of 150 years at St. Michael's Polwatta
by Israel Paulraj - DN Dec 2003
Over 150 years ago Colombo was only a
small town spread around the harbour. The richer folk lived on higher ground
around Mutwal whilst the poorer segments of society lived in the Pettah area. As
the need for housing grew more people migrated towards Kollupitiya and Cinnamon
Gardens. This included a community who lived and carried out their means of
livelihood along the Beira Lake on the other side of Galle Face.
Those in authority at that this time
needed this land for a Military Hospital. Therefore this community was offered
land at the other end of Beira Lake in Kollupitiya. There were coconut trees in
the area, so this place was known as "Polwatte" or coconut land.
This community settled down here. They
professed the religion of the Dutch rulers of the time. It is recorded that in
1844, a part of a small house had been set aside for Christian worship. Rev.
Solomon David who was based in Kotahena used to come to Polwatte and hold
Sometime later at his suggestion,
Polwatta was separated from Kotahena. A catechist was stationed in the Polwatte
under the supervision of the Rev. J. Thurstan, a missionary from the Society for
the Propagation of the Gospel (SPG). Thurstan Road in the Colombo 7 was named
after him. Other roads in the vicinity of Polwatte named after priests are Boyd
Place, named after the Rev. Charles Twining Boyd and Glennie Street in Slave
Island after the Rev. Glennie.
In the beginning the worship in Polwatte
was in Sinhala and when numbers grew, the need for a regular place of worship
was recognized. In 1853 Bishop Chapman, the first Bishop of Colombo dedicated
the first Polwatte Church to St. Thomas'.
The actual location was the present
junction of Hudson Road and Muhandiram Lane just behind the place where St.
Margaret's Convent now stands. It was a simple structure with half walls and a
cadjan roof. It is the dedication of this Chapel in 1853 that we are now
commemorating 150 years later.
In 1864, a Christian Community in
Polwatte decided to celebrate the anniversary of the dedication of the St.
Thomas' Chapel in a fitting manner. Religious activities took a prominent place
and the grand final was to be a firework display, which was a great attraction
in the 1860s.
The congregation and the community around
were present in large numbers to watch as the skyrockets exploded over their
heads into thousands of multi coloured stars. No one noticed that the casing of
a skyrocket, still smouldering had fallen on the roof of the building behind
So engrossed were they in the grand
firework display that they turned round only when they discovered an unusual
sources of very bright light behind them. It was then too late, for a Chapel of
St. Thomas' in Polwatte was on fire and was soon burnt down.
It is said that Bishop Chapman who was
present right through the event had tears in his eyes as he knelt in prayer. He
consoled himself silently that God had a message by what had just happened and
that God will make everyone understand this message.
The parishioners who had now no church to
go to prayed in their homes and talked among themselves what they ought to do.
After some time they decided to build a new Church. They abandoned the old
cramped and inadequate site where the burnt out Church stood.
About 200 yards away from this site there
was a coconut estate and it was considered a suitable location for the church.
This plot of land, which is the present site of the Church of St. Michael and
All Angels, was purchased from the Government.
Work began on the new Chapel and it was
completed in 1865. It was a more substantial building than the earlier Chapel
and it was described as a 'Bare and uninviting place for worship'. Two years
later the Chapel was enlarged and was dedicated to St. Thomas's on His festival
day, December 21, 1867 by Bishop Claughton, the second Bishop of Colombo. The
official title then became St. Thomas' Chapel, Kollupitiya.
There was still no resident priest. There
was however a Catechist who lived in the village and he worked under the
supervision of the Rev. C. Wickramanayake who was the missionary in charge. At
that time there were 30 communicants on the roll and the total membership of the
Chapel essentially Singhalese were around 200.
During this time Colombo was beginning to
expand and the area around Kollupitiya and Cinnamon Gardens was gradually
becoming a residential area. From the inception services in the Chapel were in
Sinhala with an occasional service in English for the European residents close
to the Chapel.
In 1886, Archdeacon Walter Edmond Matthew
was placed in charge of the South Colombo District. He saw the possibility of
developing the little Chapel of St. Thomas' into a more effective unit, which
would also cater to the European community.
With the advice of the Bishop, he
improved the Chapel by cementing the floor, putting in widows and chairs for
sitting and also a small extension. The elders at that time realized that sooner
or later there had to be a much larger building to accommodate the expected
increase in the congregation.
The question then arose as to whether
there should be a change of name. there was another older St. Thomas' Church in
Ginthupitiya from which St. Thomas' College takes its name. It was decided that
the new Church be called St. Michael's and All Angels. The Church was dedicated
on St. Michael's Day, September 29, 1887. A daily celebration of the Holy
Eucharist was begun in 1887 and continues to this day.
The Rev. P. B. Moonemale was appointed as
the first resident priest to St. Michael's. He was the first Kandyan to be
ordained. He was succeeded by a Lay worker George Benjamin Ekanayake. He was
concerned for the poor in Polwatte. St. Michael's has been involved in working
with the poor ever since.
