‘Karney Amma’s’ lifetime of commitment and care

House of Joy in Talawa celebrates a century of love for the helpless and marginalised
By Renuka Jayaraj

Nestling in the wilds of Talawa, directly opposite the Talawa station and in close proximity to Anuradhapura, are a cluster of modest buildings. They form two interconnected structures in the shapes of ‘L’ and ‘T’ and are encircled by acres of dry zone vegetation. Known to the surrounding community as the House of Joy, this is home to fifteen children aged between 6 to 15 years. Several of these children are from dysfunctional homes and some have been placed there by the Department of Probation and Childcare.

This is a testament to the faith, vision and strong sense of purpose that inspired British missionary Evelyn Karney, who, although of considerable private means, gave up all creature comforts to relieve the want and suffering of the marginalised and destitute in a distant land.

Well cared for: Children in the Talawa home today

The House of Joy celebrated its centenary last month, with a Service of Thanksgiving presided over by Bishop of the Anglican Diocese of Kurunegala, Rt. Revd. Shantha Francis. A large gathering was present, proof of the high esteem they had for the white woman known affectionately as ‘Karney Amma’ who once lived with them. The unveiling of a bust sculpture of Ms Karney by the Bishop of Kurunegala, was the culmination of the celebrations.

Talawa was a primitive village at the time of her advent, in the early 19th century. Lack of transport facilities isolated the hamlet from the rest of the island. The villages were rife with severe malnutrition, malaria and yaws (parangi), the villagers so weakened by disease that they could barely work and so, earned only a meagre living. Death was a constant companion. The adjoining muddied, crocodile-infested tanks were their only source of water for all purposes, and they had no soap for bathing. They were too poor to afford rice, and survived on a diet of millet and water, which lacked nutrition, causing the distended stomachs associated with malnutrition.

The House of Joy was aptly named by Miss Karney in a moment of inspiration, to ‘keep her spirits up’, when she nearly lost the courage to take on such a daunting task alone. It became a true centre of joy to the surrounding villages. Braving wild elephants, bears and snakes, Miss Karney and her companions walked through dense jungle from village to village, to proclaim the word of God in easy, understandable language, using incidents of everyday life. She also dispensed much- needed medicines and ministered to the dying. It was a real walk by faith. She had as her motto, ‘God shall supply all my needs’ and this indeed was the case. Many are the stories in her memoirs, of God’s provision in her hour of need.

The first House of Joy was an empty catechist’s house built in 1912, a mud hut with a thatched roof and floor of cow dung. Four rooms were built on and given Sinhala names of different types of love – maithriya, premaya, adaraya, snehaya.The hospital was first built for expectant mothers and infants - a tiny mud hut with four beds, called the ‘House of Peace’. Maternal and infant mortality was over 30 percent at the time.

The church, known as the ‘House of Prayer’, was built with a gift of Rs 2,000. The Governor of Ceylon laid its foundation stone. It was furnished by the carpenters of the Ceylon School for the Deaf & Blind and with the gifts of friends. The Vicar of Anuradhapura conducted communion services.‘Dawn’, the orphanage, saw the light of day following the death of a woman who left behind her two fatherless children. Built on land gifted by the state, about a quarter of a mile from the hospital, it was a brick house with an enclosed garden with a swing and see- saw. Soon she was housing old people ejected from their homes, in ‘Eventide’, eight little houses built on its premises.

‘Nangi Gedera’ was built to house little girls, who then had better access to the schools in the vicinity, followed by ‘Malli Gedera' built for little boys. Miss Karney handed the Mission to the Church of Ceylon as a Trust, in 1943. Failing eye-sight and a lame leg compelled her to leave the island in 1947, but she returned, to die on her 84th birthday on January 22, 1953, from pneumonia contracted when drenched in a downpour while visiting the sick. She is buried where her heart had always been, in her beloved Talawa.

Continuing the tradition in which it was founded, the Mission responds to the needs of the community and has donates water tanks to the surrounding border villages during the drought, and money to build wells in vulnerable communities that suffer from kidney disease. Evelyn Karney’s work has paid rich dividends today. Disease has been eradicated, the children of the area have been adjudged among the country’s healthiest. The school is now a Maha Vidyalaya and the original schoolroom is preserved within. The hospital has since expanded substantially and is State-run, equipped with a special Evelyn Karney Memorial Maternity Ward.

Today Talawa is a busy little township. The original House of Joy has since been shifted about ten minutes drive away from Talawa town because the State acquired the original premises for a bus stop.
The Mission is now self- supporting, and in constant need of funds to meet the most basic monthly running expenses for the home - about Rs 80,000. Financial constraints prohibit the housing of more children.

Villagers attribute the fact that the Mission continued unscathed, throughout even the most violent times of civil war, to the guardian spirit of Evelyn Karney, who still cares for and protects her own.

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