The Wolvendaal Church in Colombo

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.

Wolvendaal Church in 1938 – Pic by Lionel Wendt …. and

Dutch_Reformed_Church,_Colombo Watercolour painting of the Dutch Reformed Church (Wolvendaal), Colombo by J. L. K. van Dort (1888)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.

 Dutch Governor Ryckloff Van Goens.

 Interior of the church with the pulpit and baptismal font and lectern below, with a glimpse of the old Dutch chairs against the wall in the background and some pews in the foreground

 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.

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   Interior of the church revealing an outstanding collection of Dutcch furniture in ebony, calamander and nadun wood … and marking the consummate s kills of the Dutch cabinet makers of yesteryear

 One of the elegant stained glass windows in the church gifted by Governor Sir William Gregory

 Coat-of-arms of Dutch governors and tombstones transferred from Gordon Gardens to these premises

Wolvendaal Church today

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NB: the Church at some point between 1938 and more recent times


Filed under architects & architecture, art & allure bewitching, cultural transmission, ethnicity, heritage, historical interpretation, landscape wondrous, life stories, photography, religiosity, sri lankan society, world events & processes

6 responses to “The Wolvendaal Church in Colombo

  1. Sanath de Silva

    WOW How fortunate to be privy to such wonderful narratives of our homeland!
    Just incredible!!

    • Kay king

      Hi your a de Silva! I am doing my family tree and research tells me that it’s possible I am of Indian descent and trying to find out for sure. Back in the 1800 a man by the name of hendrick Lamont,married a Christine or Christina de silva and were married in this church Dutch wolvendaal church. Also another was a George william Lamont married a Alice Anne but I am unable to get her maiden name or there marriage certificate..any assistance where I can find out any information about these names would be appreciated. Kind regards. Kay king

      • Hai KAY … Therea thousand and one De Silva’s in sri Lanka .. they are like the SMITH family name. I suggest you contact that Dutch guy in Melbourne whohas specialized in Burgher genealogies [i forget his anem but Victor Melder in M;bourne will know him] or better still the DUTCH BURGHER UNION in Colombo

  2. Daya Wickramatunga

    These are listed buildings which are of both local and international interest.

  3. S LaBrooy

    Some serious inaccuracies. It does not link the Portuguese period at all. The fact that there may have been a Portuguese building in the same site I’d not a link whatsoever. The Dutch probably pulled down hundreds of Portuguese buildings and built their own. Also The Dutch never sought to “control the whole country “ for the very simple reason that it wouldn’t have made any money. Remember the so called Dutch Period” was actually the VOC period. The VOC was a trading company interested only in profit not conquest and empire for its own sake
    As for seeking to “propagate their religion” -this is a nonsense. They built DRC churches for their people here but not with any intention of conversion (unlike the Portuguese”). Any student of our colonial history will tell you that Buddhism actually had something of a Renaissance during the Dutch period.

  4. Pingback: Wolvendaal Church Colombo • Ceylon Guide

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