The completion of the South West
Breakwater in the port in 1895 made in the port of Colombo a busy and vibrant
port. The growing population flowed in to the empty land in Kollupitiya and
Cinnamon Gardens. This movement was further speeded up in 1903 when the first
coal sheds were set up in Mutwal. This resulted in clouds and dust drifting
inland and forced the well-to-do merchants to move inwards Kollupitiya where the
air was cleaner and purer.
Additional accommodation was needed for
increasing congregations both Sinhala and English. In 1896, two aisles were
added to the Church. It soon became clear that what was needed was a completely
new Church and in 1918 plans were drawn by Mr. Hubert Walker A.R.I.B.A. who had
been a long-standing worshipper at St. Michael's.
Additional space was provided for the
sanctuary, the Lady Chapel, Transept and Nave, Vestry for the Clergy and the
Choir and a room for a new organ. The first part of the new Church was
consecrated by Bishop E.A. Copleston on November 20, 1919.
The building work progressed steadily and
by St. Michael's Day in 1922 the whole Church was occupied. A writer in the
Ceylon Churchman said St. Michael's and All Angels in Colombo has a noble
heritage and it is the joy and responsibility of the present generations to hand
it down enriched and unimpaired.
The architecture and the beauty of the
Church has been admired by all those who have had the opportunity of worshipping
in it. The Church also gains immensely from its furnishings. The great Rood
screen with its beam spanning the church arch with Christ on the cross and the
two figures who watch by it are in themselves inspiring.
The Revd. C.M. Ricketts who was Vicar in
1914 was able to gather the support of the high and low, rich and poor in all
his works at St. Michael's. He organised the choir, which is said to have been
the finest of choirs in Ceylon. Men from every walk of life were in the waiting
list to join the choir. The pipe organ still continues to enhance the beauty and
quality of the services.
It was during Rev. Rickett's time that
the Anglo Catholic Union of Ceylon came into being. He was succeeded by the Rev.
G.W. Forster in 1923. he brought a new tradition into being, for he was the
pioneer in St. Michael's of what was known as the Catholic Movement in the
Church of England. St. Michael's in the early days and even now holds the
position of being the premier Church in the Diocese of the Catholic tradition.
Meanwhile worship in Tamil was begun in
St. Michael's. We do not know when it actually began but by 1926 the Tamil
congregation had increased to such an extent that it was considered necessary to
appoint a Tamil priest. The Revd. S.H.W. Ramanaden, who later became a Canon,
was appointed to look after the Tamil congregation.
In the earlier days at St. Michael's
worship was conducted in Sinhala, English and Portuguese. The services in
Portuguese were dropped during Fr. Henley's time when the language ceased to be
spoken freely. Thus once gain services were held in the three main languages in
our country. Revd. J.E. Hardy who succeeded Fr. Foster was able to weld the
three congregations as a perfect whole. The Golden Jubilee was marked during his
time with missions in Sinhala, Tamil and English.
The Matthew Memorial Hall is a memorial
to Archdeacon Walter Edmond Matthew by his sister Miss. Caroline Moore and his
other friends at Christ Church Alban Street, London.
The Parish Hall was dedicated in 1893. In
the years that followed, the activities in the Parish increased. This was
particularly so during the incumbencies of Fr. Swithin Fernando and Fr. Duleep
de Chikera from 1961 onwards and a new Matthew Hall Complex was built in 1993 to
mark the Centenary of the original building.
Some items of the old Matthew Hall - the
trusses and bricks and the memorial tablet to Archdeacon matthew was placed in
the new building. Bishop Kenneth Fernando presided at the trilingual dedication
service on St. Michael's Festival Day in 1993. True to expectation the complex
is serving the parish, the community and the wider Church in many ways.
St. Michael's has been a Church known
among many in Sri Lanka and beyond shores as a Church that is captivating in its
atmosphere of worship and for the good ordering of Church Ceremonial. At the
same time it has also been a laboratary of experiments. New ceremonial, new form
of worship, new styles of music etc. have been tried from time to time.
It was another son of St. Michael's, Deva
Surya Sena, whose pioneering effort produced the setting of the indigenous music
to the Liturgy in Sinhala. This has left a lasting influence in the Church in
As we look back over the past years we
note with great thanksgiving to God that St. Michael's has always been in the
forefront of mission and service. As we look to the future we must be conscious
of the many challenges that face us. The landscape of Polwatte has changed
dramatically. Residences are giving way to commercial establishments. There is
political unrest, student and youth unrest the forgotten poor and marginalized.
Do they have any relationship to our faith and mission?
We can be guided by the life and example
of Jesus. For Him work in terms of ministry and service is the essence of the
gospel. Thus we find him always in the midst of people, teaching, healing,
caring and feeding them.
There is a perfect harmony or unity
between His words and deeds, between His person and precepts, between His life
and work. That makes His Gospel so powerful and effective and relevant for all