The first chapel for the Sisters of Charity of Jesus and Mary in Sri Lanka stands in Galle town, nearly a century old. It is flanked on the east by the Convent of the Sisters of Charity, and on the west by the Sacred Heart Convent College for Girls. The school building and the surrounding [...]

The Sunday Times Sri Lanka

Past pupils rally for their school chapel


Unique architecture : The Sacred Heart Chapel in Galle

The first chapel for the Sisters of Charity of Jesus and Mary in Sri Lanka stands in Galle town, nearly a century old. It is flanked on the east by the Convent of the Sisters of Charity, and on the west by the Sacred Heart Convent College for Girls. The school building and the surrounding structures scramble for attention and the chapel is eclipsed. Even once inside the convent, and on the strip of well-kept lawn that separates it from the chapel, there is nothing remarkable that strikes the eye. Looking upward, there are only the high walls: towering masses of clean, grey stone.

But come late morning, the sun falls hard and bright on the upper half of the building, and suddenly, inside the chapel, there is a kaleidoscopic explosion of colour.

Myriad pieces of stained glass imported from Belgium glitter in the lofts of the chapel, retelling the gospel stories in all their wonder and brilliance. Thousands of mosaic tiles make up the glistening gold and brown hues of the chapel floor. Smooth brown pews and kneelers accommodate a congregation of 500 worshippers. The vision is stunning.

“It’s beautiful isn’t it,” Rev. Sister Nirmala Malkanthi Fernando, Mother Superior of Sacred Heart Convent, Galle, says with a girlish smile.

The Catholic mission in Sri Lanka was entrusted to the Belgian Jesuits in 1895. The new Bishop, Reverend Monsignor Joseph Van Reeth, took great interest in the education of the youth of Galle.He established many schools in rural villages and also founded St. Aloysius’ College for boys.

Sacred Heart Convent, Galle was also set up through his vision, to provide a European education to the young women of the diocese. He approached his sister, Rev. Bernadette, the Mother of the House of the Sisters of Charity in Ghent, Belgium, who appointed five sisters to the task.

On 23 November 1896, Rev. Sr. Amelie Janssens (the first Mother Superior of the Sri Lanka chapter), Rev. Sr. Mary William Brennan (The First Principal), Rev. Sr.Alexandra Cooreman, Rev. Sr.Marcia Bossaert and Rev.Sr. Alberta Donny of the Sisters of Charity of Jesus and Mary arrived in then Ceylon. Within a week, they had set up a day-school with 36 students. The boarding school was opened in 1897 with four students.

The original schoolhouse was a benefactor’s home near St. Mary’s Cathedral, and one of the three rooms served as the sisters’ chapel. A new school building was completed in 1901, but plans for a new chapel were approved only in 1914. The foundation stone was laid even later, in 1920.

Although the chapel belongs to the Sisters of Charity, it is also an integral part of the school’s daily life. The Christmas carol service, the school anniversary, the induction of school prefects, and many other special occasions find the students streaming into the chapel for celebration. On the first Friday of every month, Christian students attend mass. Daily, the sisters and boarders gather for mass at the chapel also.

A quiet place: A nun prays in the chapel

But the most important role the chapel plays in the life of the students and the teachers, is the quietest.

“Children, teachers, passers-by, they come and sit here, to pray and reflect,” the Mother Superior says. “We keep the main doors always open, so it is really an open place for worship.”

Rev. Sr. Malkanthi joined the Sisters of Charity as a novice at the tender age of 17.

“At that time, this chapel was really beautiful. We would just come and sit in silence and awe.”

But when it was time to take her vows in 1980, there were problems with the roof. She took her vows at the Cathedral of St. Mary, and the chapel roof went through some repairs. Sr. Malkanthi went on to serve in other parts of the country.

1989, in Galle, school students were taking to the streets proclaiming the cause of the JVP. The sisters, teachers and students at Sacred Heart knew the mob would turn up sooner or later at their doorstep too. The students had been instructed clearly: when the bell tolls, make your way to the chapel. One morning, 10:30am, just before tiffin break, the bell began ringing. And it didn’t stop.

Rev. Sr. Patsy Nesamalar, current Principal of Sacred Heart Convent, was only a novice then. Ringing the chapel bell was at times her responsibility. She and her fellow novices would often put their collective weight on the ropes and hope that they would be strong enough to ring it three times, three times, and three times again. Their perpetual fear was that it would ring a fourth by accident. On this day, she stood in the prayer room, weeping and praying as the bell rang, and didn’t stop.

Students streamed into their glorious sanctuary.

“I was standing near the altar and we were so cramped, but we managed to squeeze everyone in,” recalls past-pupil Nilmini Ferdinando.

Outside, the mob was shaking the gate and the Principal Rev. Sr. Rosina Nanayakkara went out to negotiate.

Rev. Patsy recalls the moment. “She told the mob she would go with them, but not her children.”

They broke down the gate.

Nilmini remembers vaguely that a few girls from the mob removed tiles from the lower roof and threw fire crackers in to the chapel. The children inside were afraid and started running, she says. Some of the crowd came in and tried to grab the younger ones. Rev. Patsy thinks no one managed to get in.

“It happened so fast,” Nilmini admits. Her memories are vague, “but ultimately, not a single one of our girls was taken out of there,” she says, proud.

The beautiful statues and stained glass at the chapel altar

Whether the chapel suffered any serious damage is not clear. What is clear, though, is that when in September 2015, more than thirty years after she left, Rev. Sr. Malkanthi returned to the First House as Mother Superior, the chapel was nothing like she remembered it.

“Most of the stained glass was falling away. Even the colour wash had faded and it was so gloomy.”

Saddened, Sr. Malkanthi approached some past pupils and opened a discussion on painting and simple renovations. The estimated cost of the project was Rs.3.6 million. The Vatican had already granted them Rs.2 million for the project, and confident that they could raise the remaining Rs.1.6 through the past pupils and well-wishers, they began work in August 2016. Then they found out about the roof.

“Many of the tiles were broken and there was leaking. When (the construction workers) opened it, they found that all the nails were corroded. And the beams were so badly damaged! They were amazed at the state of it all, that no one had been hurt.”

Completing the necessary renovations of the roof would cost the sisters nearly Rs.5
milion more than the original estimate. In faith, they went ahead. On November 24, 2016, the work was completed and Sacred Heart Convent celebrated its 120th anniversary in the fullness of its former glory.

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