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Gallant men of a heroic parish: Sri Lankans like St. Francis

Sri Lanka rebuilds

Percy Kishion Raj

Annabelle Moseley - published on 12/23/23

Let's help this Sri Lankan priest rebuild the church in which he celebrated his first Mass. What better way to give Jesus room in the inn this year ...

This Advent, we contemplate the Holy Family being turned away when they tried to take shelter for the birth of Jesus. There was “no room at the inn” in Bethlehem, (that town whose name is translated “house of bread”) when the Living Bread, come down from Heaven, was about to be born. This story ignites in God-loving hearts the desire to always support efforts to house the Real Presence of Christ in the world today.

“I am with you always, even to the end of the age” (Mt 28:20) Jesus tells us and He is with us; in Body, Blood, Soul and Divinity … in each and every Catholic church, so doesn’t the King deserve a home, as much now as He did in Bethlehem?

From the renovation of Notre Dame Cathedral to the repairs of our local parish church, it is a worthy cause to give Him proper shelter. In one parish in Sri Lanka, parishioners are literally doing all they can to provide shelter for Our Lord, stone by stone. I recently learned the gripping story of these faithful people and their work to shelter God. A humble and kind Sri Lankan priest living in America, Fr. Anthony Sebamalai, told me the story.

Sri Lanka flag on map

Destroyed by a hurricane

The Catholic church Father Anthony grew up in was destroyed during the severe hurricane that struck Sri Lanka in 2021. The name of that church echoes his own name: St. Anthony’s. This church of St. Anthony was also the church in which Fr. Anthony Sebamalai said his very first Mass after becoming a priest. Today it lies in ruins. St. Anthony’s church is the only church in the village of Ponthivukandal, a Catholic outpost in an area that is mostly Hindu, Muslim, and Buddhist. Yet St. Anthony’s number of parishioners keeps growing, by the grace of God. Since 2021 it has been without a permanent shelter for God and the sacraments. Currently, Masses are held in a one-room elementary school.

Because there are so many people wanting to attend Mass at this vibrant parish, the men of the parish insist that they themselves stay outside while the women, children, and those who are infirm sit inside the shelter during Mass. Heroically, these true Catholic gentlemen will sit and stand and kneel outside, listening to the Mass from out there … even when it starts to rain. How Our Lord must smile upon these acts of love and devotion! Yet His Majesty deserves a permanent home for His tabernacle and these faithful Catholic subjects of Our Lord deserve a permanent church.

Sri Lanka rebuilds

Father Anthony says that although these Sri Lankan families are living at or near the poverty line, each has scraped together a life savings of approximately $100 to rebuild the church, each giving a true widow’s mite. Most poignant and beautiful of all, the parishioners themselves are the ones helping personally to rebuild it!

There are photographs of the parishioners laying foundation stones, helping to mix concrete and doing construction with their own hands (from the strongest young man to the dearest old grandma) … and with beautiful smiles on their faces.

Sri Lanka rebuilds

Like St. Francis: Rebuild my church

Father Anthony is reminiscent of St. Francis of Assisi, who literally felt called to rebuild a little Italian church that had fallen into ruins. We know what came after those first noble efforts to rebuild a chapel stone by stone. From there, the universal Church was strengthened and built by the faith of Francis and all who followed his example.

Like St. Francis, Fr. Anthony Sebamalai trusts that, to borrow a phrase from Field of Dreams: “If you build it they will come.” He knows in his heart that when this bigger, safer church is built, God will send new converts and parishioners. We can all follow the humble call given by Jesus to St. Francis of Assisi to “rebuild my Church.” 

A young Sri Lankan holds paraphernalia bearing the portrait of Pope Francis – ar
A young Sri Lankan holds paraphernalia bearing the portrait of Pope Francis as she waits for his arrival in Colombo on January 13, 2015.

And Advent is a time to remember those who have less than ourselves, a time to spread hope and savor the Christmas spirit of love of God and neighbor. What a time to contemplate people who love God and neighbor so much they are rebuilding their church, literally, stone by stone. And let us this Advent follow the call of Christ and the reminder in the Parable of the Sheep and the Goats, “Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brothers, you did it to me.” (Mt 25:40)

Let us each hear the call to be a sheep and not a goat this Advent as we give to our brothers and sisters in Christ who are in desperate need of our help. How often we forget that Advent is a Penitential season, and  that almsgiving with love in Advent is part of what we are called to do.

You can donate here to help the people of St. Anthony’s Church in Sri Lanka build a shelter for Christ durig this Advent and Christmas season.

Fr. Anthony Sebamalai is praying for all the readers of Aleteia, and he prays that each and every one who donates (any amount is appreciated) will receive special blessings from God. 

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