St. Mary’s Church, Dehiwela: 184 years of spiritual excellence | Sunday Observer

St. Mary’s Church, Dehiwela: 184 years of spiritual excellence

Travelling on Galle Road towards Dehiwela one is bound to see the majestic structure of a Catholic church. It has stood there for more than a century and a half, guiding generations of devout Christians. As I walked in her large garden the 10 massive palm trees that lined the paved terrace offered some shade on a Saturday morning. The parish priest was engaged in conversation with some parishioners. The serene atmosphere of the church was a refreshing contrast to the traffic and noise of the crowded Galle Road.

Six men with a dream

Father Daya Welikadarachchi is a priest with immense experience having previously served as Rector of the Colombo seminary and also as a lecturer at the National Seminary in Ampitiya. The priest explained, “This church has a great deal of history. It all began with the pious intentions of six men. Back then, Dehiwela was a quiet town, overgrown with coconut trees. There were only seven Catholic families living here. They were originally from St. Sylvester’s Church and they all had the surname, Fernando - their first names being Phillip, Stephen, Lucas, Sylvester, Gordianu and Nicholas. Searching for a land to build a small church, they met Muhandiram Bastian Mendis, who gifted them half an acre of land on September 13, 1834. These humble but persevering men then began building”.

It is recorded that by February 1835 the church was dedicated to Our Lady of Good Voyages by Monsignor Rosarian Diaz. During this time three men of Bharatha origin gifted the church a wooden statue. By 1877, as the congregation began to grow, plans were made to demolish the old church and build a new sanctuary. A temporary cadjan hut was erected and the people worshiped there. However, some unidentified persons had set fire to this hut which burned to the ground. Miraculously, the wooden statue of Mary was intact. Since then the statue has been used in the month of May processions. Even in this incident of deliberate arson the church loved, in the words of Virgil who said Amor omnia vincit (love conquers all).

Funds were needed to complete the church, and five faithful members had mortgaged their homes to one Isaac Wijeratne and obtained a sum of Rs 1,750 at an interest rate of 12%. Subsequently, the mortgage was released by the money lender. On June 30, 1883 the new church was consecrated by the Bishop of Colombo Rt. Rev. Dr. Clement Pagnani and dedicated to the Lady of Purification. In 1907 the first choir was put together. During this time the resident priest had to oversee the parishes of Mount Lavinia, Ratmalana and Angulana. There were many children attending church and the need was realized to begin a school. In 1909 St. Mary’s English School was established amidst many challenges. Eventually, Rev. Fr. Guillet was successful in purchasing the land where Holy Family Convent, Dehiwela stands today.

By 1926 the church was blessed with a gas lighting system and later with electricity - which was a luxury in that era. In 1935 the church jubilantly celebrated her centenary with the band of the Ceylon Light Infantry entertaining the crowd. By 1945 the famed statue of Our Lady of Fatima was brought to Ceylon and made her first stop at this church, where thousands had come to venerate and worship. As the congregation grew the church was given to the administration of two Jesuit priests Rev. Fr. T. Kuriacose and Rev. Fr. Joseph Chianese. I have met the latter during his retirement at the Jesuit House at Clifford Road, Bambalapitiya. Well into his late eighties he would happily recall the time he had spent in Ceylon. These Jesuit priests began a free medical clinic in the church which is still carried out, by doctors who volunteer their time, taking care of those in need, which brings to mind the Latin phrase Sivi amaris ama (Seneca) – (if you wish to be loved, then love).

Another name fondly remembered in this church is that of Rev. Fr. Ernest Poruthota, who came in 1997 and performed many things to uplift the congregation. Rev. Fr. Trevor Martin, the present Rector of St. Peter’s College, Colombo 4, is also from this parish. He recalled, “I came to Dehiwela from Kotahena in 1977. My family was close to this church. I am happy that I answered the calling to serve God as a son of this church in Dehiwela”. St. Mary’s has produced 29 ordained priests and nuns from her parish to date.

The architecture

The church has an imposing façade with three entrances. As you walk in there is a calm aura, the aisles and walls are simple and not festooned with fancy art. Most of the walls are painted white, resonating with the holy theme of purification. On the right is the baptismal font, and next to it is a unique cement artwork that depicts the baptism of Jesus in the river Jordan by John the Baptist. Theartwork set against a light blue background shows signs of decay but conveys a powerful message of the obedience and humility of Lord Jesus. There are 14 Stations of the Cross once imported from France. The altar is simple with an image of blessed Mary standing on a globe, with two angels kneeling in adoration. A large wooden crucifix is set behind it. The balcony on the rear once housed a pipe organ - but this instrument is no more. The belfry completed in 1938 has two large bells from Europe.

Rev. Fr. Welikadarachchi added, “We also have a sub-station at Nedimala. Today, our church has almost 1,200 families and we worship God in English, Tamil and Sinhalese. We have a day-care styled education centre on the beach known as, Sip Sevana - and we care for children of the fishing families. Our Human Development Society also awards scholarships to needy students. The church feast is celebrated on February 2 each year. We are happy to have nine choirs in this parish”.

As I walked towards the exit door, I saw a little girl with a rosary in hand looking towards the altar. Her parents were seated at another pew. Two year old Melissa was a silent witness emphasizing our need to connect to God in earnest prayer. The good work and charismatic zeal of St. Mary’s Church will continue to touch future generations.