Today, January 20th, the Feast of Saint Sebastian, is a moment to visit (virtually) some churches in India with a special dedication to this early Christian saint. Saint Sebastian is the patron saint of soldiers and athletes – and also a protector from plague. The saint is usually pictured as a young man tied to a post/tree with his right arm tied over his head and left arm behind his back – with visible wounds in his body from arrows.
Saint Sebastian is believed to have lived in the 3rd century (c. AD 256 – 288) in southern France and around Milan, Italy. He joined the Roman army at a young age, but hid his beliefs in Christianity in fear of persecution. When his faith was discovered, he was tied to a post/tree and shot with arrows, though this did not kill him. Saint Irene of Rome took the Saint away and nursed him back to health. After his recovery he went to the Emperor Diocletian to denounce the ruler’s cruelty in the persecution of Christians. As a consequence, he was beaten to death. Because of his physical endurance, Saint Sebastian is known to be a patron of soldiers and athletes, as well as policemen who frequently call upon him.
This early Christian saint is also regarded as having a special ability to intercede to protect from plague. Per https://www.catholic.org, the Saint defended the city of Rome against the plague in 680. His association with plague seems to derive from the pagan belief that pestilence was delivered by arrows shot by the gods above. This arrow symbolism is present in depictions of Saint Sebastian, as well as in artwork of the Renaissance where plague victims are painted with black arrows in their body.
Near the western border of the State of Karnataka, India are two churches dedicated to Saint Sebastian who is quite popular in India: Saint Sebastian Church in Hoskote and Saint Sebastian Church in Kushalnagar. These two church buildings could not be more different – one is dilapidated and in process of reconstruction, while the other is new and regal. The first, in Hoskote, is located in a small clearing among palm trees and coffee plants, and the other, in Kushalnagar, is a large new church located atop a hill overlooking the surrounding town. The first is a Syro-Malabar Catholic Church and the second a Roman (Latin) Catholic Church. Note: The Syro-Malabar Church is part of the Eastern Catholic Church with main headquarters in Kerala, India and mostly conducted in the Malayalam language of Kerala; but has members throughout the world, including the U.S. overseen via the Diocese of Chicago. It is an outgrowth of the evangelistic activity of St. Thomas the Apostle who was in India in the first century. Although part of the Eastern church, it is in full communion with Rome and one can receive the Sacraments in both churches equally.
Saint Sebastian Church in Hoskote is located in a beautiful setting just along the highway on the way to Madikeri, Coorg District. A glass-enclosed shrine for Saint Sebastian is located just inside the compound wall and is visible from the road. The statue in the shrine is a traditional rendition of the revered Saint in India. His tortured body inside the decorative shrine is draped with a colorful garland. The small mission-style church is set back from the main road and sits on a large lot in a clearing among the native trees. The cream-colored façade is topped with a Syro-Malabar (“Saint Thomas”) Cross with a dove as the Holy Spirit at the top, floral ends and a lotus flower beneath the cross – on a three-step base. Just under the cross in the middle of the façade is a round painting of Jesus on the Cross emanating golden rays with a super-imposed image of a chalice held upward by two hands in an offering gesture as is done at the consecration part of the Eucharistic Prayer during a Roman (Latin) Catholic Mass. The existing church is being torn down to make way for a new structure, so there are construction materials, including stacks of bricks around the compound; and most of the fixtures in the church interior have been removed. It appears that a new parish hall has been mostly finished on the below-ground level of the existing church, and the new structure will be built over the top of the parish hall and over the site of the present church footprint. The walls of the existing structure are adorned with numerous colorful painted bas-relief sculptures and Stations of the Cross. These images are not only visually appealing, but they include traditional and theological symbolism that is supportive of their sacredness. These images include Saint Thomas, Infant Jesus, Saint Anthony of Padua; and a very interesting take on Our Mother of Perpetual Help. The Syro-Malabar Church community continues to solicit funds to construct the proposed new church that is expected to cost over 2 crores (INR) ($275 thousand) – it will be a tall, multi-steepled structure with a large image of Saint Sebastian on the main steeple. Although the church has been mostly razed, one can still experience the grace and peace of this place of worship in the natural setting of native trees – and experience wonder now, and the wonder to come.
Saint Sebastian Church in Kushalnagar, just a few miles down the road from Hoskote toward Bangalore, is a newly built church completed in 2017. The majestic Saint Sebastian Church sits at the end of a long driveway on a hilltop high above central Kushalnagar at the end of Saint Sebastian Church Road past a glass-enclosed shrine for Our Lady of Vailankanni. The large new church, located at the peak of the one and one-half acre plot, has a façade with a succession of increasing height panels leading higher and higher to a lighted, statue of Jesus and a cross-topped steeple. The gray façade, the church entrance and the shrines in the terraced garden in front of the church all include a motif of white-painted, pointed arches which lead the eye further and upward while climbing the hill. At the apex of the succession of arches, over 50-feet in the air, is a bigger-than-life statue of Jesus with arms outstretched in blessing. Directly below Jesus, is a large image of the patron martyr Saint Sebastian in a pose of being tied to a tree with his right arm over his head, and left behind his back. His face shows the agony of the arrow wounds bleeding on his arms, legs and chest. The patron image is flanked by paintings of protective angels with all three images framed with pointed-arches – the angels by lancet-arched frames. Still overhead on the top of each of the panels on the façade are glass-enclosed shrines with Mangalore-style roofs. The two most visible on either end of the apex triangle are of Saint Anthony of Padua and Child Jesus and Saint Michael the Archangel. The steps, shrines and terraced gardens on the driveway leading up to the church are very beautiful. The median oasis in-between the parallel driveways contains three shrines: Infant Jesus, Saint Sebastian and Mother Mary. The shrine enclosures and the statues are quite lovely, as is the decorative tile surrounding the shrines which is arranged to lead the eyes to the place of worship at the peak. The view from the top of the hill, either from the steps in front of the church back toward central Kushalnagar, or the view of the Kaveri River Valley behind the church, is a sight to see. As is the case for many religious structures, this site is prime real estate on a high precipice in a bend in the Kaveri River, and provides awe-inspiring views. A visit to this lovely place in Kushalnagar will certainly inspire wonder.
One can see a statue of Saint Sebastian in nearly every Catholic church in India. The initial popularity may have stemmed from his association with the cure of plague – which apparently was an occasional issue in India in the distant past (as it was in Europe). However, this initial cause appears to have expanded to veneration and requests for intercession of other types as the image of Saint Sebastian is a seen in most churches, and many celebrate the Feast of Saint Sebastian in a conspicuous way, such as in Our Lady of Lourdes Church in Bangalore – see photo above. Also shown below is a photo of the Saint in Resurrection Church in Bangalore (see more about Resurrection Church here: https://churchwonders.com/india-churches/resurrection-church-bangalore-india/).
Read more about Saint Sebastian here https://churchwonders.com/mary-saints/saints/saint-sebastian/