Remains of Dark Days: The Architectural Heritage of Oratorian Missionary Churches in Sri Lanka
Throughout the 16th and 17th centuries, the island of Sri Lanka was witness to the conversion to Catholicism of a large group of communities located mainly along the seacoast, where the Portuguese established their commercial networks. The Dutch occupation of Sri Lanka in the mid-17th century brought the decline of most of the Catholic churches built by the Portuguese. However, the resistance of the Catholic communities enabled the arrival of the members of the Congregation of the Oratory of St. Philip Neri – formally known as Oratorians – in the latter years of the 17th century.
St. Joseph Vaz founded the Oratorian mission in Sri Lanka after entering the island in 1687. The Oratorians established a new architectural tradition, adapted to the temporal and spiritual needs of the native Catholic population. This “Oratorian model”, along with the entire context in which it emerged, is unique to Sri Lanka. It is the inimitable achievement of an Asian missionary Catholic congregation, unparalleled in the wider history of Christian architecture. The Oratorian model privileges a particular experience of religious space, different from the ones favoured by other Christian denominations in the island. Today, however, the architectural traditions established over three centuries through various forms of Indo-Portuguese influence are being swept away, despite the antiquity of the churches and their historical, cultural and artistic value. Accordingly, the safeguarding of these lesser-known pieces of cultural heritage has become a vital need. Otherwise, they will vanish forever…