A series by Gaveshaka in association with Studio Times
The country’s oldest Christian church
Among Christian places of worship, the oldest in Sri Lanka is the church that the Dutch built at Wolvendaal hill. The Wolvendall church survives as the most durable structure erected by the Dutch in this country.

Originally the Portuguese had a church on the same site. It was called the Church of Our Lady of Gaudelupe. The Dutch called the place Wolvendaal which is a translation of the Portuguese word ‘Agoa de Loupe meaning ‘The dale of the wolves’. The hill on which the church stands, took its name from the low lying marshy swamp which was infested with jackals and not wolves, a species not found in this country.

Though the date when the church was built is recorded as 1749, it is possible that it was built even earlier. By the time it was dedicated in 1757, it was the most dominant structure in the city. The massive building has been constructed in what is called the Doric style. Originally the church had been intended for converts and Ceylonese adherents of the Dutch Reformed Church. It had later become the official church of the Dutch East India Company which was in charge of the administration of the maritime provinces after taking over from the Portuguese. The Dutch Governor, Gideon Loten, his successor Schredeur and high Dutch officials had been present at the dedication of the church on 6 March 1757.

Giving a vivid description of the church, the versatile Ceylonese artist J. L. K. Vandort had said that the church was originally surmounted by an octagonal bell-shaped dome. Above it had been a brazen lion with a crown on its head and bearing a sword in one hand and the seven arrows representing the seven United States of the Dutch Republic, as seen in the arms of Holland. These had also appeared on the coins used before the introduction of the British and Indian coins. The dome had been struck by lightening in the 1830s. The brick dome that replaced it was damaged by lighting in 1856 when it was replaced by a timber roof covered with slate tiles.

During Dutch times, Governors who died here were buried in Gordon Gardens behind the present President’s House, which was then the Governor’s residence. In 1813, the British transferred the remains of all these Governors to the Wolvendall church.

Talking of old churches in Colombo, St. Thomas’ Church of the Anglican communion in Gintupitiya was built in 1815. That too had been built on the foundation of a Portuguese church. So was St Paul’s Milagiriya which was built on the site of a Roman Catholic church named the Church of Our Lady of Miracles.

St. Michael’s and All Angels church at Polwatte was built in 1887 but when the congregation started increasing, a new church had been built at the same site in 1922. The church in Kynsey Road was built with funds from the sale of St. Paul’s Pettah. St. Peter’s Church in Fort was part of the Dutch Governor’s official residence. The Scots Kirk at Kollupitiya dates back to 1841.

The oldest church in the Weslyan Methodist Mission was built in 1815 in Dam Street. The Kollupitiya church is now the largest Methodist church. The first church of the Baptist mission was built in 1817 in Grandpass. The Cinnamon Gardens church dates back to 1877.

Although a large number of Roman Catholic churches in Colombo were destroyed by the Dutch after they captured the city from the Portuguese, today there are more Roman catholic churches than those of other Christian communities put together.

The largest church in Colombo, St. Lucia’s Cathedral, took 34 years to build and was completed in 1906. It can accommodate 6,500 persons. St. Anthony’s Church, Kochchikade is another old church which attracts a large number of worshippers. Miraculous powers are attributed to the statue of the saint.

Among other large Roman Catholic churches in Colombo are St. Mary’s Church in Laurie’s Road, All Sainta’ Church in Borella, St. Philip Neri’s Church in Pettah, St.Theresa’s Church in Thimbirigasyaya, the Fatima Church in Dean’s Road and the Mutwal churches. There are also chapels attached to then leading Roman Catholic schools.

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