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20th December 1998

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Those old churches

By Renuka Sadanandan and Tharuka Dissanaike

When the British planters came to Ceylon, the first thing they did was to establish their places of worship, says Vicar of the Holy Trinity Church in Nuwara Eliya, Fr. Augustine Phillips.

Holy Trinity was built in 1845 atop a hillock a little away from the bustle and squalor of Nuwara Eliya town, Holy Trinity Church with its well maintained garden and graveyard, retains much of the solemn air of sanctity that distinguished it in the past.

St. John's LindoolaYet congregations here like in many up-country churches are smaller now and only when Christmas day dawns will the church hope to see its pews full. Old churches hold many memories. Holy Trinity is replete with those of the British planters whose names remain, engraved for posterity in the brass memorial tablets erected by their families and friends.

In the Church vestry, safely stowed in an old safe is one of Holy Trinity's most precious possessions. The first registers recording births, marriages, and deaths of the parish.

The entries made in flowing handwriting are still perfectly legible, though faded with the passage of years. The first wedding at the church was interestingly of a Ceylonese couple, Astagey Francisco Perera, bachelor of Wadduwa and Horadu Godagasmage Catherine, spinster of Galle, both residing at Nuwara Eliya on 11th December, 1843.

The first baptism was of 'Caroline Louise, daughter of James Hodge, Private H.M of the 95th Light Infantry and Caroline his wife, on 3rd May, 1843, baptised 18th June, 1843.' Coincidentally, the first burial was also of a member of the Hodge family, Catherine, aged about one year, on the first day of April 1843.

One of the many brass tablets on the church wall records a well known name, that of Thomas Farr.

Inscribed with the words "Sacred to the memory of Thomas Farr of Bogawantalawa, a lover of Nature and of God, who died at Chittlehamholt Manor, Devon, 9th November, 1919. This tablet is erected by friends and fellow anglers in Ceylon in token of their esteem for his character and work ."

Also remembered here is 'Dr George Gardner, late Superintendent of the Botanic Garden of Peradeniya who died at Nuwara Eliya on March 12, 1841.'

Beautifully detailed stained glass at LindoolaIn more recent times, 1954 to be precise, Queen Elizabeth II came to the church whilst on holiday in Nuwara Eliya.

"She came alone on Good Friday and then on Easter Sunday with Prince Phillip," says Fr. Phillips. On her return to England, the Queen sent the church a royal blue carpet and beautiful stained glass window with the British royal lion and unicorn crest.

"Kings shall come to the Brightness of Thy commemorate the visit of Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth and H.R.H the Duke of Edinburgh to this church of Easter 1954."

Perhaps what intrigued the royal visitors as much as the essentially British character of Holy Trinity church. Intricate stained glass windows, a huge pipe organ, now sadly not in working order and the two old lych-gates in the church garden. Fr Phillips explains that in the old days when the planters rode up on horseback, they would dismount at this point.

The horses were left tethered outside whilst the worshippers would proceed into the church compound. The wooden pews were fitted with little brass trays where the dripping umbrellas could be left to drain- a necessity in cold, damp Nuwara Eliya. (The lych-gate, in old England was a roofed gate in a churchyard where a bier rests during the first part of a burial service).

Lylie Godridge, a devout Anglican, now sadly missed, also had nostalgic links with this church. It was here that Lylie, aged 11 as a golden voiced boy soprano sang his first solo at the wedding of Governor Caldecott's daughter Joan on 15th May, 1941.Lylie, Fr. Philllips recalls, had the fondest memories of Holy Trinity Church and was present to inaugurate the church's new organ. Incidentally, Governor Caldecott's wife Olive May also rests in the church graveyard, amidst the tall Cypress trees and blossoming lilies.

There are also three graves of the war dead at Holy Trinity and the War Graves Commission makes the occasional visit to check on them.

Lesser known, perhaps, amongst the many British built churches in the hills is All Saints Church Agrapatana, which with its shingled roof and grey stone walls instantly brings to mind Adisham, Sir Thomas Villiers' mansion in Haputale now a Benedictine monastery.

This quaint plantation church, built in 1893 is shaped like a rounded cross. Bells of the old tower still peal out. The wooden shingles on the roof are oiled once every two years for maintenance. Lost over the years though are the stained glass windows, smashed beyond repair by flying cricket balls from the encroaching neighbourhood.

All Saints was being renovated in preparation for Christmas when we visited, the central aisle being relaid with modern tiles. Church Wardens Sam Durairaj and Ms Shirley Held are amongst a congregation of some 75 from the neighbourhood, actively involved in maintaining the church. Today December 20, they hold their Christmas Carol service.

A feature here are two massive bound volumes, one of the Bible and the other the Book of Common Prayer, printed in Cambridge in 1835 and 1838 respectively and gifted to the church more than a century ago. Reads the faded inscription, "This Bible...was presented to or formerly used in the Parish Church of Holmwood, Surrey, England. It is now given by Rev. Edmund Dave Wickham, Vicar of Holmwood and by the Church Wardens of the said Parish and with the consent of the Ven. Archdeacon, Surrey, for the use of Agrapatana, congregation in the Dimbula District of Ceylon, 1889."

Perhaps the most picturesque in location of the old Anglican churches is Christ Church, Warleigh. Built in 1878, this little stone church stands in serene isolation overlooking the blue waters of the Castlereigh reservoir, shielded from the elements by lofty Cypress and vividly flowering African Tulip trees. Its stained glass windows are protected by wire mesh from the outside and like many of its counterparts, it has a well-maintained graveyard.

Many buried here are young people, their tombstones sometimes revealing tragic deaths. One in front of the church, sculpted in marble with an urn draped in cloth is 'to the memory of William Brown, son of James Brown of Netherton, Southlandshire of Scotland and brother of James Brown of Hatton who was drowned while crossing a stream in Maskeliya on June 2nd, 1898.'

An English service is held on the first and third Sunday of the month at Warleigh.

On a vantage point overlooking the Hatton-Talawakelle road is St John's, Lindula. The chief attraction, in this tucked-away church, apart from its age (it was consecrated in 1876) are the beautifully preserved and intricately detailed stained glass windows, given by members of the parish in memory of their loved ones. One particularly appropriate at Christmas, is an elaborate, brightly hued picture of the three Kings worshipping the Baby Jesus. This window is 'in loving memory of Arthur Heelis of Carlabeck who died 1st December, 1886. Also of Edward Heelis of Lanadale who died in Malta. 1st February, 1882.' Another exquisite stained glass of the Annunciation is 'in memory of Agnes Kennedy of Coombe Wood, Talawakelle who died at Sydney, Australia, on March 20, 1872.'

Fr. Dilo Kanagasabbay Archdeacon of Nuwara Eliya said although the churches were in need of money for preservation they would rather not depend on state support.

The churches may be old, some in need of repair but come December 25, their congregations will gather in worship and thanksgiving as the candles burn bright and the bells peal to herald another misty Christmas morn.

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