Shrine at St Anne’s Talawila
St Annes Church – Talawila
On the narrow tongue of land, known as the Kalpitiya peninsula, lying between the Puttalam lagoon and the mighty Indian Ocean, nestles the cosy little Talawila, where the famous sanctuary of St. Anne stands. The country around the shrine is a waste of bleak sand, dotted over with copses of low growth and topes of tall palmyrahs, which with their erect, sturdy trunks terminating in a tuft of broad fan shaped leaves, stand challenging the drought and the monsoon blasts. Around the church, however, there is a fair acreage of fully grown coconut palms, like an oasis in a desert, to gladden the pilgrim. Nature has no charms to offer here; in spite of the deep blue sea, which is hardly one hundred meters from the church; the climate is hot and enervating.
But, year after year, for the last fifteen decades and more, vast crowds of devout pilgrims, drawn from every strata of life and from every corner of the island, have flocked hither. No human power drew them there; no worldly gain nor love of pleasure or profit or fame brought them there. An old fashioned church and in it a rough image of a Saint, who had loved and died even before the birth of Christianity; these have been the attractions. They have come animated by a sense of an unseen, yet real, power; they have come to worship God and honour His saint, to invoke Divine assistance and offer thanks for favours received.
Like all divine works, the shrine of Talawila began in a small way, it developed in spite of difficulties and in hostile surroundings. Then in God’s good time and against all human calculations, it sprang to fame as a rallying point of Catholic piety and a great national sanctuary. But, how did it all happen?
It is against a back ground of small beginnings, rapid progress, severe trials and joyous triumphs, that the history of the shrine of St. Anne at Talawila has been silhouetted by written records and authentic traditions. History reveals that Kalpitiya and the district around it nurtured the earliest contacts between Sri Lanka and India. The landing place of Prince Vijaya is just across the lake, a few miles to the north of Puttalam and further north is Kudiramalai, Pliny’s Hippuros, once a busy trade centre.
Kalpitiya itself was an important port for the trade between Sri Lanka and India and at times, the waters around Kalpitiya ran blood when contending nations fought for the control of sea routes. In 1591, Andre de Furtado de Mendonca had a fierce encounter with the famous corsair, Cutimurca off Kalpitiya, and gained a decisive victory for the Portuguese power in the East.
Christian missionary work began in the peninsula around 1606 and the Fathers of the Society of Jesus from South India were the first to preach the gospel in these parts. However, with the recapture of Negombo by the Dutch shortly after 1944 the Jesuit Fathers had to quit the peninsula and the Catholics of the peninsula were without mass or sacraments or adequate religious instructions for nearly half a century but they remained steadfast in the faith.
In 1687, Venerable Father Joseph Vaz (now Blessed Joseph Vaz), an Indian oratorian, taking pity on the deserted flock of Christ in Sri Lanka smuggled himself into Jaffna in the guise of a labourer. He arrived at a time when the Dutch persecution of Catholics was very bitter and when there was a price set on the head of any Catholic priest who might be found in Dutch territory.
In spite of incredible hardships, he visited, consoled and ministered to the Catholics in Jaffna and Vanni. In 1690 he came to Puttalam and the presence of a priest just across the water, could not have been long hidden from the afflicted Catholics in the peninsula. In 1705, five new missionaries including Father Jacome Gonsalves arrived in Sri Lanka.
But a priest was not always secure at Kalpitiya as long as the Dutch held it but in spite of the danger, the priests continued to minister the Catholics of the peninsula. With the decline of the Sinhalese power and the gradual ascendancy of the Dutch in coastal areas, the obstacles to missionary work increased but the church progressed especially in the king’s territory and the Dutch were aware of it.
On August 11, 1747 King Sri Vijaya Raja Sinha died in the prime of life and many other calamities befell the kingdom, which were generally believed to be retribution from heaven for the injustice done to Catholics. At least, so thought his successor, Kirthi Sri Raja Sinha who therefore showed favour to them.
In the meantime, the relations between the Catholics and the Hollanders in the peninsula had improved to such an extent, that the priest at Kalpitiya was not only allowed to get about his work freely, but was even regarded as a friend by the Dutch men.
On February 15, 1796, Colombo was surrendered to the British by the Dutch Governor Van Angel back and from that date Dutch rule in Sri Lanka became extinct and on May 27, 1806 all disabilities and restrictions imposed by the Dutch on the Catholics were removed.
An era of freedom, at long last dawned on the church.
There are two traditional accounts of the origin of the shrine, both of them of sufficient importance to be enumerated.