The beauty and glamour of the new Diocesan Shrine of St. Antony, which was built in the Sivalaperi road of Palayamkottai Market has its own historical and traditional importance.
During 18th century, Arcot Navob ruled the Thirunelveli region with tranquility. At his time, the British Army Major Charles Compbel invaded the region and captured the city on October 18th 1764. From then, the military camped at Palayamkottai. The Military tank artillery was camped in the place, where the present head post office is. The infantry campsite was placed on the north Thiruchendur road. That’s why that place is still called north Military street (in Tamil, Vadaku Padai Theru). Since there were many Catholic Christians in the military, the major constructed a small chapel and dedicated to St. Antony to fulfill their spiritual need.
According to the historical documents available, we come to know that in 1879, the military force was dissolved. Earlier to that , i.e., in 1877, the small St. Antony’s chapel was handed over to the Superior of Madurai Mission Rev.Fr. Louis Verdier S.J. by the then military major.
The Church premise
This chapel was built according to the Gothic style of Portuguese architecture. The historical documents state that the land value was Rs. 400/- only, when it was given to the Madurai mission. Afterwards the Madurai mission bought the land around the church in three different stages. After St. Antony’s chapel was taken over by the Madurai mission, St. Antony’s chapel became the place of common worship.
Since, the military personnel had been buried in the church premises, the Madurai mission also decided to make use of this place as the burial ground for the missionaries. From 1851-1951 i.e., for a century, 32 missionaries were laid in ‘rest in peace’ as per records. As people were coming to visit and pray with candles at the cemeteries of missionaries, there were a few miracles took place, which enthused many people to flock towards this small chapel.
As the number of faithful increased, the Palayamkottai Superior decided to extend the chapel in the front. It was constructed in such a way that the coffin of the priests can be accommodated. So it was named as Mortuary Chapel. The priestly and religious eternal resting place became the Pilgrime centre of the people where they realised healing and blessings. While the people of different religion marched towards this Mortuary Chapel, devotion to St. Antony became the focal point.
The service of Catechists
In the liturgical activities of St. Antony’s chapel, the Superior of the Madurai mission appointed the lay man Mr. Michael, who hailed from Arcot and settled in Palayamkottai. In honour of his dedicated service to St. Antony’s Chapel and to the priests, Mr. Michael was given a prestigious title PANDARAM. After this pious man, his son Mr. Savari Michael continued to serve the Church until the age of 87. Since then his family clan is called ‘Pandarakar’
Emerged as Shrine
When the R.C. Diocese of Palayamkottai was erected on 12 September, 1973, St. Antony’s Chapel directly came under the administration of the Diocesan Procurator. To facilitate the liturgical activities there was also a hall built adjacent to the existing church in 1997. Later in 2008, the diocese decided to construct the new Church for St. Antony. The foundation stone was laid on 02, September, 2008 by then Msgr. S. Antonysamy in the presence of Fr. Antony A. Cruz, parish priest of Cathedral and Vicar Forane of Palayamkottai . The new church construction was carried out by the Diocesan Procurator Fr. M.S. Antonysamy with the supervision of Mr. S. Manoharan.
The significance of this new church is that the massive construction was supported and contributed entirely by the devotees of St. Antony, irrespective of caste, creed and language. The creative architecture and cultural edifies of this new holy church attracts the people of the region in thousands.
In honouring the faith of the pilgrims, the diocese decided to raise St. Antony’s church to the higher level of Diocesan Shrine. This new Shrine of Palayamkottai Diocese was consecrated and dedicated by Rt. Rev. Jude Paulraj D.D. on 24, October 2010.
(Source: “Varalatru Kuripedu”(The Historical Book) written by Mr. A. Maria Doss on the occasion of the centenary celebration of St. Antony’s Chapel (Military Chapel) and 70th anniversary of The Most Rev. J. Peter Leonard S.J. then Arch Bishop of Madurai, joining the Jesuit Order)