St. Lucy of Sicily whose feast falls on December 13 is
venerated the world over as the protectress against eye trouble. Legend
has it that she had the most beautiful pair of eyes and that she pulled
them out to present them to an unwelcome suitor who was enamoured by their
beauty. However her eyes were miraculously restored to her more beautiful
Named after this virgin and martyr saint is St.
Lucia"s Cathedral of Kotahena, the oldest and largest parish cathedral
in Sri Lanka and the seat of the Archbishop of Colombo. Situated at Kotahena
to the north-east of Colombo this magnificent edifice sprawled on 18,240
Sq. feet of land, rises to a height of 150 feet and has the capacity to
accommodate 6000 people in its nave.
The 110 year old cathedral had humble origins in
a small chapel of wood and cadjan built by the Oratorian fathers in 1760
when Ceylon was under Dutch occupation. This was replaced by a larger church
of brick and mortar in 1782. When Ceylon was detached from the jurisdiction
of the Archbishop of Goa in 1834, Rev. Fr. Vincente Rozairo was appointed
the first Vicar-Apostolic of Ceylon and St. Lucia"s Cathedral became the
first cathedral of Sri Lanka. Eventually the foundation stone for a new
cathedral building was laid to replace the old one. In 1873 Bishop H D
Sillani and Rev. Fr. S Tabarrani, men of great vision and talent designed
and initiated the building of St. Lucia"s Cathedral thus planting the seeds
of grandeur and magnificence of what was to be. The Catholics of Colombo,
the churches outside the city, and even the fisher folk contributed their
share to the building fund. The cathedral cost Rs 160,000 to build which
was an enormous amount in the last century, yet totally funded by the pious
generosity of the Ceylonese Catholics of the time. Towards the end of 1887
the main body of the cathedral was complete and the blessing of the cathedral
took place in December of that year. However the building of the cathedral
took 30 years and was completed in 1902 when the scaffoldings were finally
dismantled and the site cleared. The succeeding generations of parishioners
and parish priests continued to embellish the cathedral with exquisite
statues and sacred vessels often shipped from Europe. After a succession
of European priests Rev. Fr. Nereus Fernando became the first Sri Lankan
parish priest of the cathedral in 1956. Under the dynamic leadership of
Rev. Fr. Rufus Benedict the cathedral was prepared for its centenary which
was celebrated in December 1987.
What was the pride and joy of the late 19th and
early 20th century Ceylonese Catholics is today a totally captivating experience
to the worshiper or the sightseer. The cathedral is of distinct Gothic
architecture. The facade rests on massive ionic columns and it"s adorned
with seven statues. Silhouetted against the sky is the cross on the concrete
lantern crowning the dome, the pinnacle of the cathedral. The interior
of the cathedral engulfs you immediately, along the side aisles are ornate
larger than life statues of saints sculptured and painted in minute detail.
Many of these statues were installed in 1924 by Rev. Fr. J Milliner who
was a gifted artist. Open confessionals of intricately carved dark wood
are also placed along the aisles. On the left, in front of the sanctuary
is a unique dark skinned statue of the Madonna called "Our Lady of Kotahena".
This statue is taken in procession during the "Month of May" celebrations.
Altars of white marble are located in the transepts of the church with
relics enshrined within them. Surmounted on the main altar is a beautiful
larger than life statue of St. Lucy holding up her eyes on the palm of
her hand. The exquisite stained glass windows when lit by sunlight create
a panorama of colour further enhancing the transepts of the church. In
a far corner of the church is an enchanting Baptismal Font of white marble.
It is circular in shape, carved with cherubs and a statue of John the Baptist
crowns it. When you go up the narrow staircase that leads to the choir
loft you come upon Anthony Thomas " an enormous bell weighing 4300 lbs.
Intricately engraved on this bell are elaborate floral wreaths and various
holy figures and symbols of Christianity. It is the largest of the four
bells shipped from Marseilles and christened at the cathedral in 1903.
Over the decades these bells have pealed in jubilation and tolled in mourning.
The choir loft contains a unique pipe organ gifted to the cathedral in
1934. Rev. Fr. M Berared, a French priest who has been in the cathedral
for the last 20 years, still plays this organ every Sunday before mass.
The view of the cathedral from the choir loft is enthralling " a solitary
pigeon flies across the vast expanse of the vault above and the episcopal
throne of the Archbishop of Colombo stands out majestically in the sanctuary
Rev. Fr. Mahes Ganemulla present parish priest of
St. Lucia"s Cathedral says "unlike now, in the old days only the senior
most priests were appointed parish priest of the cathedral and some of
them have gone on to become bishops." Father recalls all his predecessors
to be very capable men who have contributed much of their time and talent
to the betterment of the cathedral. "It"s difficult to maintain the same
high standards in the cathedral like that of the yester-years, the recent
bomb blast has affected the dome and the leakages have got worse. Even
a small repair will cost lakhs," says Father.
The cathedral celebrates the "Month of May" and
the feasts of St. Lucy and Corpus Christi with much pomp and pageantry.
The day of the celebration begins with a trilingual festive mass conducted
by the Bishop. On the eve of that day the relevant statue is taken in procession
around the streets of Kotahena followed by school bands, around 60 flag
bearers with the flags of different nations and the various associations
of the cathedral. During the feast the whole of Kotahena is infected with
a festive mood and the houses along the procession route are decorated
by the residents.
St. Benedict"s College, Good Shepherd Convent and
St. Lucia"s of Kotahena are three schools that share a sacred bond with
the cathedral. The cathedral has been instrumental in founding these schools
and their long histories are entwined with that of the cathedral. The school
children participate in all activities of the cathedral while the masses
on all important school days are held at the cathedral.
St. Lucia"s Cathedral has been pivotal to the Catholic
families that have lived in Kotahena for generations. From baptisms to
funerals and from first holy communions to weddings the cathedral remains
intrinsic to the long standing Catholics of Kotahena. Ms. Elva Gonsal is
92 and lives on St. Lucia"s lane. She has been decorating the cathedral,
its altars, its chariots on all festive occasions since the age of 16.
Her creative and artistic work have been highly commended. Her last great
work of creativity before taking ill, was the altar for the mass on the
eve of the beatification of Rev. Fr. Joseph Vaz conducted by Pope John
Paul II on January 20, 1995.
The cathedral has also witnessed within its walls,
many historical events. The midnight mass that ushered in the 20th century.
The religious ceremony to mark the National Independence in 1948. The visit
of Our Lady of Fatima in 1951. The reception to Cardinal Cooray after having
received the red hat from the Pontiff in Rome. The visit of Pope John Paul
II for the beatification of Rev. Fr. Joseph Vaz was the greatest event
in recent times.
St. Lucia"s Cathedral Kotahena is the legacy of
our forefathers whose fervent faith aspired to build this magnanimous tribute
to God. At the threshold of yet another century the cathedral stands unsurpassed
in beauty and in magnificence as it has always stood over the last one
(Reference - "A Light set on a hill" by Placidus M Fernand)