Anglican sanctum of solace in Fort | Sunday Observer

Anglican sanctum of solace in Fort

The Altar
The Altar

The city of Colombo has transformed into a vibrant business city today. There remain some magnificent archaic buildings, often obscure. A glorious past shrouded with time. There was a time when horse drawn carts and tram cars travelled in this part of town. Such an opulent gem is the solitary Church of St.Peter, belonging to the Anglican Church of Sri Lanka situated along the arcade on the North side of the Grand Oriental Hotel, Colombo Fort; this church was originally constructed as an official residence for the Dutch Governor.

Historian R. L. Brohier records that there existed a Dominican Monastery in 1672 on this same location.The Dominican Friars came during the Portuguese occupation; their pious Order dating back to 1216. Later, the Dutch erected this building, with a resplendent view of the Harbour. It was here that our once powerful Kings of Kandy, caparisoned in fine silk came to preside at Council Meetings.

Engravings of this building are of interest to architecture enthusiasts because they show the evolution of colonial architecture from the small Portuguese chapel that originally stood there to make way for the luxurious residence of the Dutch Governor.

Today, opaque rays of sunlight enshrine the altar. Candle stands sit on the chantry, relics of a bygone era. Once the triumphant British consolidated their dominion of all the Maritime Provinces in Ceylon, there was a need for the Anglican adherents to gather for worship and prayer. It was in this backdrop that Governor Sir Frederick North published a Gazette notice in 1804 proclaiming that Worship Services would be held every Sunday at 4.30pm.

Under the administration of the British the mansion (some believe its was built as a reception hall) became the Government House for the first years of Governor North’s rule. On a subsequent request by Lieutenant General Sir Edward Barnes, Governor of Ceylon, the grand mansion was consecrated as a Garrison Church on May 22, 1821 by the Bishop of Calcutta, Dr. Thomas Middleton, a native of Derbyshire, England. From this point on it became St. Peter’s Church.

Being adjacent to the Port the Church laid emphasis on caring for the spiritual and emotional needs of seafarers. This Mission continues even today under the Port Chaplain Rev.Chandran Crispus.

The amiable priest explains, “St.Peter’s is a historic jewel. It is a church with so much of history. Unfortunately, during the dark chapters of our nation, this area was a high security zone and the congregation declined. We were not able to maintain the building. We have now begun a restoration task and we hope our friends will support us to preserve this magnificent church”. The Mission to Seamen is another service rendered by this church.

It was during the British period that the present portico and sprawling verandas supported by classical columns were added. From 1810 to 1820 a section of the building was used as a court. A scene, remembering Sir Alexander Johnston’s tenure as Chief Justice, depicts the interior of the building when it was temporarily used as a court house. The doors of the sanctuary are unique because they also can be opened at the top half, as windows.

The British flag originally hoisted in 1821, is still suspended from an iron mast on the rear left wall of St.Peter’s Church, encased in polythene. The flag is a priceless antique.The organ has been removed, and its impression lies on the floor of the wooden stall, where once seraphic hymns were sung in worship to Almighty God.

The Church bears testament to many distinguished sons of that era as memorial plaques line its mildly caliginous walls. Among them are those of William Tolfrey, who undertook the daunting task of bringing forth the first Sinhala translation of the Holy Bible. Prior to this he worked as an Assistant Commissioner of Revenue. The others are, Reginald Heber, the Lord Bishop of Calcutta and George Steuart, founder of the company that still operates in his name. A brass plate has on it a record of the 2nd Battalion of Sri Lanka Light Infantry receiving the Queen’s Regimental Colours in March 1922, from His Royal Highness Edward, Prince of Wales. A marble slab also pays tribute to soldiers from the Worcestershire Regiment who laid their lives between 1904 and 1906. A scroll etched in cement remembers the life of Rev.Thomas Twilsten the First Archdeacon of Colombo who died in 1824.

In one section we find small wooden chairs. Rev. Crispus explains, “Back in the day parents brought their children to Sunday school, and each child had his or her chair carried by a servant. When the British left, a few of these chairs were left behind”.

St.Peter’s Church has witnessed the victories and vicissitudes of life, and remains deeply rooted as a haven of prayer and rest. A service is conducted on Wednesdays for the busy office workers and executives in the Fort area. The church is open on weekdays from 7.30 am to 5 pm. An epigraph on a pillar best encapsulates the Christian life – ‘Life’s race well run, Life’s work well done, Life’s crown well won’.