By Dr. Leo Fernando
The 100th jubilee of the Church of St Mary, Mother of Presentation in Pitipana Negombo was celebrated on Sunday, February 2. The 100- year jubilee was celebrated under the auspices of the Archbishop of Colombo, Rt Rev. Malcolm Cardinal Ranjith.
Built in 1914 by French priests, the church is of artistic and historical value. The white- marbled altar and the church building with Roman architecture has a rare collection of stained glasses, a form of art popular in medieval Europe depicting important incidents in Jesus’ life.
The year 2014 marks the centenary of the construction of the new church of St. Mary in the parish of Pitipana. The village, now under the Negombo Municipality is situated less than a kilometre to the south of the Negombo town in the Gampaha District. Its inhabitants are almost 96% Catholics. And the large majority of them were fishing folk. The new church with ample space embellished with mosaic windows carrying images of the Virgin Mother, Jesus and saints resembles more a cathedral of grand proportions than a little church in a fishing village.
I recall my mother telling me of how she, as a young teenaged girl brought sand from the beach for the work of reconstruction, a labour of love, a sacred duty towards God and the Mother of Jesus. I also remember as a parishioner in the 1940s and 50s attending daily mass, Holy Hour, Novenas and Benediction in the church with a full attendance of the faithful. Sunday mass had the church overflowing. My memories of church activities are somewhat faint in the early days of childhood when my grandfather happened to be the Mahappa of the parish, the lay administration of church affairs. Much later it was brought to our notice that our great-great grandfather the Veda Mahappa Liyanage Francis Fernando and his wife had been buried within the walls of the church in 1878. The plaque commemorating the interment remains intact to this day at the right side of the entrance to the church.
The main church feast is celebrated on February 2 in honour of St. Mary of purification. The feast day is preceded by eight evening novenas in the month of January and vespers on the first evening of February. In those early days Benediction and vespers prayers were all chanted in Latin by the priests. Though few understood the words, there was an air of solemnity and awe when these prayers and hymns were intoned.
At mass, however the congregation had the eight version of the daily missal, known as ‘Pooja Potha’ with them from which the faithful could follow mass reading the epistle and gospel in Sinhala.
During this brief period I too had the fortune to be a member of the choir as a pre- teenager although I did not enjoy the privilege of being an altar server. My brother Cyril, later fondly known as Cyril master was the chief altar server then.
Apart from this main church feast there was another religious event, the celebration of the feast of St. John of Arc on the last Monday in May; the anniversary celebration of the feast of St. Joan of Arc, the French martyr who led the French against English invaders and who was captured and burnt by the English on French soil 601 years ago. Rev. Fr. Millot had had a life-size statue of this French martyr sculpted in France and brought to the church in 1931 for the first celebration of the feast. One of the glorious holy highlights was the singing of a Sinhala hymn composed by Fr. Millot in honour of the saint modelled on the tune of La Marseillaise, the French national anthem. This scared hymn was sung with great religious gusto by the French priests at the end of high mass.
The parish of Pitipana has dedicated sons and daughters to serve in the vineyard of the Lord in the manner of French tradition. Among the older generation of priests was Rev. Fr Edmund Fernando, later bishop of Badulla. Rev. Fr. Harold Panditharatne, a double PhD holder and former rector of the National Seminary in Ampitiya and Rev. Fr. Jochim Fernando. One of Bishop Edmond’s nephews Rev. Fr. Edmund Thilakaratne is also a priest serving in the Colombo diocese. The number of nuns who dedicated their lives to God is too numerous to mention.
The parishioners record their appreciation and thanks to the French priest who administrated the parish from 1888-1922 and Sri Lankan priests who guided the parish spiritually, religiously while strengthening the ethical, moral values and social integration from 1972-2013. The present parish priest of the church is Rev. Fr. Sarath Nimal Abeysiriwardena and he is assisted by Rev. Fr. Prasad Indiak while Rev. Fr. Alex Rodrigupillai serves as the deputy principal of the adjoining St Mary's College, Pitipana.
(The writer is a former parishioner Pitipana)
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