St. James’ Church, Nallur: 200 years of Christian witness | Sunday Observer

St. James’ Church, Nallur: 200 years of Christian witness

The Northern Province has many churches representing different Christian denominations. One of these beautiful sanctums of worship is the St. James’ Church located in Nallur. Since 1818 she stands proud as a testament to the Anglican community of Jaffna. The history of this church traces back to almost 500 years ago.

The town of Nallur is famously known for the Kandaswamy Kovil which draws thousands of Hindu devotees. Located a few hundred metres away is this serene Anglican Church, partly hidden by palm trees. The front façade is simple with the bell tower visible at a distance. The old parapet wall has been carefully restored and a new wall erected around the premises. As we walked to the office of the vicar, I was surprised to notice Dutch style columns supporting the outer roof of the building. The resident vicar Rev. Jebachelvan Stephen ushered us into his office.

Rays of sunlight streamed through the slits in the wooden windows, engulfing the church office in a somewhat bright glow. Rev. Stephen explained, “This is one of the oldest Anglican churches in Ceylon. This location was chosen by the pioneer missionary Rev. Joseph Knight. He came to Jaffna and began preaching in a bungalow. He also started a small day school with seven boys, known as the Nallur English Seminary, which later relocated and blossomed into St. John’s College, Jaffna. The good work of Rev. Joseph Knight has indeed impacted thousands of lives - both students and Anglican parishioners, for two centuries. His name is still said with much veneration and love”.

Military conquest

According to an old map and some recorded history this land had belonged to the Tamil king Chankilian the Second (also spelt Cankili). During his reign he had built many Hindu kovils surrounding the now famous Kandaswamy kovil. All was well until the Portuguese arrived in Jaffna under the command of Major Filipe de Oliveira. The well armed Portuguese numbering almost 50,000 troops massacred the Tamil army and burned the king’s palace. The royal bathing pool Jamunari is seen in ruins, today.

The king was captured and sent to Goa, India, where he is said to have converted to Roman Catholicism. However, he was hanged for his crimes of killing Portuguese Christians back in Jaffna. Thus ended the reign of the Aryacakravarti dynasty who had ruled Jaffna for almost 300 years. King Chankilian’s wife who also embraced the Catholic faith was baptized. She had donated this land to the church. Other members of the royal household entered the religious life in Goa, so their life of celibacy ensured that there was no one to claim the throne in future. Subsequently, the Dutch wielded their influence in Jaffna, but they were tolerant of other religions. The Dutch predikaant (preacher) Phillipus Baldaeus also makes mention of this church in Nallur.

Arrival of the CMS clergy

After the British established their power in Ceylon, the Dutch churches were neglected. Initially, the British East India Company did not entertain Christian missionaries in Ceylon. It was only in 1813 that the charter of the company changed and the first missionaries from the CMS (Church Missionary Society) set sail to Ceylon. They left England in December 1817 on board the ship Vittori and reached Colombo in June 1818. The 31 year old Rev. Joseph Knight was accompanied by Rev. Samuel Lambrick, Rev. Robert Major and Rev. Benjamin Ward. On reaching Colombo the four clergymen went in four directions and Rev. Knight went to Jaffna. It took Rev. Joseph Knight two years to master the Tamil language, which he learnt from a local pundit. During 1822 the Jaffna area was afflicted by a severe outbreak of cholera, which posed a great challenge to the young missionary priest. Hundreds of Tamils died in the epidemic.

In 1823 the old Dutch church was formally handed over to Rev. Knight by the then Governor. It took another 10 years to prepare the new church for worship. The old church was 100 feet long and 36 feet wide. The new church was blessed and dedicated on July 25 to coincide with the feast of Saint James in the Anglican tradition. During this time Rev. Knight visited the local families asking them to come to church. It is interesting that some descendants of these families still worship at St. James’, while a few families have since moved to Colombo. It is said that some printing equipment brought by an American was used in the vestry of this church to print evangelistic tracts. In 1841 the first newspaper in the Northern Province, the Morning Star was printed using these printing machines. The newspaper had four pages- two in English and two in Tamil.

As we walked inside the church Rev. Stephen pointed out the old antique furniture. Some of the pews traced back to the Dutch period. The pulpit also showed a very old design. The bell tower had been added to the edifice in 1849 and rose to stand at 60 feet. However, the history of the church bell dates to 1842 when Rev. W. Adley had requested the CMS in London to send a bell. The bell arrived by ship and had to be kept on a temporary stand until the tower was erected much later. The wooden steps to the tower are still in place.

The vicar showed us the old keys that opened the side doors. These iron keys have been used for nearly two centuries! Like many churches in the North this church also witnessed the realities of war, but its priests always stayed with the church never abandoning the people. As this church is embellished with so much history it was proclaimed an archeologically protected monument in 2011. Its present day congregation numbers around 350 people. St. James’ Church continues to uphold the vision of Rev. Joseph Knight by proclaiming the good news of the gospel to the people of Jaffna. 

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