By Admiral Ravindra C Wijegunaratne
(Retired from Sri Lanka Navy)
Former Chief of Defence Staff
The St Antony’s Church feast at Kachchativu was celebrated on 10 and 11 March 2022. As usual, I was looking forward to this annual pilgrimage. I travelled to Jaffna, stayed at Fort Hammenhiel, a Dutch miniature Fort on an islet in Karainagar; previously used as a Navy detention centre it has now been converted into a four-bedroom boutique hotel. On that evening, I was alone on Fort Gun turret enjoying the beautiful sunset, with two “Sundowner” cocktails, a unique cocktail (Rum-based) prepared by a Navy Bar steward.
The following day by 0500 hrs I was up and headed to the Fort Hammenhiel jetty for angling. It’s only a sport now! Fort Hammenhiel jetty is an ideal place to catch 2-3 kg Paraw (trevaillies) before sun rise. All fish were caught, weighed, photographed, and released into the water. So, this is the new trend in angling.
On 10 March, after lunch, I headed to Kachchativu on board an Inshore Patrol Craft (IPC) with Commander Northern Area, Rear Admiral Priyantha Perera. Priyantha is a deep sea diver, who has canoed his boat, a small canoe (small rowing boat) around Sri Lanka. He was a former Commanding officer of Navy’s elite Special Boat Squadron (SBS).
The sea was “Mirror calm”, and the locally built IPC moved at the speed of 32 knots (32 nautical miles per hour). We reached Kachchativu in around one hour and 40 minutes.
The islet was very busy making preparations for the feast. However, due to health regulations, only one hundred devotees from Sri Lanka and India were allowed to attend the feast.
South Indian Catholics had already arrived in their fishing trawlers and the Navy provided all the requirements of fresh water and food. They were happy with the excellent arrangements by the Sri Lanka Navy. Regardless of the number of devotees, the Navy always looks after them; it brings fresh water, generators, tents, cooking utensils, victuals and fuel from the mainland in their Landing craft and IPCs. Northern Naval Command, under Priyantha, had done an excellent job. The coordinator, on ground, was Lt Cdr Peiris, who spent the last one month on this remote island, coordinating logistics. Commander H A C Fernando, Commanding officer of SLNS Wasaba, in Delft Island, was overall in charge of Kachchativu operation and the safety and security of all devotees. This decorated senior naval officer, a devoted Catholic, carried out his task diligently.
At night, the new church looked very beautiful.
The new church symbolises the Navy’s devotion to St. Anthony, the patron saint who looks after seafarers and fishermen. The new church was built, within four months, in 2016, on the request of Jaffna Bishop Rt Rev Dr Justin Bernard Gnanapragasam, and the Navy handed over the church to the Roman Catholic Diocese of Jaffna on, 23 Decembe, 2016. The total cost to built this beautiful St. Anthoney’s church was Rs. 7.7 million. Funds were contributed by the officers and sailors of the Navy, in 2016. Almost all contributors were Buddhists!
The Navy improves facilities on the islet every year. This time they erected wooden lamp posts and electrical cables were rigged this time by the Navy and this permanent rigging will remain there even after the feast.
Many Catholic devotees made contributions silently to make the mission a success. The wooden lamp posts were purchased for Rs 50,000 and handed over to the Navy by a female official, attached to the Delft AGA Office. She wishes to remain anonymous. Such are the true devotees of St Anthony!
The Indian fishermen, they wanted Indo-Sri Lanka fisheries issues to be resolved early. I always say that if the two neighbouring countries have any irritant, it is the issue of Indian bottom trawlers poaching in our waters. The trawler owners met Northern Naval Commander and thanked him.
The Mass was led by Rt Rev Father Pathinatar Josephthas Jabarathnam, the Vicar General of Jaffna as Jaffna Bishop was not available (as he was on a pilgrimage to India). He blessed everyone present. Well done Navy for excellent work ! I have made a request to St Antony: I need strength to visit next year also to this tiny Island.