The stillness is all-encompassing, but there is no feeling of isolation or loneliness. Engulfed in the warm green glow of this beautiful white and green setting, the eyes are drawn and held by the tiny flickering flame, eternally lit in honour of the Blessed Sacrament, while the Holy Family looks down with benevolence from the stained glass windows high above the altar.
This has been the very heart and soul of the convent school by the sea at Bambalapitiya -- the chapel of Holy Family Convent to which thousands of students faithfully made and still make their way early morning before the bell summons them for their lessons.
It is here that not only students as young as five and others as old as 19 but also teachers and parents come with their sorrows and their joys, their trials, tribulations and triumphs to say thank you or seek solace, leaving with a renewed sense of comfort and strength.
The chapel is also no strange place for non-Catholic students of this "community school" which sees an integration of all races and religions. With no compulsion whatsoever, they haunt its corridors, peep in or step in to take a breath of the serenity and tranquillity that emanate from here.
Tenderly and lovingly looked after by the nuns of the Holy Family, the chapel remains a "lure" for many "old girls" too, long after the "deep clear bell call rings its summons never more". Services at the chapel are inevitable whatever celebrations they hold years after they have left the portals of the school - the tone being set for reunions, 50th birthday celebrations and events of the Past Pupils' Association with a prayer here.
For past Familian Rosemarie Joachim the chapel was the retreat for peace, solace and to meet Jesus personally. "Meeting Jesus in the chapel was and still is very special. I return to the respite it offers; to sit in its warm embrace and remember.,” she says with emotion, recalling the many retreats experienced here…. "the silence, the talks and very specially the haunting strains of 'Veni Creator Spiritu', we sang each morning before Mass; the monthly confessions before first Friday with the nuns keeping the silence; the May procession ending here with the crowning of Our Lady and the hymn 'Queen of the May' being sung lustily by one and all; the five minutes each morning saying 'hello' to Jesus before school starts; and of course the urgent appeals before examinations."
How did this "heart-throb" of HFC come about?
It was on August 29, 1933, 30 long years after the convent school had started from humble beginnings that "the newly-risen chapel was seen, in all her chaste beauty, decked as a bride, awaiting the solemn rites of the church's sacred blessing", according to the 'Refreshing Breezes - 1933', the school magazine.
Refreshing Breezes explains, "……..the Mothers (the nuns who toiled to set up the convent school) had lived on, praying, planning, striving, in the hope of the great consummation - the erection of a worthy temple….in a manner and in a measure which satisfied their dearest aspirations."
In 1928, it records, the school celebrated its silver jubilee and the proceeds from a grand fancy bazaar held by the past and present pupils were set aside for the chapel.
Those from the past whose beloved names are linked with the chapel are Rev. Mother M. Leonide who "threw herself heart and soul into this great enterprise" and "prayed much, planned with care and worked without respite" and Rev. Mother Rose de Lima, Superior, who set aside the "handsome gift" from her pupils, past and present, those of Bambalapitiya as well as their younger sisters of Dehiwela, for the marble altar.
The corner stone of this edifice had been laid and blessed on the feast of St. Joseph on March 19, 1932 amidst a gathering of clergy and laity graced by the then Archbishop Most Rev. P. Marque, OMI, himself with the then Rector of St. Joseph's College, Rev. Fr. M.J. LeGoc, OMI, also in attendance.
This is how this edifice is described way back in 1933: “Rising in clear relief against it (Galle Road), extending parallel to the road along a distance of 220 feet, stands a building of spotless white, its symmetrical lines cut by a single upstanding cross.. It is the new block of the Holy Family Convent…..with the predominance of the matchless Gothic style.
In the decorative features you find nothing flamboyant. It is the tasteful simplicity of the design, the chaste beauty of the execution, that most impress you.
“The chapel is built at right angles to the main building which, thus, with the guarding walls of the portico, acts as a barrier between the sacred edifice and the outer world. You enter through the outer portal which is also the central door of the entire block. Immediately above you is a white painted ceiling which is really the upper storey that serves as the gallery for the convent choir.
As your eye rests on the scene before you there is no need to tell you that you are indeed standing in a holy place. Here are the sacred language of imagery and symbolism, here above all the mystic realization of the greatest of all divine operations on earth - the sacrifice of Calvary - upon the altar which itself in its spotless purity was so suggestive of the Lamb of God ever offered immolation, but ever present in fullness of Godhead and manhood beyond the glittering door of the tabernacle.”
The tabernacle had been a gift from a devoted past pupil, while many had been the great and small contributions by others to make the chapel what it is today.
And today, the most poignant and enduring memory for many a Familian, young or old, is youthful voices raised in praise and worship on a chilly night in December with the high notes of 'O Holy Night' echoing not only within the darkened chapel but also their very hearts to be carried away when the music is heard no more, along with the very values that the chapel solidly stands for.
How you can help
The Past Pupils’ Association has joined the efforts of the Familian family to restore and renovate the chapel.
While organizing the fundraiser, ‘Rock to the rhythm of Bathiya and Santhush’, on October 30 at the auditorium of St. Joseph's College, Colombo 10, the PPA requests all Familians and their supporters to rally round and contribute their mite towards "our special chapel".
Donations may be sent to the 'Past Pupils Association Holy Family Convent Bambalapitiya', A/C No: 039 010004301 at the Hatton National Bank, Bambalapitiya branch.
For more information please contact a PPA committee member on phone: 0773619455 or 0714897951.