St. Paul’s : A confluence of faith and hope | Sunday Observer

St. Paul’s : A confluence of faith and hope

The Church of Saint Paul, located at Kynsey Road adjacent to the Colombo National Hospital is modelled on the magnificent Cathedral of Sofia, in Istanbul, which radiates with the elements of Byzantine architecture.

In her long journey of 200 years she had her own moments of affliction and controversy as the vicarage was once the pivotal point in the double murders committed by one of her departed parish priests. But a church is not for perfect people, it is for the perfection of people.

As we reflect on the life of the apostle Paul, prior to his conversion on the road to Damascus it is evident that he murdered and persecuted the early believers. Yet, when he encountered God in his divine grace Saul was transformed and became Paul- one of the ardent witnesses for the gospel of Christ.

From Pettah to Kynsey Road

By 1816 there were many Anglicans residing in the busy area of the Pettah. It was an era when horse drawn carts and double yoke bullock carts moved freely in Colombo. The Pettah being adjacent to the Harbour was a crowded place. Traders gathered to engage in business, and this factor is true even today. The devout Christians built a house for worship which had a large verandah and cadjun roof. By 1821, the Bishop of Calcutta (who had jurisdiction over Ceylon) visited the island and consecrated this humble church.

In 1845, there was a dark chapter when the church was accidentally set ablaze by fireworks and burnt down. The congregation was determined to rebuild their church. By this time Pettah was too crowded and her residents began to move to areas like Maradana, Borella and Dematagoda. Soon, of the 300 Anglican families only a few remained. At this point the church realized the need to re-position itself and a land was found at Kynsey Road, Colombo 8. In 1926 a decision was taken by Rev. F.P. Harton to sell the old church in the Pettah and use the funds to commence building a new church.

The construction of the new church was spearheaded by Rev. Basil Jayawardene in June 1930. Initially, the committee wanted a church with Gothic architecture. However, Rev. Basil convinced them that they should have a style with wide space for comfortable worship and thus selected the model of the Cathedral of Sofia, in Istanbul. The building committee was headed by Rt. Rev. Mark Carpenter Garnier, Bishop of Colombo. Architects, Edward, Reid and Booth were commissioned to design the church, and the Colombo Commercial Company was awarded the contract to build the sacred edifice.

It is recorded that the cornerstone laying ceremony took place on January 22, 1933, with a procession from Pettah walking towards Regent Street. A crowd of 600 persons had solemnly marched towards Kynsey Road as the band of the Ceylon Light Infantry played the hymn, ‘Praise my soul the King of heaven’. In January 1934, the new church was consecrated by the Bishop of Colombo, amid heavy rain. Rev. Basil Jayawardene was the first Vicar of this church.

Today, one can see a marble statue of Christ in the garden. This has a beautiful story of how it got to Colombo from Kandy. The statue had first been gifted to Trinity College, Kandy. However, since it did not fit the chapel the statue was kept in a store room. Rev. Basil who discovered it convinced the Principal Rev. A.C. Houlder to transfer it to St. Paul’s Church, Colombo. Rev. Basil, a native of Kandy was a past student of Trinity College. He studied theology at Cuddesdon College, Oxford, and was ordained in England. Rev. Basil Jayawardene served the church for 28 years, and on his death was buried on the right side in the church garden. In the early days the church had a close link with the Divinity School of the Diocese at De Saram Road.

Byzantine reflections

I entered the church with its present vicar Rev. Dushantha Rodrigo, (who is also Head Master of S. Thomas Preparatory School) and he pointed out the unique designs of this sanctuary. Above the High Altar is a majestic dome that rises into the sky. Around the border of the dome are four carved white figures from the celestial realm-probably Archangels. The church has three small chapels. The first two are on the left and right sides of the altar. The third chapel is on the side of the west door and is open to the public throughout the day. St. Paul’s Church is located behind the National Hospital, and families of patients are often seen earnestly praying for divine healing. For decades the families of the sick have found solace in this chapel.

The choir loft is reached by mounting 37 steps on a spiral staircase. I was awed to see a large pipe organ, though not in use anymore. From this vantage point the view of the church below is amazing. The floor tiles are large blocks of marble in red, blue and a subdued green. A unique feature of this Anglican Church is the Baptism pool (others have a stand or marble font).

The pool can be reached from either side by climbing down the steps, to reflect the submersion of Lord Jesus as he was baptized by John the Baptist. The wooden pews have survived for more than 150 years. The altar railing has yet another unique element, it is held in place by a dozen gilded angels.

The vicar Rev.Fr. Dushantha Rodrigo said, “We are a strong community of believers. This church also attracts people who come to visit their family members at the General Hospital. They often come in to pray for the sick”.

Saint Paul’s Church maintains its witness, as the churches in Sri Lanka boldly rise up to shine the light of the gospel.