On a late winter’s afternoon, Tapos Roy waited in a long line of devotees to touch and pray before a small statue of St. Anthony of Padua in Panjora, a village in Bangladesh’s Gazipur district.
Roy, 34 is a Hindu and it was his second visit to Bangladesh’s most popular Catholic shrine dedicated to the Portuguese saint.
The saint’s actual feast day falls on June 13, but it’s become a tradition for the Dhaka Archdiocese to allow St. Nicholas Tolentino Catholic Church in Nagari to hold an annual pilgrimage in February, because the favorable weather attracts more devotees.
This year, the feast was held on Feb. 7.
In 2012, Roy came to the shrine with some friends out of curiosity, but this time he attended the annual feast with his wife for a special purpose.
They came with a “manti” (a wish) to make before the miracle-bestowing statue enshrined in a small chapel at Panjora.
The couple have been married for eight years but are still childless.
“I’ve heard that St. Anthony has fulfilled the wishes of many people. I really hope the saint will fulfill ours,” Roy told LiCAS.news as his wife looked on tearfully.
The line of devotees leading to St. Anthony’s chapel continued to grow. Many devotees settled for touching and paying respect to replica statues of the saint placed in three locations at the pilgrimage site.
Hundreds also offered the saint “manots” (thanksgiving gifts) that included money, valuables, candles, biscuits, and even doves, goats, sheep and rabbits.
“Non-Christian devotees also come with gifts and we are becoming overwhelmed with their increasing participation in the annual pilgrimage,” Livingstone Rozario, a member of the parish council of Nagari Catholic Church says.
The annual event is the largest Christian gathering in Muslim-majority Bangladesh, where Christians account for less than half a percent of a more than 160 million-strong population.
Renewing faith in God
About 70,000 people, most of them Catholics, attended two Masses offered by Holy Cross Cardinal Patrick D’Rozario of Dhaka, according to local church sources.
“St. Anthony calls upon us to be holy, to renew our faith in God and to embolden our catechism and pass this on to our children. St. Anthony inspires us every day to become more faithful and better human beings,” Cardinal D’Rozario said during his homily.
The Apostolic Nuncio to Bangladesh, Archbishop George Kocherry, Canadian Bishop Christian Rodembourg of St. Hyasanite Diocese in Quebec, retired Holy Cross Auxiliary Bishop Theotonius Gomes of Dhaka and about 100 priests, also attended the gathering.
Bishop Rodembourg said he was “overwhelmed” by people’s devotion to St. Anthony.
“This is a wonderful testimony of faith. We live in another continent, but we are united by faith. Our love of God and devotion to great saints like St. Anthony encourage and inspire each other,” the prelate said.
The legend of St. Anthony in Panjora
The St. Anthony of Padua shrine in Panjora is associated with a centuries’ old legend, local church officials say.
In the 18th century, Portuguese Catholic priests served the Church in Nagari, which covered more than a dozen villages including Panjora.
One day a local farmer found a small statue of St. Anthony in a bush where the chapel dedicated to the saint stands today.
The statue was handed to the parish priest who placed it in St. Nicholas of Tolentino Church, several kilometers away. But the next day the statue disappeared and reappeared in the place where it was found. This happened several times.
A small grotto was later constructed to keep the statue before a chapel was built on land donated by a local Catholic woman to house it.
As news about the statue spread, people started to gather and pray. Many have claimed the saint has miraculous powers and grants favors to devotees who say childless mothers have become pregnant, lost objects have been found and many personal problems solved thanks to St. Anthony.
The legend of St. Anthony has spread across the country and the number of devotees has continued to swell.
Today, people from the four corners of Bangladesh make regular visits to the shrine. Two years ago, the Catholic Church appointed a rector to serve pilgrims all year round.
Over the years, church authorities have had to expand the pilgrimage site to accommodate the growing number of people coming for the annual feast day.
A saint for all
Alicia Panioty, a Catholic from southeastern Chittagong Archdiocese, has been attending the pilgrimage for the last two decades.
She gave birth to her only daughter in 2008 and believes the “uncomplicated” birth was thanks to her prayers to St. Anthony.
“When I was pregnant, I prayed to St. Anthony that if everything went well, I would attend the feast every year. So, I continue to come here,” Panioty, a merchandizing manager at a garment factory, told LiCAS.news.
Panioty says she is proud as a Catholic that a Christian saint has become popular among non-Christians.
“Apart from the religious perspective we can see this as an act of humanism, that this is a celebration of harmony which goes beyond religion. It is great that people of all faiths recognize and accept that St. Anthony has done wonderful things,” she said.
Born in Lisbon, Portugal in 1195, St. Anthony was a priest and Franciscan friar. He is held in high regard for his undying love for poor and sick people, and also for his outstanding knowledge of scripture. He is also acclaimed for performing miracles.
He died in 1231 in Padua, Italy, at the age of 35. The Vatican declared him a saint within a year of his death and a Doctor of the Church in 1946.