For centuries, being influenced by foreign invasion Sri Lanka has
embodied into her multi religious fabric, many faiths. The persevering
Portuguese propagated the convictions of Catholicism. The subsequent rule of the Dutch saw the rise of the protestant element of the Christian faith. The Dutch took great and persistent effort to build churches all over the once bustling maritime districts of Ceylon, including Galle, Matara, Jaffna and Colombo.
Colombo was a city under siege for almost seven months in 1655, when the daring and defiant Dutch directed a massive military assault on the fortifications and gained control. Implementing the “rights of conquest” they went about firstly exerting some control over the Catholic churches and clergy, and thereafter began a systematic strategy of building magnificent churches, often drawing design inspiration from their churches in Holland.
The most resplendent and oldest of such churches still in sacred use is the church at Wolvendaal, known today as the area of Vivekananda Hill, Colombo 13. The Dutch Reformed Church was officially established in 1642, and received some state patronage from the Governor General. The location for the building of the Wolvendaal Church was first chosen in 1749. The church was ready for worship on March 6, 1757. It was to be built by the Dutch East India Company.
When one visits this church you can see the inscription JVSVG on the gable. This is derived from the name of the Governor, Julius
Valentyn Stein Van Gollennesse.
When the Portuguese came to this area they were surprised to find wolves roaming the adjacent marshlands and hence called the place ‘Agoa de Loupe’ which translate to mean Dale of Wolves. Wolvendaal is then the Dutch rendition of this term. There is speculation if there were wolves roaming this area as some say these were jackals from the area of Kotahena, where another celestial Cathedral dominates the skyline, the Church of St. Lucia.
Another old church built adjacent to the Gordon Gardens (currently Presidents House precincts) was demolished and the tombstones of those buried there were later taken and placed inside the Wolvendaal Church. The oldest tombstone bears the inscription 1607. The solemn transfer of tombstones was done by torchlight on a clear night in September 1813, with a military procession. Amongst the many reminders of death is the tombstone of General Gerard Hulft, the Commanding Officer who led the assault on the Fort of Colombo, and subdued the Portuguese garrison. It is speculated that the word Hulftsdorp which is now the prime area of the legal fraternity is somehow derived from the surname of General Hulft.
The Wolvendaal church was built in the Doric style of architecture. Most of her walls made by Kabok bricks measure almost five feet in thickness. The centre of the building is dominated by a dome, which was once struck by lightning in 1845. There was a brazen lion, wearing a Crown and bearing a sword in one hand and seven arrows, depicting the Dutch coat of Arms. The completed Church could accommodate 1000 faithful men and women. It was dedicated by Rev. Mathias Wirmelskireker, Rector of the Colombo seminary. The Governor and family were given seats of honour with chairs made in Ebony and Calamander wood.
There was a tradition in those days where the Dutch ladies used to bring their ‘church chairs’ or ‘kerkstoel’ from home. Slaves used to carry the chairs and place them in church and at the end of worship carry the chairs back home. It is an awkward practice, as the Holy Bible states that all men are free in Christ and hence there be no slaves! The dainty chandelier that hung suspended from high has a very romantic story. It is rumored that a beautiful Dutch girl was jilted by her fiancé. She went to court seeking redress. She was awarded damages and used the cash amount of 50 pounds to donate the glowing chandelier to the Wolvendaal church. Her wish was that all new brides be united in matrimony under the radiant glow of this chandelier. Some say this elegant chandelier was later taken to the church in Matara.
The intricate silverware used for Holy Communion was given by a Mrs. Schroter, as this silverware was first used at a church in Jaffnapatnam (Jaffna). A former Governor named Rijckloff Van Goens very kindly gifted the Baptismal Font on the day that his dear child Esther Ceylonia received communion. I was surprised by the child’s second name perhaps it denoted her birth in Ceylon! In later years not to be outdone the British Governor Sir William Gregory presented many stained glass windows to the church. He went on to describe this church as the
“Westminster Abbey of Ceylon” – a remarkable compliment. The last Dutch Governor to be interred here was Gerard Van Angelbeek in 1799.
Another important landmark connected to the Wolvendaal Church is the Belfry located at Main Street, Pettah, known in those times as Kaymans Gate. The glorious peals of this bell heralded service times and summoned Gods children to Sunday worship. The last time this bell was wrung was in 1945, what a prolonged period of stillness since then! An organ was installed at the church at a cost of Rs 3426 and Messers Caves were paid Rs 100 to install the new organ. In 1931 the Church was installed with electricity at a cost of Rs 1500. Wolvendaal celebrated her Bicentenary Service in 1949.
During February 1951 the Captain of the Dutch Naval Destroyer ship Tjerk Hiddes and fifty of his crew visited the Church and presented a memorial tablet, from the Netherlands, in appreciation of the kindness shown by this church to the Dutch Sailors and Airmen during World War 11. Today this amazing building has stood for many decades and is an Archaeologically Protected
Monument. Its presence reminds us of the once vibrant Dutch community that lived and worshipped in Colombo.