pay respect to the statue of St. Anthony at the shrine on Feb. 1. (Photo by Stephan Uttom/ucanews.com)
Rabeya Begum, 40, a Muslim mother of two, traveled from Munshiganj district to the shrine to thank the saint for “incredible blessings” she received. “For five years after my marriage, I failed to conceive. I came here to pray and promised to offer the saint a manot if my wish was fulfilled. Today I am a proud mother of two and I try to attend the pilgrimage every year,” she told ucanews.com. Catholic mother Rosaline Gomes, 56, traveled from Rajshahi district with five pairs of pigeons but declined to disclose her secret wish. “I had my wish fulfilled through the intervention of St. Anthony. Anyone who seeks favor from the saint with great faith will never go empty-handed,” she told ucanews.com.
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The pilgrimage is the largest annual Christian gathering in Muslim-majority Bangladesh, where Christians account for less than half a percent of the population of more than 160 million. Church historians believe devotion to St. Anthony at Panjora dates back centuries. 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. It is believed Dom Antonio
, a Bengali Catholic preacher, also helped popularize the shrine. Dom Antonio was a son of a Hindu king kidnapped by pirates and sold to a Portuguese Catholic missionary who converted him. Antonio learned catechism, language skills, music and dance and became a prolific preacher. He is credited with converting thousands of lower-class Hindus in the Bhawal area of Dhaka, a Catholic stronghold that covers the shrine. 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 outstanding preaching, undying love for the poor and sick and 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.