The Anglican gem of Chundikuli | Sunday Observer

The Anglican gem of Chundikuli

3 November, 2019

The iconic landmark of the village of Chundikuli is the massive structure of St. John’s College, popularly known as SJC. Gently rising from one side of the parapet wall is a beautiful church, with granite stonework and white cement borders very much reminiscent of a church in England.

This is the church of St. John the Baptist, Chundikuli. It is a site embellished with more than three centuries of Christian history. The front wall of the church is covered in creative paintings by students. The northern sun was at its peak as we entered the main gate of the College, where a security officer ushered us in to the office of the Archdeacon of Jaffna, Rev. Samuel Ponniah.

Apart from holding the high office of Archdeacon he is also the vicar of St. John the Baptist Church and plays the dual role of Chaplain to St. John’s College and Chundikuli Girls’ School -two premier Anglican schools in the Northern Province.

The Archdeacon explained, “This is a very old Anglican church and is closely connected to both schools, where thousands of boys and girls are enriched with a holistic Christian education. According to records there had been an old Portuguese church built here in 1634.” We walked towards the present church. The old Portuguese church is said to have had a stunning number of 2,000 worshipers.

Once the Dutch penetrated into Jaffna they made this a Dutch Reformed Church. Subsequently, the British ousted the defiant Dutch and after 1796 identified the old church as suitable for worship.

It could be assumed that the early Anglicans who prayed here were British soldiers, administrators and businessmen of the British East India Company. Yalpatanam (Jaffna) was a land waiting to be explored and strongly influenced.

By 1818 the great Anglican missionary Rev. Samuel Knight had arrived in Nallur, Jaffna. In 1823 he began a seminary with 7 boys which later became St. John’s College. By 1845 the Christian Missionary Society (CMS) had taken over the Old Portuguese church. Records at the Diocesan Library in Colombo indicate that somewhere in 1801 the British had stationed a layman named Christian David to preach the gospel, who performed with zeal until he retired in 1841. When the Governor visited the church and heard him preach he was touched and ordered that an allowance of 50 rupees be paid to him every month from state funds.

By 1857 the Government Agent named Dyke had proposed that the old church be replaced with a new building. The parishioners were not happy. Their loved ones had been buried here and in the gardens of the old church. Once again Dyke convinced the congregation in giving a positive response and the old Portuguese church was demolished in 1859. A new strong church was built with the roof covered with slate- something unique at that time. The Tamil folk soon referred to the church as ‘silatu kovil’- referring to the slate roof. The new church was consecrated on August 14, 1862.

By 1925 the roof was replaced with tiles. In 1960 the late Rev. W. R. Coomaraswamy pioneered the extension and renovation of the church at a cost of 80,000 rupees, which was a big amount then. The Diocese of Colombo had allocated a loan of 30,000 rupees which was paid over the next ten years. Today, the church is well maintained.

The main altar has a radiant stained glass window depicting the ascension of Jesus Christ. The roof is high and facilitates good acoustics. The pulpit at St. John’s church is in the shape of a boat. The sexton (church keeper) showed me an unusual flower vase. I was surprised to realize that it was actually a mortar bomb which had fallen into the sanctuary and exploded near the marble baptism font. The remaining shell has since been polished and used as a flower vase- a stark reminder of the dark chapters of the nation’s history, but also a reminder of God’s divine safety of the church.

Like all churches in the Northern Province this congregation has its scars from the war. Many senior families have since migrated overseas or relocated to Colombo. However, they always visited their ‘home parish’ when on holiday.

We also observed an old wooden sign board which displayed the hymn numbers. This has been on the church wall for more than a century. The church bell had been imported from England. There are seven Anglican churches in Sri Lanka named after St. John the Baptist. The other six are located at Gampaha, Homagama, Rakwana, Koslanda, Wattawala and Kegalle. Yet, the first church to bear this name proudly remains in Chundikuli, where she has guided thousands of adults and youth for more than 160 years.

The parish of St. John the Baptist has produced many academics, politicians and clergymen. She is indeed the spiritual Anglican gem of Chundikuli.