St. Paul's Milagiriya celebrates 150th anniversary
by Frederick Mendis
The church of St. Paul's, Milagiriya will be celebrating its 150th Anniversary and a Thanks giving service will be held
on the 26th January 2003, where the celebrant and preacher will be the Bishop of Colombo, Right Rev. Duleep de Chickera.
St. Paul's, Milagiriya
In the year 1848 (the year of the Rebellion against British taxation, with it's subsequent disturbances around the country),
a large extent of land was made available by the British government for the construction of a church to serve the needs of
Christian worshippers in the fast - developing area of Milagiriya (Bambalapitiya).
The land allotted was close to what remained of an old Portuguese Roman Catholic church dedicated to Nossa Senhora dos
Milagres (Our Lady of Miracles). In this church compound extending southward, past the groves of cinnamon and also across
the present Galle Road, there was a drinking well whose waters were reputed to have miraculous properties.
The sick and suffering were carried here on "andors" (andooru) and stretchers made of sticks and planks to receive healing
for their various ailments. A later Dutch Thombu shows that the church extended to the gardens on both sides of the highroad.
The entire area took the name "Milagiriya" from the Sinhalised form of the Portuguese word "Milager," or Miracle.
In their progressive onslaught on the Portuguese fort of Colombo, the Dutch invaders advanced along the western coastline.
Having seized the church at Milagiriya, they occupied it in 1655. They are rumoured to have used the buildings and the premises
for the storage of arms and ammunition, including heavy cannon and the "springhaan" or "grass-hopper cannon".
The Church of St. Thomas, Gintupitiya, the church of San Sebastian (on the hill bearing that name), and Milagiriya church
were ravaged and desecrated. The antagonism which the Reformist Dutch had towards the Roman Catholic Church was given full
expression to, and was much in evidence.
Time and again orders were issued for the demolition of Catholic churches all over the occupied area of the country and
for the annihilation of its clergy. (Consequently many priests were martyred in the cause of their religion, by the Dutch
plakaart (or proclamation) of 19th September 1658.
In 1656, after the capitulation to the Dutch, the Milagiriya church gave way to a Sinhala school where instruction was
made available in the religion of the Reformists. The headmaster of the school was the registrar of baptisms, marriages, and
In 1848 the Rev. Joseph Thurstan was chiefly responsible for superintending the construction of the new church which was
dedicated to St. Paul the Apostle.
The building was in gothic style of architecture and was consecrated for worship in 1853 by the First Bishop of Colombo,
A few months later an interesting sketch appeared in the "illustrated London News" magazine. It showed that elaborate preparations
had been made and that large pandals in local style with tall areacanut palms festooned with ferns and greenery, and also
bunches of young coconuts and woven gokkola (tender coconut leaves) were used for decoration. Depicted in the sketch was also
the small congregation of western-clad ladies and gentlemen assembled and ready to enter ceremonially into the church.
In the wide extent of the church garden there was an industrial School for children of the area. This was probably a continuation
of the Dutch Sinhala (or Sinhalese) school which had been established a century earlier. It was one of the main educational
institutions maintained by the Dutch.
St. Paul's church, Milagiriya had no permanent resident clergyman, but recores show that the Chaplain of Christ Church
in Galkissa, Rev. C. Senanayake, together with his assistants, ministered to the needs of the congregation.
Years later, St. Paul's Milagiriya was attached to St. Michael's Church, Polwatta, under Archdeacon W.E. Matthew.
St. Michael's Church, Polwatta, newly dedicated in 1877, was situated on land which was referred to as Wassermandorpen
(or Washerman's garden). The separation came in 1899, when Milagiriya was made a distinct parish together with the Church
of the Good Shepherd, Thimbrigasyaya. It is interesting to note that St. Michael & All Angels was originally named St.
Thomas' Chapel, Kollupitiya.
When in 1886 Archdeacon W.E. Matthew was transferred from Kandy to Colombo and took charge of the Colombo South District
Churches (including Galkissa, Milagiriya, Thimbirigasyaya and Polwatte), he suggested altering the names St. Thomas' Chapel
to Church of the Good Shepherd, Kollupitiya. However, it was dedicated to St. Michael and All Angels.
For some years from 1857 the land made available for a church at Thimbirigasyaya was not utilized. It was the Rev. Joseph
Thurstan, Colonial Chaplain in charge of Christ Church Galkissa and Milagiriya, who built the small and attractive church.
Within a comparatively short period the church fell into disuse and served the purpose of a boys' school. (This school is
believed to have been located later in Thurstan Road which was named after him).
By mid - 1929, the High Level Road constructed from Colombo to Avissawella came into use. This road which bisected the
Milagiriya, Havelock Town and Thimbirigasyaya areas, saw the influx of a new residential Christian population which helped
increase the numbers in the congregation.
It was now found necessary to build a new church and vicarage to replace the old structure of St. Paul's which was showing
signs of dilapidation. In order to obtain funds for the construction, it was decided to sell a part of the land. Rs. 44,000
was realized. This was a considerable sum of money at the time. The new church was built in the style of a Greek Basilica
and was consecrated by Bishop E.A. Copleston on the 4th November 1903.
This church is believed to have obtained from the Government Agent of Jaffna a large disused bell. It was from the belfry
of the 16th century Portuguese Roman Catholic Church bearing the same name "Nossa Senhora dos Milagres" (Our Lady of Miracles)
During the Second World War 1939-1945, because of its proximity to the main residential areas, and also because of the
church's pivotal position on the Galle Road, the Sunday services especially had a goodly sprinkling of uniformed members of
the fighting forces, both local and foreign.
It is good to mention that St. Paul's Church, Milagiriya maintained a high-water-mark standard in its daily and weekly
services, including the care and concern for young people and those who were elderly or sick and in need of special ministrations,
together with the indigent. Regularity and punctuality were matched by the neat, kempt and well-attired appearance of its
congregation, many of whom were persons who held high office and administrative positions in state and private departments.
The well-maintained church compound lent itself to the weekly post-service gatherings of its members. A large percentage
of its regular congregation came from the Dutch-Burgher community whose families had worshipped here for more than two generations.
In the 1960's, however, with the emigration of the Sri Lankan Burgher population to Australia, St. Paul's Church, Milagiriya
lost a large part of its congregation.