Mutuwal - The heart of Old Catholic Colombo

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Flag of Sri Lanka  , Western,
Friday, June 11, 2010

Mutuwal, on a peninsula of land in the north of Colombo, was at one time the home of many of the well-to-do of the city.  In particular, the free Burghers – citizens of European (Portuguese, Dutch and British) descent – lived in great numbers in the area, which was known as Colombo 7.  Most of these Burghers – and most of the residents of Colombo 7 – were Christians. Some were Anglicans, some Methodists, and some belonged to the Dutch Reformed Church.  But the great bulk were Catholics. 
 
But, with the passage of years, most of the old residents moved out to other parts of the city.  Even the name ‘Colombo 7’ was passed on to another part of the city, Cinnamon Gardens, which is now Colombo’s most exclusive suburb (Mutuwal is comprised of Colombo 14 and 15).
 
The original Mutuwal area has seen better days; many refugees from the fighting in the North lived there until recently, and the local Muslim community is heavily represented.  With the exception of some small pockets, such as Elai House Road, Mutuwal now has a somewhat sad and unkempt appearance, albeit that it retains a great sense of liveliness.  There is also a level of communal unrest there.  Whilst I was in Colombo, there was a large riot outside of the Police Station at Mutuwal, which was overrun by the protestors.
 
However, Mutuwal also retains traces of its grander days.  Apart from Elai House – a beautiful old mansion in a leafy backstreet – those traces of grandeur relate to three places of Catholic interest; St. James’ Parish Church, St. Anthony’s Girl’s school, and De La Salle Boy’s College.
 
St. James is, in my humble opinion, not the most beautiful parish church in Colombo, but it is certainly the grandest.  It is absolutely vast, and can sit more than 2,000 people.  It was built at the start of the twentieth century; its grand scale is a testament both to the faith and generosity, but also the prosperity and affluence, of the Catholic community of the time.  The bell tower, in particular, is a remarkable building.  Complete with a French made clock (the missionary clergy of the time were French), it stands nearly as high as the church itself, and is adorned with a great many artistics flourishes.
 
But the Church, like many others in Columbo, suffers from the harshness o weather and pollution, but most of all from the fact that the Catholic community in the parish is no longer so numerous or so prosperous as it once was, and funds for renovation of the Church don’t match its needs.  Nevertheless, it remains an imposing sight, and should certainly be visited by any Catholic travelling to Colombo.  I’ll use tomorrow’s blog to talk of the schools; that’ll give me a chance to discuss Catholic education in Sri Lanka.
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