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 Post subject: St. Mary's Church, Badalgama - Unique Chapel with indigenous
 Post Posted: Sat Jun 25, 2005 6:37 pm 
St. Mary's Church, Badalgama - Unique Chapel with indigenous outlook

BY W.T.A. LESLIE Fernando

THE European missionaries during the Portuguese times who established the Catholic Church in Sri Lanka in the 16th century imposed Western culture on people along with Christianity.

During the Dutch times, the Oratorian priests made an attempt to bring about a synthesis between Christian traits and indigenous cultural patterns. Nevertheless the art and architecture remained Western.

In 1940s when the administration of the Church began to be indigenised there was a renaissance in the sphere of Catholic cultural activity. The late Bishop Edmund Pieris revived some works of Oratorian missionaries.

Others like Fr. D.J. Anthony, Fr. Marcelline Jayakody, Sunil Shantha and J.K.S. Perera produced outstanding religious literary works and hymns that contained both Christian traits and national outlook.

Until the 1950s the Catholic churches in Sri Lanka were built on Western models following Roman forms and Greek Gothic style. However the Bassilica in Tewatta which was designed in 1940s deviated from the normal pattern and has elements of oriental architecture.

The first church in Sri Lanka to be built strictly adhering to indigenous art and architecture was St. Mary's Church, Badalgama. It was the brainchild of Fr. Henry Rodrigo OMI, which was begun in 1953 and completed in 1956.

In building St. Mary's Church, Badalgama Fr. Henry Rodrigo adopted art and architecture, sculptural forms and decorative designs in the Anuradhapura period.

He followed Kandyan architecture in designing the outer structure, facade and the roof. St. Mary's Church Badalgama has proved what a beautiful church could be built following indigenous art and architecture. Now almost all the new Catholic churches in Sri Lanka are built with an indigenous outlook.

When the construction of the celebrated St. Mary's Church, Badalgama was in progress, though not in such a grandiose form, another church with an indigenous outlook was taking shape in the foothills of Hantane. This was the Church of Our Lady of the Seat of Wisdom in the Peradeniya University Campus.

The Chapel was designed by the then Peradeniya University Catholic chaplain and well known scholar Fr. Ignatious Pinto.

Its construction was initiated in 1953 and was completed within two years. It was blessed by Dr. Bernard Regno OSB the Bishop of Kandy and was formally inaugurated in late 1955. In a way the Chapel of Our Lady of the Seat of Wisdom could be considered as the first church with an indigenous outlook.

The Arts Faculty of the University of Ceylon was shifted to Peradeniya in 1952. The Catholic Students who moved to Peradeniya University Campus formed the Catholic Students' Union there in October 1952. In 1953, the society allied itself with university Catholic students world-wide and changed its name into Newman Society.

With the shifting of the Arts Faculty of the University Fr. Ignatious Pinto moved to Peradeniya as lecturer in European History and chaplain of the Catholic students. Soon he conceived the idea to build a chapel and a hall of residence. After months of tenacious correspondence Fr. Iganatious Pinto managed to get a land within the University Campus.

While the construction of the project was in progress Fr. Ignatious Pinto took up residence in the site sharing part of the shed meant for workers and supervised it tirelessly making a tremendous sacrifice.

Due to his courage, determination and perseverance Fr. Pinto could make his dream a reality under two years. It was Fr. Ignatious Pinto who named the chapel with the inspiring choice 'Church of Our Lady of the Seat of Wisdom'.

Fr. Ignatious Pinto built the chapel in accordance with national concepts with Kandyan elements and Lotus shaped lamps etc. to fall in line with the early University buildings in Peradeniya. The triumphant climax of his thinking is the Mosaic with Our Lady of the Seat of Wisdom in saree in an indigenous framework with a Kandyan arch at the top.

He commissioned the Goan artist Angela Trinidad to lay out the Mosaic. Such an outstanding Mosaic with an oriental flavour is not found in any other Catholic church in Sri Lanka.

There is a tendency among some to depict Blessed Virgin Mary in cloth and jacket and St. Joseph in national dress to bolster up the national ethos.

This is absurd, for in that event in the West Our Lady should be presented in frock and St. Joseph in coat and trousers. It should be emphasised that Our Lady appeared in Lourdes in France and Fatima in Portugal in her usual Jewish dress and not in Western frock.

As such the Blessed Virgin Mary has to be depicted in her usual garb even to depict her with a national outlook. This aspect is magnificently dealt within the Mosaic of the Church of Our Lady of the Seat of Wisdom.

At present the women in Sri Lanka except some Muslim ladies do not cover their heads with the saree. The Jewish custom of covering the head is retained in the Mosaic.

However the saree and the manner it is worn has the oriental touch. As a result Our Lady is presented in her usual appearance in an oriental outlook. Any Sri Lankan or an Indian looking at the Mosaic could find her in accordance with his own native background.

Besides the Mosaic of the Church of Our Lady of the Seat of Wisdom is a fascinating work of art pregnant with meaning. The authority of Our Lady is manifested with a throne laid upon a Lotus which symbolises purity. The crest jewel in her crown and angels worshipping her makes her a queen.

The seven lamps at her feet are interpreted as the light of the Holy Spirit emdowing the gifts of knowledge, understanding, wisdom, counsel, fortitude piety and fear of the Lord. The light emanating from the Holy Infant on lap radiates 32 stars found in the background.

The Mosaic of the Church of Our Lady of the Seat of Wisdom encompasses all the virtues an undergraduate should possess when he or she comes out to the world. As a whole this church is a masterpiece manifesting Sri Lankan national identity.

The chapel of Our Lady of the Seat of Wisdom with its indigenous art and architecture and its wonderful Mosaic with an oriental outlook is a unique structure that adorns Peradeniya University Campus.

It stands as a monument to its creator the great and holy priest of God, erudite historian and founder chaplain of the Newman Society in Peradeniya, Rev. Fr. Ignatious Pinto.

(The writer is a former High Court Judge and a Vice-President of the Newman Alumni Association)

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