St. Lucia's Cathedral: The oldest and the largest parish cathedral in Sri Lanka: by Nalika Fernando (Explore Sri Lanka)

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 than before.

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 below.

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 hundred years.

(Reference - "A Light set on a hill" by Placidus M Fernand)