St. Paul’s Milagiriya: where Portuguese soldiers were healed | Sunday Observer

St. Paul’s Milagiriya: where Portuguese soldiers were healed

St Paul’s Church, Milagiriya
St Paul’s Church, Milagiriya

One of the oldest Anglican churches in Colombo is the church of St. Paul located at Bambalapitiya. It is known affectionately as St. Paul’s Milagiriya by thousands of Anglicans. The term Milagiriya must not be connected to a location name such as Rajagiriya or Athurugiriya. The term Milagiriya is derived from the Portuguese word Milagres meaning miracle.

During the era when the Portuguese ruled Ceylon they had built a small Roman Catholic chapel at this location. When the Dutch began their systematic conquest of Ceylon they engaged the Portuguese in combat. According to ancient stories injured Portuguese soldiers were brought to a small well near the chapel and bathed, and their wounds healed almost immediately. Since then this was the location of Milagres (miracles). It is recorded that people came from all over the island to take back some water from this well. Subsequently, the Dutch, laying siege to the Fort of Colombo subdued their rivals and began to destroy their places of worship. The small chapel Nossa Senhora dos Milagres, where soldiers once found solace was thus destroyed.

When the British began to wield their influence in Ceylon they went about building Anglican churches. A church was built at Milagiriya in 1848 during the time of Rev. Joseph Thurstan. Its architecture reflected Gothic influence. In 1853 the edifice was dedicated to Saint Paul and consecrated by the Bishop of Colombo Rev. James Chapman. Old church records refer to this event and say the Bishop’s address was interpreted to the natives.

Initially the church did not have a resident vicar and years later it was attached to the Parish of St. Michaels, Polwatte. Eventually, the population around the church had increased and they decided to build a new church. The first vicar in 1890 was Rev. John Ford. The construction work was completed and the magnificent new church built in the style of a Greek basilica was consecrated on November 4, 1903 by Bishop E.A. Copleston. By 1920 the church had her first Ceylonese vicar Rev. (Canon) Lucien Jansz who faithfully served this church for 34 years. Rev. Jansz was a linguist who knew almost 20 languages. The initial congregation consisted of Europeans and Dutch Burghers.

Sanctuary

The present vicar is Rev. (Dr). Rienzie Perera. We walked into the sanctuary. The interior painted in shades of cream and white sustain an aura of solemn stillness. This church does not have vibrant stained glass windows, but is simple and unique in its own way. The ceiling is high and connects to a large dome. The high gable walls embellish the building with strength. Ventilation in those days came in the form of 21 circular fan lights. Rev. Rienzie Perera pointed to a small chapel on the left side and said, “This is the location where the miraculous well once stood, before it was sealed. This is where the injured Portuguese soldiers would have come and waited in hope. Today, as you can see we have a small altar exactly over this point.” This part of the marbled floor was indeed cooler than the other floor areas of the church.

The main altar is simple and has a painting of Christ’s last supper. On the right side is another stunning painting of Jesus washing the feet of his disciples. At the rear of the church is a heavily laid baptism font. A plaque indicates that it was donated by Lambert and Harriet Peiris in memory of their son in 1901.

The first church bell, now not in use was sourced by the Government Agent of Jaffna. It was taken from an old church bearing the same name of Nossa Senhores dos Milagres, which was also destroyed by the defiant Dutch Army. In 1901 a parishioner called Bartholomeusz donated a bell in memory of his wife. The front porch is a result of the good work of Rev. Ivan Corea in 1959.

The church celebrates St. Paul’s Day on January 25 every year.

Speaking on the ministry of the church Rev. Rienzie Perera explained, “Our policy here is that 50 percent of the money we get must go back into the community to help those in need. During the time of Rev. Padmasiri Bhareti he was instrumental in building Dev Siri Sevana, a home for the elders in Welisara. We support the work of Karuna Nillayam in Killinochchi which was established decades ago by the lady missionary Ms. Hutchins. Regular visits are made to this home to assist the war widows who find solace at this venue. This parish also supports the single mothers in the Wanni area to start small cottage industries and thereby earn an income and live an independent life. We run a home for children with special needs in Colombo, called Hands of Hope. In addition, we offer a few scholarships to girls studying at Mowbray Girls’ School in Kandy’.

The Youth Fellowship plays an active role in the church body. A kid’s choir of 30 children add their beautiful voice to the Sunday worship services.

Today St. Paul’s Church has a combined congregation of almost 320 members, and services are conducted in English, Tamil and Sinhalese. For more than 170 years this church has expressed the love of Christ to a multi cultural community. 

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