Hugh Karunanayake, courtesy of The CEYLANKAN, Vol XXI, No. 3, August 2018
The Wolvendaal Church, that almost neglected but historical building in the Pettah, is unique in many ways. It is one of the few buildings in Sri Lanka which link the Portuguese period of occupation of Sri Lanka right through the Dutch and British periods, to independent Ceylon, and finally exists as a repository of culture of the Dutch who unsuccessfully sought to conquer the whole country. Some recent photographs show weather related damage to the exterior of the building, which seem to be receiving the attention of those who are in charge of the church.
Watercolour painting of the Dutch Reformed Church by J. L. K. van Dort (1888)
The Dutch made their presence in Ceylon in 1640 with the capture of the Fort in Galle from the Portuguese. Within the next few years they took control of the maritime provinces and began erecting churches to propagate and foster their religion as propounded by the Reformed Church of Holland. In the early days of Dutch occupation, the official church of the Dutch in Colombo was located in Gordon Gardens. It was an old Portuguese building which was in need of repair, and a proposal was made by Governor Van Imhoff to demolish it and erect a new one.
It was a few years later in 1743 that the Governor Stein Van Gollenese decided to build a new church and chose Wolvendahl as the site. It has been claimed that there was a church built by the Portuguese pre-existing on the site, dedicated to Our Lady of Guadalupe, a name corrupted by Sinhalese usage to Adilippu and further corrupted by the Dutch to Agoa de Luphe which means “the dale of Wolves” and hence the name Wolvendaal. Wolves, of course, have never existed in Ceylon.
Yet another connection with the Portuguese era relates to the bell at Kayman’s Gate (the belfry of the Wolvendaal Church) which is considered part of the church. The bell was originally hung in a Roman Catholic church in Kotte, and after the abandonment of Kotte by the Sinhalese kings it remained there until it was removed to Kayman’s gate.
Architecture and interior of the Church
While the style of architecture is Doric, the building is shaped in the form of a Greek cross. The lofty domes stand tall and in bygone years was a landmark for mariners to steer their ships into the port of Colombo. The church has a seating capacity for 1000 worshippers.
There are many interesting memorials of Dutch rule in this historic building among which are the Coat-of-Arms and tombstones of Dutch Governors removed from their former place of rest in the Gordon Gardens. One of the elegant stained glass windows in the church was a gift of Governor Sir William Gregory and another that of Mr WH Wright. Yet another was erected by public subscription as a memorial to Sir Richard Morgan. Others were erected by Government grants, two being to the memory of a Mrs Raymond and a Mrs Schroter who were munificent donors to the church.
Below the pulpit are the baptistry and the lectern. The baptismal basin is two feet in diameter and made of pure silver. It rests on an exquisitely carved ebony tripod gifted to the old Dutch church in the Fort by Dutch Governor Rycloff Van Goens over 400 years ago. An inscription on the tripod states that the font and stand were gifted to the church to commemorate the christening of his daughter who was named Esther Ceylonia. The mother Esther born in 1640, second wife of the Governor, died the day after her infant daughter was baptised on June 22 1668, and the tombstone to her memory and to that of the Governor’s first wife is a beautifully sculptured monument placed against the outer wall of the church, presumably transferred from its original location in the Fort.
There is also a remarkable collection of Dutch furniture mainly chairs made of ebony, calamander and nadun wood which reflect the consummate skills of the Dutch cabinet maker. When I visited the church in about 1960 the chairs were hidden away in a storeroom presumably for “protection” against thieves, but we sincerely hope that these have since been displayed for the pleasure of the public and to remind today’s Sri Lankans of the skills that were evident in the country nearly four centuries ago. According to Brohier there seemed to be a custom in days gone by, for church goers to keep their own chair in the church for use for service on Sundays by the owner, and he speculates that some of the chairs may have been transferred from the old Dutch Church in the Fort.
While the first Centenary of the Church was celebrated in 1849 with pageantry that befitted its origins and antiquity, the second Centenary in 1949 seemed to have passed by unnoticed and unsung. Just 32 years more for its third centenary, and let us all hope that the remaining proponents of the Dutch Reformed Church now functioning as the Christian Reformed Church (with a congregation from a multi- ethnic and broader base) will have this important anniversary well in hand.
A collection of 17th – 18th century chairs in the Wolvendaal (Dutch Reformed Church, Colombo). From R.L. Brohier: “Furniture of the Dutch period in in Ceylon.” Published by the the Dept of National Museums Colombo 1969.
COLOUR ILLUSTRATIONS from CEYLANKAN
NB: the Church at some point between 1938 and more recent times