The St. Philip Neri’s Church dedicated to St. Philip Neri stands, somewhat shrouded by other buildings. Yet, her magnificent Corinthian front, replicates the Church of St. John Lateran in Rome. Decades ago the church was one of two iconic landmarks in the Pettah, the other being the Fort Railway Station. It was an era when horse-drawn carts trotted on cobbled streets. For five decades this church has been the home of the priests attached to the Blessed Sacrament Congregation which was established in France.
Since then the flames of faith were ignited and sustained during the rule of the Dutch in Ceylon. Subsequently, the Catholic Vicar Apostolic of Colombo, Rt. Rev. Joseph Bravi came to Colombo and lived in the small chapel in the Pettah. The chapel, 60 feet in length and 30 feet in width, was rather dim and gloomy. The parish at that time consisted of British soldiers and Dutch burghers.
Monsignor Joseph Maria Bravi, Order of Saint Benedict in 1853, asked the Cardinal Prefect of Propaganda for a “beautiful plan of a church that would take up very little ground but very simple and with lots of doors and windows”. The plan of the new St Philip Neri’s Church at Pettah were sent to Mgr. Bravi in June 1854. The foundation stone was laid by the same prelate only in 1858. The church was blessed by the Vicar General Matteo Gaetano on 23rd February 1862. The cost of the building was £4000. The new church could accommodate 600 people and was one of the largest churches of that era.
The church bell, weighing over 930 kilos, was cast in Negombo and rung for the first time in July 1894. Rt. Rev. Joseph Bravi, who served this church with great dedication, passed away and was interred here.
The interior of the church is all about simplicity. Two brass bowls of pink Anthuriums are placed either side of the altar. Anyone of the congregation can pick up a bag and hand it round for contributions at the time of the Offering. At any time, you can walk up to the communion rail and kneel. No one will ask you to move or ask you why you are kneeling there. A man or woman will lead the singing from the microphone at the side of the altar and its beautiful plain chant.
There are few known hymns sung, but the style of Mass is in plain chant. There is no choir. The congregation sings and there are hymn books to guide those who can read. Mass is celebrated daily and on Sundays there are many.
Since 1956 this church has been under the custody of the Congregation of the Blessed Sacrament (SSS). They were invited by Cardinal Thomas Cooray and came to Colombo from Australia. The founder of the SSS is Saint Peter Julian Eymard. As a young man Julian Eymard was deeply moved by the Holy Eucharist and pleaded with the Archbishop of France to commence a new order.
The new order was established in 1856 and exactly 100 years later in 1956, the first spiritual delegation of 3 priests and 2 Brothers arrived in Colombo to discharge their liturgical and sacramental ministry. These pioneer clergymen were Fr. Henry Polini, Fr. James Poyard, Fr. Patrick Fitzgerald, Bro. Kevin Gallagher and Bro. Stephen McKenna. This mission to Ceylon was the first in Asia undertaken by the SSS community.
During the early days of the mission the church attracted members of the Bharatha community, who were engaged in business in the Pettah. The Bharatha community can trace its roots to South India. Their patron saint is the Lady of Snows. Senior members of the parish recollected that when the statue of the Lady of Snows paraded the streets devotees would place rose petals.
The Ceylon Police Band had also rendered some hymns. The history of this veneration dates back to the 17th century in Tuticorin, where the Panimaya Matha – Lady of Snow was adapted by the pious Bharatha community, which practice they brought to Ceylon when they came as traders. Likewise, the traders of Malayalam origin worshipped at St. Anthony’s Church, Kochikade. Decades ago the Shrine of Philip Neri served the Catholic seamen who called in at the Port of Colombo, as the church was close to the harbour. During this time the church of St. Peter attended to the needs of the Anglican seafarers.
Today, the main altar has a figure of Christ, suspended amid a somewhat unusual design of many wooden rods, which I was made to understand depicted roads. All the paths finally lead upwards, to heaven. The sanctuary has many other religious statues. The faithful priests of the Blessed Sacrament community continue their good work. For more than 150 years this church has served the Christian office workers in Fort and also other devotees.
Faithful to the tradition and vision of St. Peter Julian Eymard, the founder of the Congregation of the Blessed Sacrament, St Philip Neri’s Church has served as an oasis of silence and peace in the heart of Colombo since 1956, and continues to offer welcome and meeting, prayer and adoration, spiritual guidance and sacramental reconciliation.
While the Community is engaged in activities that manifest the riches and demands of the Eucharistic mystery in all its dimensions, it also looks for expressions better suited to the needs of its worshippers in order to make every liturgical celebration an expression of faith and a source of commitment.