Commemoration of 150 years at St. Michael's Polwatta

by Israel Paulraj - DN Dec 2003



St. Michaelís Polwatta

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 services.

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 them.

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 Sri Lanka.

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 times.

"We'll praise Him for the past And trust Him for all that is to come"