DEC 2, 2022: A pushcart selling rosaries and medallions was a common sight in the late 50s in the premises of St Anthony’s Church, one of the earliest churches in Kuala Lumpur. People would crowd around it before or after mass during the weekend and buy these items.
This tiny business was under the parish administration until one day parish priest Fr Clement Soosay decided to hand it over to a parishioner – Arpudam Amirthapillai, who was then in the Legion of Mary. This was the start of a family business that has been thriving for more than 60 years.
“He decided not to use the pushcart and instead set up a small store at the church – behind the grotto. He then wanted to expand the range of items sold. So he contacted the owner of Anthonian store, the only one at that time selling religious items apart from schoolbooks and stationery. He got their products at a 30% discount and sold them at St Anthony at the same price as Anthonian,” says Anthonyammal Kolandasamy. The 77-year-old was married to Arpudam’s son Lourdesamy.
Anthonian Store, which was a half-shop near the Holy Rosary Church in Brickfields in its early days, was an iconic retailer known in the 60s and 70s. The store, which later moved to newly built shops near Fatima Church on the other end of Brickfields.
“My father-in-law always said that the reason he started this business was to promote our faith. And that has been our intention all these years,” says Anthonyammal, who was born in Brickfields.
There was one time when a snake entered Arpudam’s store but they were unable to catch it, so they had to break the concrete structure and the snake died with it. Then they decided to set up a stall and that stall is open every weekend just outside the St Anthony Church. Their stall is packed with statues, photos, rosaries, medallions, prayer cards, stickers, incense, and just about any item a Catholic home would need and want.
Anthonyammal’s daughter Bridget Lourdesamy says: “My grandfather was probably the first to start a full-fledged religious item business in the country.”
“He was able to get a lot of religious items from Italy because he knew many bishops and cardinals. He made friends with visiting priests and wrote to many others. They connected him to suppliers in Italy,” adds the 60-year-old medical doctor, the oldest of four children – three daughters and one son.
The company is named Tower of Ivory, which is an invocation in the Litany or Loreto and it symbolises the purity, beauty, and strength of the Blessed Virgin Mary.
When Arpudam passed away, her father inherited the family business. Lourdesamy was the oldest of eight siblings and the only one who remained in Malaysia. The others left for India when they were still young and never returned. Neither were they interested in the business.
Lourdesamy expanded the business by bringing in religious items from different parts of the world. “He went to Vietnam, India, Philippines, Indonesia, China, Korea and Ireland,” says Bridget.
When the children were younger, both Lourdesamy and Anthonyammal travelled to different parishes in peninsula Malaysia to set up stalls and sell their products. Lourdesamy passed away 19 years ago and the business is now run by Bridget with her mother strongly supporting her. Bridget’s husband passed away more than 21 years ago in a road accident.
Anthonyammal goes to India annually to meet her suppliers and get the latest they have to offer. The pandemic thwarted her travel plans the past three years. Nothing was going to stop this determined person. She left alone for India almost immediately after four days of manning a stall at the St Jude feast day bazaar in Rawang in late October.
She is there for all the feast day bazaars. At St Anne’s feast day celebrations this year, she, and Bridget’s only son Emmanuel set up the stall outside the St Anne Minor Basilica in Bukit Mertajam, while Bridget and her sister Bernadette set up stall at the St Anne’s Church in Port Klang.
The family support is strong. Anthonyammal’s children and grandchildren are there to help man and set up stalls. During St Jude feast day celebrations, Anthonyammal and Bridget manned the stall there with the help of her second daughter Bernadette. Their permanent stall at St Anthony’s Church in KL is being manned by her grandchildren.
Bridget’s only son Emmanuel, aged 20, is seen as the likely person to inherit the family business. “I ask him to continue but he says he has no time,” says Bridget. None of her siblings’ children are interested either.
There is the fear that the family business built by Arpudam over the last 60 years might cease to exist. There is some ray of hope, however. Bridget’s sister Christine Judith has embraced technology and started selling religious items online. This is probably the way to go.