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St. Stephen's Church, Negombo celebrates125th anniversary

by Mallika Fernando: DN 2004

St. Stephen's Church, Negombo will be celebrating the 125th anniversary on the 31st of July, 2004. The Church is dedicated to the first Christian martyr Stephen who was stoned to death.

This picturesque church of Gothic architecture stands on a mound by the placid waters of the Negombo Lagoon, in a very scenic location away from the hustle and bustle of the much congested bazaar.

The surrounding area is also of much archaeological and historical importance and is still referred to as the Dutch Fort.

It was consecrated on July 31, 1879 by Rt.Rev. R.S. Copleston, Bishop of Colombo. The church membership in those early days were the British government officials serving in the area and members of the Burgher and Sinhalese communities.

Worship services from the very beginning have been conducted in both English and Sinhalese and it's noteworthy that the Bishop had addressed the worshippers in Sinhalese at a subsequent service following the service of consecration.

From the very inception of the church there had been a considerable number of Tamil parishioners too.

Then on over the years under the pastoral care and the spiritual guidance of the Vicars who served here the membership of the church continued to grow. Later on with worship services conducted in all three languages.

In 1960s many members of the Burgher community and even the Vicar Rev. Douglas Bartholomeusz with his family migrated to Australia.

The spiritual renewal that accompanied the centenary and the Biblical teaching on the oneness in Christ, coupled with spiritual guidance and wise counsel of every Vicar, the two separate congregations English/Sinhala and Tamil united into one congregation as we stepped into the new millennium.

A worthy offering to our Lord and saviour as we now come together in celebrating the anniversary. The trilingual services and the fellowship among the members sans language barriers is indeed an event to celebrate and rejoice.

The ecumenical links with other Christian denominations in the area has further strengthen the unity in Christ, enabling united worship and celebration on Independence Day, May Day, and open air Carol singing during Christmas. We at St. Stephen's have the unique opportunity of worshipping God together with believers beyond our shores who visit our land as tourists.

Since worship services are also conducted in English, joint worship is a wonderful experience where they harmonize well-known hymns and spiritual songs enlivening the service.

Joint worship even with believers different to us in colour, race and culture has further strengthened our core belief of oneness in Christ.

"Love thy neighbour as thyself" one of our Lord's greatest commandments spurred the church to extend its hand to uplift the downtrodden and marginalized people in the neighbourhood.

In the early 1990s a feeding center providing milk for the children and hampers of dry rations to needy families both within and outside the church was successfully carried out.

An eye camp was conducted in the hall under the auspices of the Lions Club of Negombo. Thereafter a preschool was started for the underprivileged children living in the vicinity where books, uniforms and midday meals are provided free of charge.

The experience gained from these projects and their apparent benefits have motivated the church to identify the needs of the community and a parish hall/ community development center was planned with that objective in mind.

While the church's witness as a caring community is well-known, its fame as a quite and restful location where the wonderous beauty of God's creation can be seen and experienced is noteworthy. The beautifully landscaped church premises is a convenient picnic site for church members especially Sunday School children on their excursions to Negombo to enjoy their lunch.

The sheer beauty of this little gem of a church has bought it much publicity on Christmas cards, picture post cards and even tourist brochures. This in turn has brought many foreign visitors to this hallowed place of worship.

After enjoying the scenic beauty of the lagoon they step in to the church and gaze at the three stained glass windows depicting our Lords birth, Crucifixion and triumph over death in the sanctuary of the church and greatly admire the exquisitely carved wooden altar.

On July 31 Anglicans from the Colombo North region together with Christians from other denominations and well-wishers will join in the service of thanksgiving where Rt. Rev. Dulip de Chickera Bishop of Colombo will be the celebrant.

This final event is proceeded by special prayer meeting, a night vigil of prayer, Evangelical meeting for 3 days where Dr. Vijaya Corea will speak on "Experience in the power and love of God."

At present, the Vicar is Rev. Asiri Fernando Jayasuriya who is assisted by a lay brother Joel Rajaratnam. They provide spiritual guidance and pastoral care to the flock.

We thank God for enabling us to celebrate this 125th anniversary and acknowledge the vision and dedication of the vicars, lay leaders and the parishioners who served here and are now at rest. Their commitment and steadfast faith in the Lord has been a good example to us and we in turn have to be so to the next generation.

We conclude this short history of the church with the words of Joseph Hart the 18th century hymn writer.

Tis Jesus the first and the last,
whose spirit shall guide us safe home;
we'll praise him for all that is past
and trust him for all that's to come.