Cinnamon Gardens Baptist Church: 205 years of Christian service | Sunday Observer

Cinnamon Gardens Baptist Church: 205 years of Christian service

Front view of the church
Front view of the church

One of the iconic landmarks in Colombo 7 is the Baptist Church. This once serene ward in Ceylon is now a busy hub with businesses and restaurants. The church has stood here silently witnessing the changes around her. Today (21) this sanctuary celebrates 205 years, a magnificent milestone. I met up with the present Parish Priest Rev. William Wijeyekoon and we examined some ancient records to trace the long journey of faith which led to this resounding celebration.

The Baptist denomination has its roots dating back to England and Holland. John Smyth and John Helwys began the early Baptist Church in 1609. Years later, the Church was blessed with one of her greatest pastors, Rev. William Carey (1761- 1834), the father of modern missions.

Rev. Carey was a spiritual beacon who rendered an outstanding service to the church in general. He came as a firebrand missionary to India. During this time India was plagued with a social dilemma which was causing great fear- the practice of Sati, where widows were burnt. Rev. Carey passionately pursued the cause of justice and in 1829 this terrible practice was prohibited. This dynamic priest wents on to publish a dictionary in the Bengali language.

It was while in India that his focus was directed to the ‘Isle of Ceylon’. He convinced Rev. James Chater to visit the island as a missionary. Chater arrived in Ceylon in 1813, with his wife Anne and their four children. He sailed into Colombo from Burma.

On arrival he was appreciated by Governor Sir Robert Brownrigg. During this time there was a spiritual tide that brought in Methodist and Anglican missionaries as well. After settling down in Colombo Rev. Chater went about looking for a suitable place to begin his work, and had to be satisfied with an old warehouse in Prince Street, Pettah.

This area was not as crowded as it is today. Soon, a steady number of devotees came to hear him preach. There were Sinhalese, Tamils, Burghers, Indians, Chinese, Americans and Europeans. This diverse community became an extended family. In 1833, the Colebrook- Cameron reform introduced English language education.

This led to the emergence of a new middle class in Colombo. As the Pettah became crowded the British began taking up residence in Cinnamon Gardens and the ‘village’ of Colpetty. Prior to this period in history during the Dutch occupation of Ceylon they desired to cultivate cinnamon.

In 1789 there were 289 acres of cinnamon planted in these lush gardens. Once the British began to take control of Ceylon they focused on commercial crops such as tea, rubber and coconut, thus abandoning the cinnamon plantation. Soon this area became a residential area.

After a few years in Colombo, Rev. Chater was able to begin translating the Bible into the Sinhala language, with the help of the Church Missionary Society and the Wesleyan Methodist Missionary Society. Rev. Ebenezer Daniel succeeded Rev. Chater and continued the good ministry of the Baptist Church.

He handed over the baton to Rev. T.R.Stevenson who arrived at a vital point in history.

During this time, the Pettah was crowded and noisy, not conducive for sacred worship. The Church then decided to buy a land in Cinnamon Gardens at a cost of rupees 4,181/= from the Government. Rev. F.D. Waldock was the keen architect who designed this edifice and is probably one of few priests who designed a church in Ceylon. The cost of building this charming church was rupees 22,126 which at that time was a grand amount of money.

Outstanding parishioners

One of the early deacons in this Church was A.M. Ferguson, from Scotland. He was a journalist who became the first Editor of the Ceylon Observer (present day Sunday Observer). He served the Church for 32 years.

After his demise his nephew John Ferguson came to Ceylon to take up duties as Editor of the Ceylon Observer. He was also a stakeholder in improving the railway network.

Also, he fought to impose laws on the import of opium. John Ferguson returned to England and died in 1913. Later, his son Ronald came to Ceylon as the third generation Editor of the Ceylon Observer. During the ministry of Rev. Fred Bennet the congregation collected rupees 16,000 and purchased a pipe organ. The new organ enriched the worship of the choir and congregation. The first organist was Mervyn Fonseka.

Another glowing social worker from Cinnamon Gardens Baptist Church is the late Dr. Mary. She came to Ceylon in 1898 and married Dr. Rutnam.

This dynamic lady uplifted the standards of medical service for women, becoming the first female doctor to train other women doctors.

She set up two maternity homes in Colombo. She was a pioneer who championed the cause of improving home industries to rural women and formed the Lanka Mahila Samitiya. Dr. Mary Rutnam died in 1962. It is said, her funeral took place amidst a thunderstorm, and one of those who mourned her in this deluge was Prime Minister Sirimavo Bandaranaike.

Haven for soldiers

After the daring air raid on Pearl Harbour, by the Japanese the Allies brought more troops to Ceylon during World War 2. Church records show that there were many soldiers who came to Colombo. In those turbulent days the members of the Baptist Church kindly hosted British soldiers in their homes.

The soldiers needed to be fed and the Church began a canteen at the Ferguson Hall, within the Church compound. The troops formed a good bond with the parishioners and left after the war came to an end. At the end of the war and after independence in 1948 the number of Europeans slowly began to decrease in Colombo.

This drop was felt in church attendance. British clergy came and went. Decades later Kingsley Perera was formally accepted by the Church as an acting pastor and ordained in February 1988. He is the first Sri Lankan pastor of the Cinnamon Gardens Baptist Church.

Rev. William Wijeyekoon showed me the interior of the Church. The magnificent pipe organ is no more. The site where it stood is now a small chapel open for office workers in the area to come and worship.

The amiable priest said, “We are deeply ‘thankful for God’s grace and guidance’ in the past two centuries. We remember the good work of all the clergy both foreign and local. We are engaged in many forms of ministry and outreach.

Every last Friday of the month we organize a service for the families of those in prison with the help of the Lanka Prison Fellowship”.

Having remained steadfast for 205 years the Church will continue to enrich her parishioners, with the challenging words of Rev. William Carey “Expect great things from God, attempt great things for God”.