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.
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.
The first Dutch missionary who arrived in Ceylon was a predicant (Dutch for priest) named Philippus 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.
In the early days of Dutch occupation, the official church of the Dutch in Colombo was Kasteel Kerk located in Gordon Gardens. It was an old Portuguese church which was in need of repair, and a proposal was made by Governor Van Imhoff to Dutch East India Company (Vereenigde Oost-Indische Compagnie or VOC) to demolish it and erect a new one.
However, the VOC refused this request, and it wasn’t until the arrival of Governor Julius Valentyn Stein van Gollenesse in 1743 that the impasse was overcome. He decided that the new church would be erected in the area beyond the city walls, which at the time was swamp and marshland. It was on a hill which commanded views across the town and over the harbour and was in proximity to the town’s entrance.
There are couple of stories behind the name Wolvendaal. One of which is that the Europeans mistook the packs of roaming jackals for wolves, and the area became known as Wolvendaal (Wolf’s Dale or Wolf’s Valley).
The other story is that 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.
However, 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 by Dutch.
The foundations of the church were laid in 1749 and it took eight years to build. It was completed on 6 March 1757, when it was dedicated for public worship by Rev. Matthias Wirmelskircher, Rector of the Colombo Seminary. At the dedication there were two Governors present, Joan Gideon Loten and his successor Jan Schreuder, together with Members of the Council, Reverend Ministers (Predikants), prominent Burghers and their families.
The church was constructed in the Doric style of the period, in the form of a Greek cross (i.e. legs of equal length), with walls nearly 1.5m (five feet) thick, constructed of unusually large kabok (clay ironstone) with coral and lime plaster. The high roof in the middle of the building resembles a dome and was originally arched with brick and roofed in blue Bangor slate roof tiles surmounted with a brazen lion. This lion had a crown on its head, bearing a sword in one hand and seven arrows in the other, representing the seven united provinces of the Dutch Republic. In 1856, a bolt of lightning destroyed the lion and seriously damaged the dome. The roof was later replaced with an iron covering. The church is capable of seating 1,000 people.
Inside the church there is a solidly constructed State Pew (to accommodate the Dutch governor) with numerous ebony and calamander church chairs (kerkstoels), dating back to the 17th and 18th centuries. The Governor’s chair with intricate carvings of two peacocks on the backrest is still intact.
The wooden high seats against the wall 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.
The baptismal font, on an ornately carved tripod stand, dates back to 1667. A former Governor named Rijckloff van Goens had gifted this when his daughter Esther Ceylonia received communion. The girl’s second name could have been a reflection of her birth in Ceylon! Some say that the heavy wooden font was chiselled out of a single tamarind tree in Jaffna.
The silver communion set was gifted by a Mrs. Schroter from Jaffnapatnam (Jaffna). The pulpit is typical for a Dutch Reformed Church, where the minister stands higher than the congregation on a richly ornamented wooden structure.
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.
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.
On the walls of the Church are many mural tablets while there are many more built into the external walls. The floor is paved with granite flagstones (purportedly brought from Holland) interspersed with engraved tombstones, of those who lie buried within the church. Many unique tombstones showed historic evidence from centuries ago, the oldest one bearing the year 1607. Some of them were actually from another cemetery whose remains were relocated from the Kasteel Kerk. 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. Many famous names of 300 years of Sri Lankan history, Dutch, Burgher, Sinhalese, Tamil and English, can be found amongst the gravestones within and outside the church. There are five Dutch Governors buried at the church, including the last Governor, Johan Gerard van Angelbeek, who died in Colombo in 1799, three years after the British occupation.
A former British Governor had written
This church is the Westminster Abbey of Ceylon
From the time of its dedication through to the end of Dutch rule Wolvendaal was the principal place of worship, although Kasteel Kerk remained the main religious seat for the European and local officials of the VOC, until it was demolished in 1813.
The Dutch Reformed Church is currently known as the Christian Reformed Church of Sri Lanka. Wolvendaal Church is the only Dutch Church on the island that has been continually in use, with in 2018 services in Tamil, Sinhalese and English every Sunday. A similar Dutch Reformed Church building is the Groote Kerk in Galle.