Holy Emmanuel Church, Moratuwa: A towering monument of faith | Sunday Observer

Holy Emmanuel Church, Moratuwa: A towering monument of faith

10 February, 2019

Moratuwa has a large population of Christians and an assortment of churches and shrines. The Christian community of Moratuwa remains steadfast to their faith. One of the most imposing structures visible from Galle Road is the tower of the Holy Emmanuel Church.

As I walked along the neatly paved roads leading to this church I encountered a beautiful black horse, grazing on a patch of grass. The vestry on the right hand side is where the incumbent parish priest had agreed to meet me. Rev. Adrian Aaron is joined by a senior parishioner, retired engineer Chandra Perera. The clergyman explains, “This church is believed to be the first Anglican Church built in this area. It reflects the passion and generosity of a noble Gate Mudaliyar, who desired to build this house of worship for God, and he was supported by many devout believers”. This church has a unique distinction of eminent parishioners, who joined the priesthood and went on to hold the supreme office of Bishop - they are Bishop Harold de Soysa, Bishop Swithin Fernando and Bishop Kenneth Fernando. The incumbent Bishop of Kurunegala, Rev. Keerthisiri Fernando is also a former parishioner of this church.

A generous Gate Mudaliyar

Jeronis de Soysa was born on April 19, 1797. During his childhood he was dedicated to the Buddhist priesthood by his parents Joseph de Soysa and Francisca Peiris, who were both Buddhists. He studied at the Palliyagodella Buddhist temple in Moratuwa, and mastered the Sinhala language, astrology and ayurveda medicine. As the years went by Jeronis augmented these skills with business acumen, astuteness and a public spirit. It is recorded that his grandfather Bastian de Soysa made a journey by foot to the Kandyan territory in search of trading opportunities. Bastian was a cousin of Don Pedro de Soysa Wijesinghe, the Maha Vidhane of Panadura. Joseph de Soysa who made a fortune by trading in tobacco and hiring bullock carts. He also ventured into agriculture and cattle farming. Young Jeronis moved to Kandy in 1825 and traded there. Subsequently, he purchased 482 acres of land in Hanguranketha and began planting coffee. Coffee was in demand during this era.

The church

It is said he was a far sighted businessman and all he touched turned to gold. He opened the first local bank in 1839, known as the Bank of Kandy. By 1853 the prominent Jeronis de Soysa was bestowed with the title of Gate Mudaliyar. During this time he was befriended by Rev. William Oakley of the Church Missionary Society and he soon embraced Christianity. Shortly, the blessed businessman began to build an Anglican Church in Moratuwa and gifted the land and building to Rev. Dr. James Chapman, Bishop of Colombo in 1860. After living a full life and serving his community Jeronis de Soysa died aged 65. He is buried inside the church which he lovingly built. His gravestone is carved with a tribute in Sinhalese.

Prior to this church being built here, there was an old Dutch church built in 1675, where the cemetery stands today (behind Holy Emmanuel Church). By 1815 it was demolished and Governor Sir Robert Brownrigg built an Anglican church which was known among the natives as Brownrigg palliya. It was Jeronis de Soysa who appealed to the Bishop of Colombo to demolish the old church and build a new one. The then Governor Sir Henry Ward sanctioned the request. The cornerstone for Holy Emmanuel Church was laid on December 27, 1857. The project would cost 80,000 rupees (5,338 sterling pounds). By 1860 the church was complete and consecrated. The pioneer priests who served this parish were Rev. Abraham Mendis, Rev. Arthur Copleston, Rev. Johannes de Silva, Rev. Jacob Mendis followed years later by learned luminaries in the calibre of Rev. Harold de Soysa (great grandson of founder Jeronis) and the amiable Canon Lakshman Peiris. Another name associated with this church is Charles Henry de Soysa the only son of church builder Gate Mudaliyar Jeronis. Charles de Soysa is remembered as a great philanthropist.

Gothic style

The beautiful church was designed by Major Skinner of the Department of Public Works and displays a strong Gothic style. A salient feature of the building is the 120 foot tower that rises majestically into the sky, making the Holy Emmanuel Church an iconic landmark in Moratuwa. Gazing up at the tower from within the church it’s hard to imagine how the pioneering builders achieved this feat.

The length of the church is 105 feet. The roof of the nave rests on six arches. The stained glass windows were imported from England. The wooden carvings on the altar beautifully enrich the holy sanctum. The church celebrated her centenary in 1960, which was a grand occasion. Walking inside with Rev. Adrian I noticed the pipe organ, positioned on the left side of the altar. The organ was donated to the church in 1902 by two brothers bearing the surname Mendis. At present this beautiful organ is in need of repair. The skill of playing the pipe organ is becoming a lost skill in the Anglican Church and in the broader spectrum of the Christian churches in Sri Lanka.

The present choir master Lasla Fernando has served the parish for 60 long years and was felicitated by the Bishop of Colombo for his outstanding dedication.

The Holy Emmanuel Church continues to serve the Anglican community of Moratuwa, through various forms of ministry, including the Sunshine Home for elderly women. The church also offers scholarships for selected, needy students.