Historic Buildings of the Dutch Reformed Church
The Wolvendaal Church
In the early days of the Dutch occupation of Colombo the official Church of the Vereenigde Oost-Indische Compagnie (VOC), the Dutch United East India Company, stood on the open space once known as the Gordon Gardens in the Fort of Colombo. It was an old Portuguese building. The Governor, the energetic Gustaaf Willem Baron Van Imhoff appealed in 1736 to the VOC authorities at Batavia (presently Djakarta) for their approval to build a new church in Colombo on the grounds that the old Church within the Fort was falling into decay, and had become dangerous for use. His proposal apparently was to demolish the old Church and erect a new one on its site.
The supreme VOC Government at Batavia did not readily approve of the proposal. Matters seem to have remained at a stand-still until Governor Stein van Gollenesse arrived in 1743 from Cochin where he had been in charge of the VOC affairs. It was due to his zeal and interest in the project that the Wolvendaal Church came to be built. The initials IVSVG on the South-East gable associate the building with this Governor, who administered the Maritime Provinces of Ceylon from 1743 to 1751.
In 1740 Governor Van Imhoff - who later would become Governor-General of all the Dutch Indies - decided to train Tamil and Sinhalese in the Seminary in Colombo to prepare them for theological studies in Holland. Over the years thirteen students were sent to Dutch universities of whom eight came back as fully qualified Predikants (Protestant pastors). The first ones were Ceylon born Sigisbertus Abrahamsen Bronsveld and Johan Joachim Fybrandsz, both indigenous. They were easily accepted by the Dutch community. More controversal became the nomination by the VOC of the Tamil Philippus de Melho as Predikant. De Melho did not study in Holland after graduation as proponent from the Colombo seminary and his nomination by the VOC was effected without consultation with the church. It took some pressure from the Political Council before the Kerkeraad (Church Council) fully accepted him. He became a very successful Predikant and served the Church for many years.
Later in the 1740s, the successor (and good friend) of Baron Van Imhoff, Governor Julius Valentijn Stein van Gollenesse - a staunch calvinist - decided to increase efforts to promote the Protestant religion among the local inhabitants of the Maritime Provinces. Following the nomination of Sinhalese and Tamil speaking Predikants, his efforts were not without success. He also decided to build a new church outside the Fort (Kasteel) of Colombo , the Wolvendaal church, which was specifically meant for the local (Tamil and Sinhalese) Protestant Christians, despite its typically Dutch architecture. There has earlier existed the old Fort church (Kasteel Kerk) which despite its condition remained the main religious seat for the European and local officials of the VOC, until it was demolished in 1813.
In 1759 the Sinhalese Hendrik Philipsz - who also became the chief translator for Dutch Governor Iman Willem Falck - and the Tamil Willem Ondaatje, again two indigenous students from the Colombo Seminary, were nominated Predikants by the VOC, preaching in the newly erected Wolvendaal church. Both came from distinguished families. Philipsz' close familly were Buddhist priests and married to members of the Sinhalese nobility. Descendents of these talented families later played important roles in the community, such as the writer Michael Ondaatje and his brother Sir Christopher Ondaatje. An earlier member of this outstanding family, Pieter Quint Ondaatje, remained in Holland after his studies at Utrecht University and became in the 1780s one of the main leaders of the Dutch Patriotic movement. In view of their family and cultural ties these new Predikants were very well positioned to fulfill a bridge function between the European and local population in the Dutch part of Ceylon.
The choice of a site for the new church outside the walls of the Fort is easy to explain. For one advantage, this hill commanded the finest view across the town and over the sea. Moreover, the hill was in proximity to the City’s entrance, for in the Dutch times the outer defence of the Fort consisted of a barrier which ran from lake to sea, spanning a neck of lowland at the base of this rising ground where the church was located.
But perhaps, the deciding factor in the choice of this site was that a small church which also served as a schoolroom for teaching on weekdays, had been maintained on this spot from the earliest period of Dutch occupation, while the Wolvendaal neighbourhood still was a quiet suburban parish. In these circumstances it is not very strange that this hill should have been crowned with the durable structure which survives till today as one of the most interesting monuments in Colombo bearing witness to the religious sentiment and the architectural skill of the nation which once ceded the island to the British, forced by Napoleon through the Treaty of Amiens in 1796.
When Colombo capitulated in 1796, many of the Dutch officials and settlers, and with them their clergymen, retired to Batavia or returned to Holland. Four years thereafter, only about nine hundred Dutch inhabitants were left in the country. These were for the most part the families of officers in the United East India Company who accepted the alternative of remaining in Ceylon owing to vested interests and property they had acquired in this island, and others in less favourable circumstances, who were able to secure occupations and emoluments in the Public Departments set up by the new British administration. These, and their descendants, are the people to whom the name ‘Burgher’ is correctly applied.
