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St. Peter's Methodist Church, Jaffna: 

Through the years, from 1823 - DN Thu April 15 2004

by a special correspondent

'The World is my Parish', said John Wesley, the founder of Methodism. The late 18th Century saw a religious revival and an expansion of Missionary work both in England and beyond. The man chiefly responsible for the establishment of Methodist Missions and in particular the Mission to Ceylon was the Rev. Dr. Thomas Coke.

The story of the landing of the first Methodist Missionaries on the southern coast of Ceylon on the 29th June 1814 is a story well known to us as a story of faith. On the 11th July 1814, the early missionaries had a "little Conference" and took decisions as to how they 'should separate so far and to so many places'.

'Who shall go to these far off places?" It was a hard decision for them to make. After prayer, they fixed their stations by lots. The Revs. James Lynch and Thomas Squance were the two to come to the North.

Their overland journey took them ten days. When they reached Jaffna they were welcomed by the Sub Collector of the Province. At Jaffna they conducted divine worship in the Dutch Church inside the Fort. They immediately began to learn Tamil, visiting the bazaars and preaching by interpretation.

The work of the Missionaries during the years 1814-16 was largely introductory. No buildings were purchased. Services were held in the Dutch Church within the Fort and sermons in Tamil, written on 'olas', were circulated.

On the 1st August 1816, the old orphan house and the Lutheran Church opposite the Esplanade (the present Central College hall) were purchased from the Government by Rev. James Lynch for the sum of 646 Rix Dollars.

It was the first property acquired by the Methodist mission in Jaffna. It provided a well situated chapel and school. Rev. Thomas Squance was a great scholar and a diligent student of Portuguese and Tamil. He even wrote a Tamil grammar book.

The work in Jaffna grew steadily. The Lutheran Church, purchased in 1816, became too small a place for worship. The land across the road was purchased therefore, and a new church erected. St. Peter's Church was opened on the 19th February, 1823.

The opening of the new Church in Jaffna was a pleasing and interesting event. Chairs were sent from every part of the town. All the American Missionaries and Church Missionaries were present. The congregation was large.

The Rev. Buckley Fox, the Chairman of the Southern District, preached an appropriate sermon from Psalm 72.19: 'and blessed be His glorious name for ever; and let the whole earth be filled with His glory. Amen and Amen'.

The offertory amounted to 200 Rix Dollars. The cost of the building was Rs. 9,374. The local subscriptions amounted to Rs. 3,681, showing that the people were fully appreciate of the efforts of the missionaries.

While for the most part of the growing congregation in Jaffna Town was English speaking, the work among the Tamil inhabitants also grew. The Rev. James Lynch was keen on starting schools. By 1819 there were thirteen schools in the peninsula. In Jaffna Town alone, by 1823, there were five schools.

They were, one English School, at the Orphan House, and four Tamil schools, in Vannarponnai, Weaver Street, Silver Smith Street and Nallur.

Under the Rev. Peter Percival, a sound policy was established for the development of education in the North. It was Mrs. Percival who started a Boarding School for Girls in 1834. This did much to overcome the prejudice against female education.

Under Rev. Percival's care, Miss Twiddy, the first Protestant lady missionary, initiated the work among girls in Jaffna.

Notwithstanding the strong opposition to female education in the North, the missionaries made unceasing efforts to attract girls to their schools. Of the missionaries' wives who did much for Vembadi, mention must be made in particular of Mrs. Rigg.

Rev. Percival was a Tamil scholar of distinction. Some of the most important Christian literature of this period was produced by him. He translated the whole Bible into Tamil. He was the greatest Tamil scholar Methodism produced in that period.

The first renovation to St. Peter's Church was required in 1837. It was carried out under Rev. Percival (an Architect as well as Minister). The Lutheran Church (the present Central College Hall) was also repaired and improved by him. It was called St. Paul's to distinguish it from St. Peter's. Public Services were held in the town in the Tamil, English and Portuguese languages.

All the Protestant denominations appear to have worked in a spirit of goodwill. The relations with the Church Missionary Society and the American Missions continued to be very friendly.

Almost from the start, the whole staff of Protestant workers were coming together regularly for fellowship. Records tell of a monthly meeting between the Methodists, the C.M.S. and the American Missionaries, for fellowship and prayer. At the first meeting in August 1819, the topic was 'Brotherly Love'.

During the period, 1838-65, there was a sustained development of English education in the North. New Methodist English Schools were started in Jaffna. Out of the boys and girls schools, located in the Mission House premises, came Central College and Vembadi. 'Central' got its first full-time missionary Principal, William Barber, in 1855.

An important development in this period was the establishment of a Book depot in Jaffna, supervised by St. Peter's Church.

Under the Chairmanship of Rev. John Kilner, work at St. Peter's Church became very steady and promising. There came a significant increase in voluntary lay work and in giving. Rev. Kilner's famous slogan was 'Self support, self government, self propagation'.

His most outstanding achievement was the building up of a strong Tamil ministry and the raising of its status. He firmly believed that Tamils must be reached by Tamils, so he made the training of men his chief aim. Rev. Kilner selected a good team of young men and they were all outstanding.

