21 Aug The Dutch Reformed Church in Galle, Where Heritage Meets Community
The Dutch Reformed Church is a must-visit in the UNESCO listed heritage town of Galle. It was one of the first buildings the Dutch planned when they conquered the Fort from the Portuguese in 1640. It took about half a century to complete the grand, white gabled structure, strategically placed on the site of an existing Portuguese Capuchin convent, located at the highest point in the Fort. The church remains one of the oldest Protestant churches in Sri Lanka. We sit down for tea with Reverend Lakmal Wijeratne to learn about the town’s heritage, culture, and community.
A Community Spirit
“The Fort is unique. We have strong ties across all faiths. All the places of worship have a place in the community. The neighbourhood is made up of Muslim, Hindu, Buddhist, and Christian residents. Everyone rallies together to support each other in times of difficulty. Non-Christian residents have told me that the church is part of their lives and history. People have taken it in turns to protect the building at different times. After the tsunami, the Fort was a hub for coordinating relief efforts. When it was suggested that the churches moved their congregations outside of the Fort, the residents opposed the move and strongly felt they should remain.”
“THE FORT IS A LIVING MONUMENT WHICH GIVES IT A LOT OF RICHNESS AND DEPTH. IT IS PARTLY A PLACE OF HISTORIC SIGNIFICANCE BUT ALSO VERY MUCH LINKED TO PEOPLE’S LIVES“
The church is a must-visit site in the UNESCO listed heritage town
The Dutch Reformed Church still looks as picture–perfect as it did in the 18th century. Image: Galle Heritage Foundation
A Historic Space
“This is the place where the Christian Reformed Church (formerly known as the Dutch Reformed Church) began in Sri Lanka. Therefore, any pastor would want to serve here within his lifetime. On the 6th of October 1642, the first predicate started a ministry in the Fort. In those days, the congregation worshipped in four different places, including the spice warehouses and gunpowder storeroom near the lighthouse. This Church was built in 1755, primarily for the Dutch administrators. This is our bedrock. When I preach here on a Sunday, it has a special feeling even though we have a small congregation of 85-90. The only place that can give it some competition in terms of history and atmosphere is the Wolfendahl Church in Colombo. For the 375th anniversary, the church was packed – 2,500 people attended and were spilling out of the sides. When I mount the pulpit or say a prayer it often strikes me, and I think, ‘Wow this is where it all began.’ I always say that because of this Church, I’m an important person in Galle. Not because of who I am – I am not from Galle – but because of the building. It has been a wonderful privilege to work here.”
“THERE IS A REAL COMMUNITY SPIRIT HERE. THIS HERITAGE GIVES PEOPLE A LOT OF IDENTITY”
“When Dutch people visit, they have a lot of connections to these tombstones and the plaques on the walls. There are also some British ones as the Anglican Church used the building for a while before they built All Saints Church. Some people sit here and cry – they get a real sense of home and, of the lives of their ancestors. It may have been where their great-great-grandmother was baptized, or their great-great-grandfather got married. I have a lot of letters from visitors who say how much their time here has meant to them.”
Reverend Lakmal Wijeratne leads the mass here every Sunday
All the places of worship have a place in the Fort community; the neighbourhood is made up of Muslim, Hindu, Buddhist, and Christian residents
The Dutch Reformed Church in Galle still has an original calamander wood pulpit, honeycombed floor tiles, a vintage grand organ, and beautiful stained-glass windows. The highlight is the church floor paved with giant gravestones. These were burial chambers for the embalmed remains of the Dutch elite. Some were brought from older graveyards along Pedlar and Church Street, which closed in 1710 and 1804. They provide a great insight into the “who is who” of society in the old days; people didn’t live long back then. The gravestones in the garden hold another secret: legend has it there is an underground cemetery with skeletons from the 18th century.
Little Known Fact
This Church took a while to build; the foundation stone was laid in 1682. The work started decades later when the Dutch Governor (de Jong) and his wife (Geertruyda) made a considerable contribution to celebrate the birth of a long-awaited daughter in 1752. The child wasn’t baptised until the church was completed. On the wall is a spectacular mural tablet commemorating the deaths of de Jong and Samland, another well-known 18th century commander. The tiny T-shirt is said to be Samland’s baptism gown.
The Dutch Reformed Church still has original calamander wood pulpits, honeycombed floor tiles, and a vintage grand organ
On the wall is a spectacular mural tablet commemorating the death of Samland, a well-known 18th century commander; the tiny t-shirt is said to be his baptism gown
Want to Find the Soul of Galle?
Find more stories behind Galle’s heritage buildings in the iDiscover Galle Guide, an illustrated map that comes with a free navigational app. Curated by the passionate folks at the Galle Heritage Foundation, the App&Map guide features 3 handcrafted walking itineraries that help you see Galle through the lens of locals. The map is an artistic ode to the heritage town, while the app helps you to get around and provides intimate portraits of long-time locals and know-how on the historical layers of the architecture.
Explore Fort through the lens of locals with the iDiscover App&Map, created and designed by locals
Words by Daisy Perry
Daisy is a writer who finds inspiration in everyday Sri Lankan life. She loves listening to and recording people’s stories. In the Fort, she is most likely to be found having tea with friends or having a swim off Lady’s Sea Bath Beach.
Photos by Atheeq Ifthikar
Atheeq is a photographer with a passion for Galle Fort. In fact, it is here that he learned how to use a camera. He loves capturing people’s unique characteristics. Atheeq is most likely to be found on the ramparts giving a walking tour or at his friend’s art gallery on Leyn Baan Street.