St. Antony’s Church, Uvari, Tirunelveli

This tiny, placid town of a few coconut trees and a dozen huts is rather famous in these parts. It is celebrated for its simple, whitewashed St Anthony’s Church by the seashore.

The old men of the village speak of a legend. The Uvari Legend came by sea. Long, long ago – perhaps three or four centuries back — Uvari had a small harbour. The villagers would trade with the incoming ships. The crew of a Portuguese ship traversing the high seas, near Uvari, contracted cholera. The desperate sailors saw death staring them in the face. A sculptor was also on that doomed ship. He began to chip a block of wood. Slowly he carved an image of St Anthony.

A miracle occured:

The entire crew was saved from cholera. The ship docked at Uvari. The sculptor decided to install that wondrous wooden statue on Tamil soil at this wee hamlet. He chose a huge rock far away from the waves lashing the shore. Around the eighteenth century a hut made of coconut leaves was built to house the statue, the shrine of Uvari was born.

Then an arch was put up. A few bricks, Six decades ago a proper church came up. The villagers say the wooden statue of St Anthony on the altar is the same one that was carved on that fateful ship, centuries ago. St. Anthony holds the baby Jesus in his hand. On the altar is also a small stand enclosed in glass, where, legend has it, that a portion of the mortal remains of St Anthony is enclosed. The Pope with Bishop Gabrielle Francis Roche sent it here from Rome.

Step inside the church and it is a world of absolute serenity. Men and women silently prayed, on their knees. Some sat and contemplated their lord. They all seemed to be at peace. There were two hundis or giant pots where you could put your offerings. One was for money and the other for silver or gold jewelers or ornaments.

Many devotees who come here have heart problems, wounds on their hands or legs. After they get cured, to show their gratitude to their lord, they make tiny hands, legs or hearts in gold or silver and put it in the offering box. People wishing for a child offer a tiny cradle with a baby in it. Adjacent to the church is a huge open hall. The old, the sick both young and old were sitting or lying around. There were two old ladies from Maharashtra. They did not know Tamil or even Hindi. They spoke to me in Marathi. They had come here on a pilgrimage with others and decided to stay on. They have no plans of going back.

Another old man was here with his wife. He has been here for a year. Both his legs had become swollen and did not respond to any medicine. He could not walk. Finally he had come here. During prayer hour devotees offer neem leaves on the altar. Later the neem leaves are ground and the paste is used for wounds. The old man can now walk and plans to go home next month. The church also gives blessed oil, which the sick apply on their heads. Some drink it. This neem leaf medicine is also given at many Hindu temples.

A young man, who had got married just three months ago, was staying in the church with his wife. He had come from Dharavi, Bombay. He had fallen sick. After being admitted to three different hospitals he had turned to God. He said he was feeling much better now. “I’ll go back when St Anthony’s sends me,” he said resolutely.

Next to this hall are the rooms, which have been built for the pilgrims over the years. There are around 200 rooms. Rents ranges from Rs 30 to Rs 150. You can cook your own food in the rooms or eat in the village eateries. I stood watching the pilgrims. The prayers, the rituals a man led a full-grown goat into the church. The church accountant accepted the goat. Unlike other churches, St Anthony’s is crowded on Tuesdays. Tamilian Hindus also generally come to church on Tuesday and Friday. And they do not eat meat on these days.

St Anthony’s has two important festivals every year. From June 1 to 13, Uvari is the venue for a special local festival and thousands of people from the neighbourhood attend. The other festival occurs in the last week of January or the first week of February. It starts three Sundays before Ash Wednesday and lasts for 13 days. I am told that this festival attracts hundreds of thousands of pilgrims from Tamil Nadu, Kerala, Pondicherry, Andhra Pradesh, Bombay and even Sri Lanka.

The festival starts with the traditional hoisting of the flag. A local elder calls it the Indianisation of Christianity. “Light, incense and floral tributes to the Lord are the same here as in a Hindu temples. Their ratios are done with camphor; here it is done with candles. There they light agarbathis here we use incense. Flowers are offered at both places.”

On all the 13 days, prayers are held in the morning, afternoon and evening. All three sermons are held in Tamil. But many people have requested the church to hold at least one prayer in Malayalam because a lot of devotees come from Kerala. On the 13th day there is a car procession similar to the car festivals of Hindu temples. While at Hindu temples the gods are carried around in raths pulled by devotees, St Anthony is carried on the shoulders of devotees. Many of the pilgrims have been coming here for many generations.

Rich pilgrims regularly feed the poor here. A story goes that many decades ago a poor man had cooked a meal and offered it to the others. Nobody was willing to eat it. He cried before the Lord. He then dug a pit in front of the church, spread some leaves in it, put the food in and covered it with leaves. He then covered up the pit and left. The village elder’s eyes lit up and his voice broke as he related, “Six months later they were digging a pit to hoist the flag for the festival. Vapour rose from the food, which was still fresh. Devotees scrambled to eat it. After that incident people accept food here from everybody irrespective of caste, creed, colour or riches.”

The 200 rooms in the church are certainly not enough for the hordes that come for the festivals. For the February festival rooms get booked as early as November. But you do not need to worry. Every house in the village is thrown open to the pilgrims. Absolutely free “Not only our homes, but our school, our coconut groves, pump houses… Everything is thrown open to the pilgrims,” said a villager proudly.

Regulars at the festival explain that people sleeping all over the place. “An area of 3 square miles is packed with people.” Among the people staying at the church, quite a few were said to be seized by evil spirits. Two were in chains to prevent them from hurting themselves or others. Though they seemed disturbed, all of them had full faith that St Anthony would cure them.

A 22-year-old local girl was a hunchback for many years. She said, “I prayed hard. One morning I come out of my home at 6 am. I saw an egg lying outside my house. I picked it up and stood straight.” Now she walks with a slight stoop.

Opposite the church there were a row of small boats. The fishermen were drying their nets. Some women were drying fish. The villagers live off the sea. A simple community lives under the watchful gaze of St Anthony. A deep green sea washes the shore gently. The legends and myths grow. On that very shore, ages ago landed a redeemed ship carrying St Anthony. Today all those who want to be redeemed come seeking solace. Some want riches, some relief from disease, some want peace, and some simply love God. One thread is common. They all come with faith. “Oh! Lord! So small is my ship so vast your ocean but I feel safe, safe in your arms.”

St. Antony’s Church,
Uvari, Tirunelveli

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