Wolvendaal – the oldest Dutch church in Colombo – By Dishan Joseph
Source: Sunday Observer, April 7, 2019
As we continue our series on ancient churches there is one magnificent house of God that stands out in every aspect. Towering majestically above other buildings with her bright red dome, on Vivekananda Hill (Colombo 13) is the Wolvendaal Church with its sacred roots dating to the Dutch Reformed Church in Sri Lanka (subsequently changed to Christian Reformed Church). Being an island Ceylon was subject to invasion. The Dutch after subduing the dominant Portuguese began to build churches along the once vibrant ports of Jaffna, Matara, Kalpitiya, Galle and Colombo.
The Colombo city was a very different place four centuries ago. The landmarks we are familiar with today did not exist then. The Portuguese established a fortified stockade in Colombo.
The exact boundaries are hard to identify today. The Portuguese clergy had built a small chapel on the hill, where the Dutch church stands today. During this era there were jackals roaming in the marshlands. The Portuguese were misled that they were wolves and called the hill ‘Agoa de Loupe’ which translated as ‘dale of wolves’.
By October 1655 the Dutch had set eyes on Colombo. The challenge of breaking down the defences was given to General Gerard Hulft. He had sailed to Negombo with a fleet of 11 ships and 1,120 soldiers. He first attacked the Portuguese Fort at Kalutara. Subsequently, Colombo was under siege for seven months. The determined General stormed the Colombo Fort and lost 300 men on the first raid. He relentlessly attacked again forcing the Portuguese garrison to finally surrender.
General Hulft was shot by an arquebus (long gun) and died. His corpse was taken to Galle. It is said that later the Dutch administrators named Hulftsdorp (today the area housing our law courts) as a glowing tribute to General Hulft.
A few weeks back I wrote about the Dutch Fort in Colombo with her eight bastions. Once the Dutch began exerting their right of conquest they visited the ‘dale of wolves’ in 1749. From this hill one could see the harbour. The Dutch called the area Wolvendaal – valley of wolves.
Birth of a church
According to the resident priest Rev. Suresh Karmegam, the first Dutch missionary who arrived in Ceylon was a perdikant (Dutch for priest) named Phillipus Baldaeus. He is believed to have travelled around the island, spending a lot of time in Jaffna. Today, there is a Theological College named after him in Trincomalee. Perdikant Baldaeus preached the Protestant elements of his faith. By 1749, the Governor and representatives of the Dutch East India Company had selected this hill to build their church. The new church built in Doric style of architecture was consecrated on March 6, 1757. As we walked inside her large interior the church with her five feet thick walls felt more like a fortress. The walls built with kabook and cemented with coral and lime have withstood the elements for 260 years.
Rev. Suresh pointed out some features and explained, “As you enter the church from the main door the first thing that meets your eye is the elevated pulpit. This was and still remains part of our emphasis – the word of God given priority above every sacrament or act of worship.
Almost directly from the pulpit towards one end is a wooden partition, where the Governor used to sit. The Governor’s chair is still intact.” I looked closely to see the intricate carvings on this antique chair, which had two peacocks on the backrest. We moved towards the right of the pulpit. The priest added, “Notice the wooden seats against the wall – how high they are. These were used by prisoners, some are of Dutch origin. It is believed that there was a tunnel from the harbour that led to some point in the garden. The prisoners were brought via the tunnel and given freedom to sit during the service”.
Another two sets of partitioned seats were reserved for Deacons of the church. The pipes of an old pipe organ still remain intact. Church records revealed that the organ was purchased for 3,426 rupees. Cave and Company had charged Rs 100 to instal the organ.
A jilted bride
The church has a fascinating story behind its chandelier. Decades ago a Dutch girl had been engaged to a man. However, before their wedding the boy had decided to go back on his promise. The girl was hurt and sought legal redress. The court having clemency on her, ordered the man to pay her 50 pounds in compensation. The jubilant girl took this money and gifted the church with this glass chandelier, asking that all newly wedded couples be blessed underneath its radiant glow.
The silver communion set was gifted by a Mrs. Schroter from Jaffnapatnam (present Jaffna). The baptism font made of wood has another touching story. A former Governor named Rijckloff van Goens had gifted this when his daughter Esther Ceylonia received communion. It struck me that the girl’s second name was a reflection of her birth in Ceylon! Some say that the heavy wooden font was chiselled out of a single tamarind tree in Jaffna.
Monuments of death
I remember visiting this church as a child with my late grandfather Isaac Samuel, and being somewhat frightened on seeing the many gravestones inside and outside the church. Rev. Suresh pointed out the many unique tombstones that showed historic evidence from centuries ago, the oldest one bearing the year 1607. Another monument had an inscription in ancient Tamil. On investigating these monuments I discovered that some of them were actually from another cemetery in Colombo Fort (behind the old Gordon Gardens). When the old chapel there was demolished the families had requested these tombstones to be brought to Wolvendaal.
It is recorded that there was a military parade in 1813, which transported some stones under moonlight. Some of the graves inside the church are large with engraved stone slabs. Five Dutch Governors are buried here. A former British Governor had written, ‘This church is the Westminster Abbey of Ceylon’.
Today, the Christian Reformed Church serves this community in English, Sinhala and Tamil. This church is a historical gem situated in a crowded city. She will surely stand tall and proud for decades to come.
Sri Lanka Library