Religion and divine worship have sustained communities for centuries, enhancing the spiritual lifestyle of people. The Anglican Ministry was introduced to Ceylon after the British took control initially of our maritime provinces and subsequently the entire nation (1796-1816). The Portuguese propagated Catholicism and the Dutch were steadfast in establishing protestant Churches. The most zealous Anglican Bishop who made a tremendous impact in Ceylon was Rev. James Chapman.
James Chapman was born in 1790 at Wandsworth. After his primary education, he obtained a scholarship to King’s College, Cambridge. In 1823, he was ordained as a deacon. In 1845, his name was nominated as Bishop of Colombo. He was ordained at Lambeth Palace by Arch Bishop Howley. Prior to his voyage, he began collecting funds for projects he had envisaged in his mind, primarily the building of a Church. Bishop Chapman arrived on November 1 sailing on the SS Malabar. A large crowd was present at the Colombo jetty to welcome him. He made his first visit to St. Peter’s Church, Fort built in 1821 (which stands adjacent to the Grand Oriental Hotel). During the long voyage the determined Rev. Chapman learnt Sinhalese with Rev. Forrescue, a Chaplain. During this period, there were only five ordained clergymen in Ceylon. The Diocese of Colombo was established in 1845.
Bishop Chapman was eager to build a Cathedral and a school for boys. R.C. Carpenter a London-based architect had designed a church and the project began at Mutwal, presently Colombo-13. Slabs of granite and roofing tiles arrived via ship and the Cathedral was completed and consecrated on September 21, 1854 (present day Christ Church, Mutwal).
A school was built and named S. Thomas’ College (later relocated at Mount Lavinia) and Rev. J. Baly was its first Warden. Bishop Chapman retained this same desire to establish and build churches in Jaffna when he sojourned there in 1847.
The north of Ceylon was a vast and mostly arid land with a predominantly-Hindu population. Prior to the arrival of Bishop Chapman, a pioneer missionary priest Rev. Joseph Knight boldly entered the peninsula in November 1818 and won the love and trust of the people. He was then a member of the CMS (Christian Mission Society). His small but faithful congregation began to grow, and he realized the need for a permanent church. In 1822, the Dutch administration gave him permission to use an old Dutch church in Nallur, which was in need of repair.
Construction began in 1824 and the completed Church of St. James was consecrated on July 25, 1828 (Feast of St. James). As the building was 100-feet long and 16-feet wide the wise Rev. Knight set up the first printing press in Jaffna, teaching the skills of printing to many youth. Rev. Knight selected seven students in 1823 and began the first English Seminary in his bungalow. In 1845, the school was relocated to Chundikuli and renamed St. John’s College in 1891.
Another serene church stands in Vavuniya. The Church of the Holy Spirit was built in 1872. In those bygone days, Mullaithivu was a vibrant hub of the Wanni. Bro. Matthias Arulpragasam an evangelist was sent by Bishop Hugh W. Jermyn to minister to the villages here. He came to a village known as Villangulam (the name later changed to Vavuniya). After a few months he was able to secure a jungle land and build the church. In 1878, a school was also built. This was followed by Holy Trinity Church, Kokuvil (1880) Church of St. Matthias, Thanniottru (1913), Holy Emmanuel Church, Urumpiai (1955), St. Paul’s Church, Kilinochchi (1956) from the initial untiring work by the late Muriel Hutchins an Oxford scholar who arrived in Ceylon in 1927, St. Luke’s, Dharmapuram (1962) and Grace Chapel, Nellukulam (1987).
There were only nine Christians in the village of Uduthurai in the 1850s. Two aspiring men, Tourtan and Vervil Fairfield endured the long and difficult journey and settled down in a coconut estate. They began a small school. The Church of England encouraged this endeavour by sending George Daniel as a teacher. In 1862, due to the lack of funds the three men had to return to England. Thereafter Rev. J. Pickford had received a piece ofland from Chinnathamby and a church was built. St. Mary’s Church was dedicated in 1938, by Bishop Mark Carpenter-Garnier.
The Anglican Church has contributed immensely to the education and well-being of all communities in the North empowering the people to aspire for a better future. During the dark decades of conflict the church was a place of refuge for people of all faiths and remains active in counseling people and giving them hope.