St. Michael’s, Polwatte: The church resurrected from fire | Sunday Observer

St. Michael’s, Polwatte: The church resurrected from fire

One of the most stunning Anglican churches in the island is the Church of St. Michael and All Angels located at Colpetty. This rock solid edifice has a remarkable history and is testament to her magnificent spiritual journey. Today, the area adjacent to the church is surrounded by modern buildings, with Bishop’s College on one side of the boundary. Almost 160 years ago Colombo was a serene town. The area of Polwatte (coconut gardens) has her own history. Back in the day, the dhoby community lived and worked on the banks of the Beira Lake. These humble folk had to be relocated as their land was acquired for a military hospital. The community was offered a new land which had coconut trees and hence the name ‘Polwatte.’ By 1844, a house was used for Christian worship where Rev. Solomon David conducted the service.

Rising from the ashes

By this time a missionary Rev. J.Thurstan was involved in the ministry at Polwatte. The priest’s name was bestowed on a road in Colombo, years later. Two other priests who served St. Michael’s Church left their names on our streets- Boyd Place (Rev. Charles Boyd) and Glennie Street (after Rev. Glennie). The Bishop at that time, Rev. James Chapman was a pragmatic visionary.

He foresaw the need for a larger church and in 1853 a small chapel was dedicated by him to St. Thomas. The chapel had a cadjun roof. In 1864, the church celebrated her anniversary and the concluding act was a fireworks display. In that era exploding fireworks was a treat. People were captivated by the dazzling sparks, so that they didn’t realize that a sky rocket had fallen on the chapel. The inferno razed the chapel to ashes. It is recorded that the Bishop cried, but encouraged his flock to rebuild. A plot of land was purchased from the government, and by 1865, the new chapel was completed and named St. Thomas’ Chapel, Kollupitiya. From the ashes a new house of hope was built to serve the community.

In 1886, Ceylon was blessed with a dynamic clergyman in the form of Archdeacon Walter Edmond Mathew. He understood the potential of the community and began to expand the congregation. There was a debate on changing the name of the church, and they agreed to name the sanctuary as The Church of Saint Michael and All Angels. The church was dedicated on September 29, 1887- on St. Michael’s Day. The first Ceylonese priest to serve here was Rev. P.B. Moonemale.

Since then many devoted clergy have served here including the former Bishop of Colombo, Rev. Duleep de Chickera. By 1895, the breakwater of the South West sector of the Port was completed and Colombo became a vibrant shipping hub. The population moved into the empty lands of Cinnamon Gardens and Kollupitiya. By 1918 the church was ready for her second expansion and plans were drawn by Hubert Walker. The project was completed during 1922, and the church would become an iconic landmark of the city. In 1954, Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth 11 and the Duke of Edinburgh worshipped here on Palm Sunday.

Reflections of ancient art

The resident vicar is Rev. Chrishantha Mendis, who once served as the Archdeacon of Colombo. We entered the church and he pointed out some amazing features within. Rev. Mendis explained, “This church is built out of solid granite. Notice the rood beam. This is not easy to build. Look at the figurines of Jesus Christ, flanked by his mother, Mary, and the apostle John- to whose care she was entrusted during his crucifixion.”

The high Gothic ceiling painted dark brown reaches into the clouds. Gazing up into the ceiling could make you feel dizzy. At the foot of the crucifix is the symbol of a pelican feeding her young chicks. The symbol is a sign of selfless sacrifice. According to the Physiologus (early Christian book) animals and birds were given allegorical interpretations. The pelican is said to have pecked herself, drawing her blood to feed her young. Likewise, the unblemished blood of Jesus was the sacrifice for the remission of our mortal sins.

Another significant detail caught my eye. The floor tiles had various designs and I was glad to learn their symbolism as Rev. Mendis elaborated on the designs. “Look at the different designs on the floor. Eight symbols to be precise. The first shows a torch- which the Romans used to arrest Jesus, and also a rooster- symbolic of Peter who denied Jesus.

The second style shows the pillar on which he was tied and whipped. Tiles of the third design show the garment of Jesus; embellished with dice- the Roman soldiers cast lots. The fourth symbol shows the hammer which was used to crucify him and the lance used to spear his side. Tiles of the fifth design reflect the ladder and cords used to hang him on the cross showing the word INRI. Iron nails are depicted in the sixth set of tiles. The seventh design shows the Lamb of God and the final set depicts the mother pelican feeding her young.” Similar tiles can be seen at the Canterbury Cathedral, in England.

We walked towards the high altar consolidated with Roman stone and black marble. An imposing manifestation of art. On either side of the altar are six paintings of Saints and Archangels on gilded sheets.

On the right side aisle is a large wooden statue of a jubilant Saint Michael with his sword penetrating a dragon like coiled serpent.

He is the protector of the faithful and leader of the celestial angels. A few feet away you can walk into the chapel- dedicated to St. Mary. This church is one of the few that maintains an Anglo- Catholic tradition. The wooden chair of the Bishop shows local designs. At the rear of the church are three stained glass windows - showing the Archangels Michael, Gabriel and Raphael.

The church bell has its own story- being cast in 1648. It was hung in the Portuguese church located in Jaffna. The Dutch later removed it to the Jaffna Fort. Later on, one Mr. Grigson had purchased the bell for 200 rupees and gifted it to St. Michael’s church. In 2001 the bell cracked and is kept at the Cathedral of Christ.

Memory of a dead soldier

On the left side of the altar is a magnificent pipe organ- still in good condition. Rev. Mendis narrated an emotional story, “This organ was gifted to the church by Sir Thomas Villiers- the man who once owned Adisham Bungalow in Haputale.

His son Henry had gone to war aged only 20 years. Sir Thomas had prayed for the safe return of his son. But Lt. Henry Villiers was killed in action on February 4, 1917. The sad father then gave this organ to the church in his memory.”

Moving forward

For decades this church had been a spiritual lighthouse to thousands. Today, she has a trilingual congregation of almost 900 families. The Vicar is assisted by Rev. S. Balakumar, Rev. S. Mohotti and Rev. Chintha Polgampola. The church has many ministries. Apart from the three Sunday services they have a communion service at 12 noon for the older parishioners.

Rev. Mendis reflected, “I was raised in this church. As a boy of five years I carried the incense. At 17 I joined the seminary and was ordained at 23 years. Our life, our actions must reflect the love and compassion of Christ.”