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125th Anniversary of St. Joseph's Church, Wennappuwa :

Festivities in little Bethlehem

by Ajith Perera

Wennappuwa, the Catholic paradise of the Chilaw Diocese, celebrates the 125th anniversary of the church today. Vespers on Saturday, April 30 was officiated by Rt. Rev. Dr. Valence Mendis, Coadjutor Bishop of Chilaw and the evening High Mass on Sunday will be officiated by Rt. Rev. Dr. Frank Marcus Fernando, Bishop of Chilaw.

The mighty church, which is a symbol of unity and co-existence, stands in full majesty and dignity on the Chilaw-Negombo main road in the heart of Wennappuwa town. It is a historical monument of faith and virtue. A church is a unique feature of each and every village and town in the coastal belt especially from Colombo to Puttalam.

The statue of St. Joseph, the guardian of Mother Mary is enshrined on the front facade of the church, reminding one of his piety, chastity and staunch faith in God, which made him the foster father of Lord Jesus Christ. The saintly appearance invites the faithful to follow his exemplary footsteps, which lead to a successful, and God-fearing life on earth and to be rewarded throughout eternity in heaven.

Historical evidences extracted from 'The Chulavansaya' (pp 97) teach that the inception of the village, Wennappuwa, which was originally, called either 'Wenniarpura' or 'Wenupura' runs back about 850 years at the time, King Parakramabahu the qreat (1153-1186 AD) ruled Anuradhapura. The original settlers of Wennappuwa were the farmers and similar to other farmers in the country, they too settled down by the tank calling the village 'Gangoda.'

An old church made of wattle and daub, consecrated to St. Joseph was put up at Gangoda in 1850. Very Rev. Fr. Contentious Chounavel (OMI) a French Missionary the founder of the new St. Joseph's church arrived at Wennappuwa between (1861-1863 A.D.) There were only 300 families then. His sole intention was to gather those families whose staunch faith was strong and visible, under one roof. The roads were coming up and he realised that a new church should be built by the main road in order to accommodate the growing population.

The church ground were donated by Ponnamperumage Migel Fernando, 'Muhuppu', the President of the church who made the lion's share and the financial contribution in putting up the church. He was the donor of the cemetery grounds, too.

The foundation stone of the church was laid by Rt. Rev. Dr. Stephen Semeria (OMI) Bishop of Jaffna in 1863. As a result of God's blessings, hard work, dedication and co-operation of the Parish Priest and of the parishioners the construction of the church was completed and was blessed and consecrated on May 7, 1881 by Rt. Rev. Dr. Andrew Melizan (OMI), Bishop of Jaffna.

The brother of Saradiel, 'Soora Saradiel', Robinhood of Uthwankanda lived with his brother and parents (family) at Haldanduwana, and learnt sculpture under Very Rev. Fr. Chounavel who was the Parish Priest of Haldanduwana and a master of sculpture. The great historical statue of St. Joseph on the front facade of the church, sculptured by Saradiel's brother is a fine example for Fr. Chounavel's mastermind of sculpture.

Very Rev. Fr. Chounavel, a scholar and an author who was well versed in Sinhala and Tamil became a loving and caring shepherd to the flock of Wennappuwa for 20 years before he was blessed with the eternal reward. He loved Wennappuwa very much and affectionately called the village - Wennappuwa, 'The Stable of St. Joseph' which means 'Little Bethlehem.' In response to his last request and in appreciation of his yeoman service, his body was buried in the church.


The historical church belfry was a commendable achievement during the tenure of Very Rev. Fr. Basil Fonseka (1949-1954) with the generous contribution of the parishioners. Very Rev. Fr. Seru who was interested in music put up a loft for the choir. They were considered to be the golden eras of the church history.

Rev. Fr. Alex Dassanayake (1975-1981), a lecturer at the National Seminary Ampitiya was the Parish Priest during the centenary celebrations. The construction of the pavilion in order to coincide with the centenary celebrations is highly appreciated by all.

The Wennappuwa parish comprised Gangoda, Nugagahamulla, Demmaladeniya, Thaldeka, Kadawatha, Ulhitiyawa and Kolinjadiya was divided into three parishes like Wennappuwa-Gangoda, Nugagahamulla and Kolinjadiya; Ulhitiyawa-Kadawatha and Dummaladeniya-Thaldeka after the centenary for a proper management and better services.

