Historic Churches with their unique possessions


I have been reading a thesis on colonialism and how Roman Catholic and Protestant religions were forced (yes, I use that word deliberately) on the people of Ceylon. I am no history student and knew only smatterings of the times of then. We accepted the fact as true that the Portuguese were very cruel, sadistic really, in their suppression of Buddhism and Hinduism and militant in conversion of ‘the natives’ to their religion - Roman Catholicism. The Dutch I believed were benign. Reading the thesis, I have been educated. They too had their wicked ways to suppress the two practiced religions and force conversion to the Dutch Reformed Church. I am still to read about the ways and means adopted by the British not only for supremacy over land and government but for spreading the Christian faith. I know how conversions took place in some schools even post-independence; definitely not in the Methodist Missionary school I attended.

To those who see only negatives and bad in colonialism, the English language, printing, paper and the book format, Westminster style government, even tea which opened up the country and the gift of railway and highways are pointed out as positives. And to this I add museums, art galleries, gardens, the first University College in Colombo, compulsory education to 14 years of age, wonderful buildings and the churches left behind - such beauty, such gracious architecture!

Bequeathed churches

I wish to write about two churches that completely impress me, not in the way the Wolvendaal Church or the modern Cathedral of Christ the Living Savior down Baudhaloka Mavata have had an effect on me. These and other large churches overpower me. Wolvendaal Church is the oldest Protestant church in Ceylon counting 254 years and known as the Dutch Reformed Church. The Cathedral of Christ the Living Savior is stunningly unique in its architecture, but to me beaten to second place by the more innovative and localized Trinity College Chapel. The two churches I write about brought on a feeling of comfortable coziness and a sense of serenity. Also very distinct impressions of the colonial officers, government officials and their wives and the lives they led. You could imagine a Sunday service and feel a pang of sorrow for those buried in the churchyards – dying in a foreign land and laid to rest in foreign soil. Within the precincts of the churches I got drawn into imaginative whiffs of tea parties with cucumber sandwiches and tea poured and drunk almost ceremonially. Then the lives of the memsahibs - making the most of living in a tropical country. Their husbands had work to occupy them and the Club and tennis and out to the wilds shooting excursions. Maybe the wives joined them. More likely they kept to their eau de cologned gracious indoor living, homesick for England, Scotland or Ireland and pining for children sent ‘home’ for their education.

The Church in Dickoya

Christ Church Warleigh in Dickoya was built in 1878 by William Scott, the governor of Governor’s Mansion "as a thanksgiving for bestowing the desire, will, knowledge and pleasure to design and build the Governor’s Mansion", which is now a boutique hotel. The church is built on the lines of typical old British church architecture and is definitely quaint. That is a word that keeps coming to mind when looking within and outside the church. A walk among the gravestones brings a lump to the throat arising from a sense of nostalgic sadness. One reads the names and dates of birth and death and can build innumerable stories of those who are buried in this churchyard, so far away from their birthplaces. The biggest boast of the church, and it definitely is a boast, is the Bible in use which was brought to the church when its building was completed. Thus the Bible is nearly 140 years old. It still looks good. Thankfully this Holy Book, the furniture within the church and its garden cemetery are well maintained. To the back of the church is the Castlereagh Resevoir, the clear blue water adding just the correct backdrop to the little church, emphasizing its small size but tenacity in clinging grandly to a hill beside the lake.

The Church in Nuwara Eliya

Another church invariably visited when in Nuwara Eliya is the Holy Trinity Church which boasts holding services and serving the parish since 1852 which makes it 160 years old. Its garden is not so well kept but the inside of the church is remarkable for two reasons: the stained glass windows and the pipe organ more than a century old.

The church first served the coffee planters of the Nuwara Eliya areas and then the tea planters, plus we can be certain British colonial government officials and their families during the annual sojourn in Little England during the heat of March and April down in Colombo. The building commenced in 1845 mostly by the men of the 15th Regiment and Corporal Moore a clever builder under the guidance of Commandant Major Bunker. The church was consecrated on Matthias Day – 24th February 1852, by Bishop Chapman. The tombstones, a brochure says, are for governors of the country and top officials and lowly workers too. Its congregation is multi-ethic now, but surely discriminatory then during and soon after British rule.

The government of Sri Lanka has declared the church a ‘Sacred Monument’. As I said, its pride of possession is the pipe organ still in good condition and treated with great care. When we visited about a year ago, a church person played it for us – such a sonorous sound. This April when we were in Nuwara Eliya in a hotel down Church Road we visited the church and ‘Amazing Grace’ was played on it - an experience never to be forgotten.

Another pride of the church is the stained glass window specially done and inserted in a wall to commemorate Queen Elizabeth and the Duke of Edinburgh attending service at Holy Trinity Church on Easter Sunday, April 18, 1954. It has the British Royal Emblem on it. A special red carpet was imported from England for the occasion. The church already had a stained glass window of the Madonna. Two paintings are noteworthy of mention. One is a water colour dated 1853 and painted by a member of the family of Samuel Baker; the other of 1953 painted by Mrs Francisca Williams, wife of the then Vicar.

The church maintains a map of the graves among which is that of Lady Olivia Mary Caldecot, wife of Sir Arthur, the last Governor of Ceylon. The church continued to serve its British parishioners - planters and their families, with very probably a whites only policy for some time. When they left, the church came under the Diocese of Colombo and Rev R S de Saram became its first Ceylonese vicar.

And thus a part of the rich heritage left by the colonizers. There may be older and quainter churches in Sri Lanka but these two have touched my heart and fired my mind of imaginings of bygone eras.

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