Despite the several difficulties in the affairs of this small community since the British took possession of Ceylon, they have seen to it that the Wolvendaal church has continued to serve the purpose for which it was intended by its pious founders. Thus, more than two centuries ago since the night closed on the descending standard of Holland and sunrise saw the British Flag unfurled on the walls of Colombo, the Wolvendaal church still remains a memorial of the oldest Dutch institution in Ceylon, namely, the Dutch Reformed Church (currently renamed: Christian Reformed Church), and the nursery of the branch churches which have sprung up in the suburbs of this City.
This grand old Dutch church, is therefore, very dear to the hearts of those who claim Dutch ancestry or still adhere to the creed of their forbears. Sir William Gregory, the English Governor (1872 – 1877) once described the church as “The Westminster Abbey of Ceylon where so many brave Hollanders lie buried”.
The church was constructed in the Doric style of the period, in the form of a Greek cross, with walls nearly five feet thick, over which the gables have been raised. The dome was originally arched with brick and 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 this lion and seriously damaged the dome. The roof was later replaced with an iron covering, which served the building well, but now has come at the end of its useful life.
The church, whose foundations were laid in 1749, took 8 years to build and is capable of seating 1000 persons. Completed on 6th of March 1757, it was dedicated for public worship by Rev. Matthias Wirmelskircher, Rector of the Colombo Seminary.
There were two Governors present – Jan Gideon Loten and his successor Jan Schreuder as well as the members of the Political Council of the Island and a large number of Dutch, Singhalese and Tamil dignitaries. The text used on this occasion was Genesis 28:22, ‘Ende dese steen dien Ick tot een opgericht teecken geset hebbe, sal een Huys Godts weesen’ (And this stone, which I have set for a pillar, shall be God’s House).
Provision has been made for the Governor’s accommodation in a solidly constructed State Pew with half a dozen ebony and calamander chairs. To those who admire Dutch furniture, the Church is a veritable mine of treasures. There is a remarkable collection of ebony chairs dating back to the 17th and 18th centuries that will capture the admiration of the casual visitor. A possible explanation is the custom which prevailed in the 18th century of keeping the ‘kerkstoel’ (church chair) at home and having it carried to church each Sunday by a servant. After the death of a church member, these chairs were often donated to the Church.
The communion service still used in the church is of fine silver and, though bearing no date, is probably some 350 years old. The baptismal font, still on the original ornately carved tripod stand, dates back to 1667. The Bowl was presented by Governor Rijkloff van Goens and his wife Esther de Solemne in commemoration of their daughter Esther Ceylonia, who was the first to receive the Holy Baptism therefrom. The girl was born on the 14th and baptised on the 17th of June, 1667. The Font enshrines a tale of human love and life. The mother died the day after the baptism of her infant daughter. An impressive tombstone to her memory and that of Governor Rijkloff van Goens can still be seen, set against the west wall of the church.
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 tombstones of those who lie buried within the church. One can find many famous names of 300 year Sri Lankan history: Dutch, Burgher, Singhalese, Tamil and English. The last Dutch Governor to be buried here was Jan Gerard van Angelbeek, who died in Colombo in 1799, three years after the British occupation, and was buried in a vault beside his wife.
In the Main Street in Pettah, at the foot of the Wolvendaal Hill, stands the old Belfry with the bell that used to summon the worshippers to prayer and praise in the early days of the Church. There was a time when it also was used as a curfew bell ‘to mark the closing of the Castle’s gates and lights out’. It is said to date back to the 16th century and to have hung originally in a Portuguese Church in the former Royal City of Kotte. This city was abandoned in 1565 and later re-occupied by the Dutch who found the bell among the ruins. The Dutch set up the belfry at Kayman’s Gate where it still stands today. Since it is surrounded by shops it fails to attract any attention now.
The Wolvendaal Church is currently being renovated. The gables and church walls have to be repaired while the entire roof has been renovated recently. A number of tombstones have already been relocated. As from March 2012 the large leaded glass windows are under renovation. Moreover, the old church archives dating back to the 17th century are being restored. Gradually this beautiful church is brought back to its former glory. Much assistance has been rendered by the Dutch Embassy in Colombo, for which we are very grateful.
The Governor comes….
During the Dutch Period in Sri Lanka the Wolvendaal Church played an important role in the social life of the local community. Let us visualise a scene from these past days.
‘Mijnheer and Mevrouw, clad in their Sunday best, are slowly walking up Wolvendaal Hill from their home in Pettah, while the old bell breaks the Sabbath calm. They linger by the door of the Church, greeting a knot of friends who have already gathered there. Suddenly the word goes round – the Governor! – and a stately carriage draws up.
Amid the respectful bows of the assembly, the Ruler of the Land, in wig, knee breeches and silk stockings, moves to his elevated pew. The Predikant has not yet mounted the Pulpit, but the sonorous tones of the Krankbezoeker are heard at the lectern reading the opening passages of the grand service of the Dutch Reformed Church.’
(From: E.H. Vander Wall, The Ceylon Causerie, October 1924, p.11).