Rev. Fr. Rex Dias (1982-1986) took every possible step to guide the faithful to find refuge in the Holy Eucharist on Thursday and in Perpetual Help novenas on Wednesday. His devoted service is still admired. Regular, systematical and well administered Daham Pasala on Saturday evening initiated by Rev. Fr. Leo Pius (1987-1992) the present Vicar General of Chilaw Diocese during his tenure is still being well administered by the Parish Priests.

Daham Pasala is the best venue where the children of the parish are moulded, guided and trained spiritually, physically, mentally and socially to be God fearing staunch Catholics. They are encouraged to bear witness to the Good News of our Lord Jesus Christ while respecting others' beliefs and rites in the country.

The grotto at Kolinjadiya is a praiseworthy mission initiated by Rev. Fr. Christy Tissera (1995-2001) the predecessor of the present Parish Priest rendered a laudable service to organise the feast of the grotto in February in order to assemble the faithful under the wings of Mother Mary. This has become one of the feasts celebrated by the parishioners. The Catholic library functioning at the adjoining building at the grotto premises provides wider scope for readers on church and the latest publications of the church.


The Palatial mission house is a brainchild of Rev. Fr. Christy Tissera and a monument of determination and dedication. Further this glamorous achievement is a token of hard work, co-operation, courage and confidence and a gift for the future.

Giving a new look to the cemetery with proper management makes anyone feel like visiting his or her dear departed. None can deny the fact that the cemetery should be a place of peace and tranquillity to reflect on death while ensuring the dead are not forgotten and we also shall not be forgotten after death.

A church is incomplete without a school was the firm belief of the then missionaries and ours as well. We are proud of being the owners of two leading disciplinary educational institutions adjoining the church premises. Joseph Vaz College and Holy Family Balika Vidyalaya are the heritages of our children.

These two schools wouldn't have been in the same spirit if they weren't administered and managed by the Marist Brothers and Holy Family nuns respectively. Catholic identical educational institutions can never move forward in glory unless they are under the wings of the religious.


Joseph Vaz primary school is currently administered by a Benedictine Priest. His praiseworthy administration is valued by all.

At the inception of St. Joseph's Sinhala School, which is now attached to Joseph Vaz College, was under the Franciscan Brothers' (TOR) administration. TOR Brothers are great friends of the parish. OMI Priests, the pioneers of preaching, grace the special occasions like church feasts and special prayer services and retreats in delivering meaningful and appealing sermons, which awaken the hearts of the faithful.

Benedictine Sisters' prayerful contemplative life is a blessing upon the parish, the diocese, the country and the whole world. Those who labour heavily laden go to them in hope requesting for prayers.

The nuns of the Perpetual Help who are established in the parish teach the poor children and draw the people closer to God while operating their novitiate.

All the clergy of these congregations show the way towards the light to all our parishioners. Most of them visit the sick at home and distribute Holy Communion. The yeoman services rendered by the Parish Priests, the clergy and the nuns of other congregations from the inception of the church are rewarded in heaven and also those who still serve in the vineyard of our Lord are fondly remembered.

Rev. Fr. Patrick Wijesinghe, the present Parish Priest and the Assistant Parish Priest Rev. Fr. Claude Fernando together with Rt. Rev. Dr. Frank Marcus Fernando and Rt. Rev. Dr. Valence Mendis, Bishops of Chilaw have made all the arrangements to organise this historical event more spiritually and meaningfully.

Hundred and twenty-five novenas: prayer meetings are being conducted at hundred and twenty five places throughout the parish in order to prepare the faithful spiritually to celebrate the anniversary year. Spiritual motivation through self-realisation to find refuge in God should be the main objective of the anniversary. Nobody values any sort of pomp and glory or carnival type celebration with musical shows, fire works, fund raisers and so on. The church should not be a haven for money-spinners.

Yet the feast stalls functioning under the guidance and strict supervision of the Parish Priests is an avenue to cut down various feast expenses to a certain extent without depending on the parishioners.

What we inherit today is the honest sweat of our ancestors and their incomparable service. Silent services of most of the clergy, the parishioners and other brethren may not have been recorded anywhere but they are eternally rewarded.

* The historical facts on Wennappuwa and the church were extracted from the magazine 'Siyawas Jubilee Samaruwa' published at the centenary celebrations in 1981.


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