They were Henry J. de Silva, John Philips, Joseph Benjamin, Samuel Niles, W. M. Walton, James Osborn, D. P. Niles, C. Perinpanayagam, J. V. Benjamin, J. R. Vallipuram, Daniel Velupillai, Samuel Hensman and John Fletcher.

In 1865, when Rev. Kilner was on furlough, Revs. William Watson and John Mitchell were in charge of the Jaffna Circuit with Rev. Henry de Silva and Rev. J. W. Philips assisting in the Tamil work. Rev. Mitchell was the Principal of Central College who endeared himself to the boys of Central.

There was an epidemic of cholera in Jaffna and about ten thousand persons were reported to have died. One of them was Rev. Mitchell who was reported to have said as he was dying. 'I am going to Jesus; I am perfectly happy, I have perfect peace; I have no fear'.

Jaffna with Vannarponnai made the greatest contribution of men for the ministry. The membership of Jaffna Circuit increased steadily and the giving was considered to be very good.

Rev. Edmund Rigg was a worthy successor to Rev. Kilner and he was entrusted with the task of executing Kilner's plans. The Church became well organised and the ministry included many men of Christian conviction and energetic action. Such were J. M. Brown, George Pearson, William Winston, Edward Martin, Edward Strutt, George Trimmer, Thomas Little, William Bestall, Joseph West, Arthur Restarick and Shelton Knapp among the missionaries, and D. V. Thamotheram, W. M. Walton, James Osborn, D. P. Niles, John Fletcher, Paul Ahamboram, Jeudasan Kandiah, Christian Perinpanayagam, Daniel Velupillai, Joseph Beebee, Robert Setukavalar, Charles Casinader and Edward Solomon among the Tamil ministers.

The Chairman then lived in Jaffna Town, and besides him there was a missionary and also two Tamil ministers. The Jaffna Circuit became self governing and self supporting and there was much leadership coming from the laity. The devoted family of Thambiah S. Cooke did much to improve and beautify St. Peter's Church. The electric lighting, the stained glass window and a new pulpit were given by this family.

Work at Allaipiddy and Mankumban was started by the Jaffna Home Mission Society and the boys of Central College often joined in the evangelistic campaigns. Their contributions were always appreciated.

Revs. Wilson and Barlow shared great ambitions to recruit educated Tamil youths to the Ministry. As a result, the church furnished the ministry with a number of excellent candidates who had served in the Sunday School and the Youth Guild of St. Peter's.

Rev. Nodder had a great passion for evangelistic work. During his tenure, projects which had been mooted previously were brought into being: Trimmer Hall with its many and varied activities, Vembastan as a Hostel for young ladies and St. Peter's Nursery for pre-school children.

The Rev. M. A. Ratnarajah succeeded Rev. Nodder as Circuit Superintendent in 1976. In addition to fulfilling his Circuit duties, he was also given the arduous role of Chairman of the North and East Districts. Under his leadership, new plans and projects were worked out for Allaipiddy, Kilner Institute and Puttur. His intention was to revive the work for the then 'present age' and to have them serve in ways appropriate.

The Jaffna Circuit took on the responsibility to start a major new project in Puttur, while continuing the medical and evangelistic work. Under the leadership of Mr. S. G. Batstone, an able lay missionary, it was proposed to start a poultry and cattle farm. a carpentry school, gas plant and sewing class.

The vision was to turn the site at Puttur into a centre of many activities. A tutory, weaving centre and home science class were started at Kilner Hall. Once more the place was a hive of activity, lively and useful.

On the 19th February 2004. the 181st birthday of the church was celebrated. On the occasion, our present President of the Methodist Conference, the Rev. A. Noel P. Fernando was present to unveil the plaque commemorating the help St. Peter's has received from the Methodist Church of South Korea.

Happily, Bishop Phark himself was present along with a delegation from South Korea which included missionaries currently serving in Colombo as well. The Chairman was also present, with many members of the Church and Circuit.

Due to a wide circulation to its former members, of the church's need for funds, with help given in this from a number of former ministers and members themselves, the funding still needed today is comparatively small.

Current members are generously playing their part too. With thanks to so many, St. Peter's rises again. So too, this Circuit and that of Point Pedro-Kaddaively, our neighbouring circuit in the Jaffna peninsula, are tackling the challenges of other rebuldings and renewals.

Much mention is made above of the part that has been played in St. Peter's past by Missionaries, both Ministerial and Lay. It is an encouragement to us at this time, that after nearly three decades, we have two Mission Partners for the U.K. serving in Jaffna, Rev. Dr. David Palmer (an Architect and Minister) and Mrs. Sue Palmer (a Health Worker). Their services without doubt have added new life to the church.

In many ways, the God we know and love and seek to serve shows St. Peter's that his hand us upon his church now, as it has been all through the years and particularly through the most difficult times. The Christmas Greetings Card put out by Rev. Karunairaj as part of his fund-raising efforts had the following verse in it. It also became the prayer of the people of St. Peter's:

'Give us strength again to raise this abode of prayer and praise. Quicken Thou our parched souls and let these stones once more resound to joyful harmonious songs'.

May all the glory be to God..

And to the prayer, we add today: