All Saints Church, Borella: Where the carillon chimes
Source: Sunday Observer, November 4, 2018
The residents around Campbell Park have grown up with a familiar tone, the glorious pealing of the bells of All Saints Church. For decades this sanctuary has spiritually empowered thousands of Catholics. One of her unique distinctions in terms of worship is that her parishioners and clergy have celebrated 3,000 novenas to Our Lady of Perpetual Help, in 2011. One can visit this church via Baseline Road or the turn off at Punchi Borella Junction.
Fr. Ivan Perera, the resident priest explained the history of the church and her rewarding novena.
A majority of churches in Sri Lanka are the fruits of spiritual labour of dedicated friars and priests. Such is the story of this church, as well. The building dates back to the latter part of the 18th century. It was Fr. Bonjean who laid the foundation stone on June 22, 1886.
The enthusiastic clergyman behind the building process was Fr. Collin. He was able to acquire two acres of land with the intervention of Lady Arthur Gordon (wife of the Governor of Ceylon) and Lady Johanna Thompson (wife of the Superintendent of the Convict Establishment, today, referred to as the Welikada Jail). It is said, Sir Arthur Gordon brought some documents written in Latin placed in a glass jar and buried them with the foundation stone.
To collect funds for the construction Fr. Collin is supposed to have organized carnivals. The construction work was further enhanced by the dedicated leadership of Fr. Jayamane.
The roots of the first novena date back to 1951, when an Irish priest, Fr. Christopher McCarthy came to Ceylon. He had joined the Redemptorists Novitiate (Dundalk, Ireland) in 1929, aged 19.
Fr. McCarthy had undertaken missionary journeys to India and Australia, and is said to have visited many churches in Ceylon wanting a sanctum to place our Lady of Perpetual Help. It was during this time that Fr. John Pascal Herat was associated with All Saints Church. He was a native of Kurunegala, was ordained as an Oblate of Mary Immaculate, and served as secretary to three Archbishops.
Fr. McCarthy met Fr. Herat and the two men were keen to begin this novena. With the consent and blessing of Archbishop Thomas Cooray the first perpetual novena was held on December 8,1951. Every Wednesday evening people came in earnest. Initially, there were about 100 and eventually, 2,000 people were attending. Fr. Christopher McCarthy was very satisfied, and after serving God for almost five decades, entered into eternal rest aged 72.
Since its inception the novena had inspired many Catholics. One of the young men was Fr. Bertram Dabare.
He has recollected that in 1952 he attended his first novena as a schoolboy, wanting his athletic team to achieve victory at the Public Schools Meet held in Colombo. Years later, young Bertram joined the seminary and was ordained. He returned to All Saints Church as assistant parish priest. Subsequently, he succeeded Fr. John Herat as parish priest, a remarkable journey of faith.
Another young student from the Kynsey Road Seminary who came here for prayer was Nicholas Fernando.
He went on to become Rev. Dr. Nicholas Marcus Fernando, Archbishop Emeritus. The congregation of All Saints Church celebrated their 3,000th novena on July 6, 2011, which drew the attention of Pope Benedict XVI.
Mother of Perpetual Help
The outer structure of this church is painted in cream with light brown borders accentuating her beauty. Both sides of the aisles are adorned with statues of venerated saints. Gazing upwards your eyes are mystified by the florid stained glass windows.
At the altar a crucifix stands in solitude, reminding us of the sacrifice of Jesus Christ, as he yielded his life on Calvary’s cross for the remission of our sins, Agnus Dei, Qui Tollis Peccata Mundi – Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world. His outstretched nailed hands, challenges us mortals to let go of material possessions, for this life is transient to the true believer. Rising gently above her son is the Blessed Mother, conspicuous in a stained glass mosaic.
This image of the Madonna (a replica) has its origins in the 15th century, drawn by a Greek artist. It was enshrined in the Church of St. Alphonsus, in Rome. It was then brought to the Church of St. Matthew on the Esquiline Hill.
During the 18th century the church was gutted by a raging fire, but the painting remained intact.
The portrait was taken to St. Eusebius Church. Papal approbation of this sacred image was acknowledged by Pope Pius in 1867. It was ceremoniously crowned by the Vatican chapter. As we walked closer to the altar the entire vista behind the original painters’ vision began to make sense. This Byzantine era image of Blessed Mary on the stained glass has many details. She is carrying Jesus. The Greek abbreviation ICXC there denotes Jesus Christ. The angel on the left is Archangel St. Michael and Archangel St. Gabriel stands on the right side. The background in hues of gold is symbolic of heaven. Virgin Mary is adorned in a red tunic – the colour worn by virgins in that era.
The dark blue mantle is a reflection of the colour worn by Palestine mothers, after all Mary was a good mother. Salve Regina, Mater Misericordiae – Hail holy Queen mother of Mercy.
As we walked back Fr. Ivan gave me permission to climb the old wooden steps to the choir loft, to take a photo of the ancient pipe organ. The view from this height of the inner sanctum takes your mind to celestial realms.
The Singing Tower
Most churches have a belfry. But the tower at All Saints is unique. Some opine it is the only one of its kind in the Asian region. Fr. Ivan explains, “The distinction behind this tower is that it does not have one bell, but 25 bells. In 1957, the church was celebrating her 300th novena and the dedicated churchmen and women made tremendous sacrifice and installed a carillon chiming system”.
The 25 bells were made in Germany and sent to Ceylon. (The heaviest carillon bell system in the world is at Riverside Church, New York). The carillon is actually a musical system where the chords of each bell are connected to a keyboard, which has to be played manually. Levers and wires then activate ‘clappers’ to hit the bells. The person chiming the bells was called a carillonist.
With time the manual operation was converted to an electric system. A wooden board has the names of the 25 men and women who donated a bell each to this amazing bell tower.
The beauty of this church and her service to the community is captured in a poem by Fr. Marceline Jayakody in his text, “Pearls and Roses”.
All Saints Church Borella is a testament to God’s continuing grace. Dominus Vobiscum – the Lord be with you.
Sri Lanka Library