Monday, March 16, 2009

History of St.James' Church, Vasavilan

St.James’ Church, Vasavilan, Jaffna
(Sri Lanka)
(A Historical Sketch of the background and origin of the Church)

St.James’ Church, Vasavilan, was established in 1914[1]. The Church is situated in the village of Payilikkaladdy which is about a kilometer from the junction of Vasavilan along the road to Achuveli. It lies on the left side of the road and is at the southern boundary of Palaly South, and within a distance of about one and a half mile to the East from the Palaly Airport. It is separated from the population of Palaly by a long stretch of unpopulated bare land of over a mile in length. Payilikkaladdy adjoins the village of Oddahappulam[2].
Previously Payilikkaladdy was unpopulated. It was a stony land unfit for cultivation, called Payir + il + kaladdy (gaph;+,y;+;fyl;b). Payilikkaladdy is a corruption of that word. Earlier, people of Payilikkaladdy were residing at Tholagatty which is about 300 yards from the junction of Vasavilan on the road to Achuveli. All the people in Tholagatty were blood relations and Catholics. They had belonged to St.Anthony’s Church in Tholagatty. Their forefathers, it is said, were from various places, even from India; yet no definite information is available as to when and from where the original ancestors of the people of this area had come and settled down here. However there had been some mixture from Idaikadu through marriage.[3]
A section of the people of Vasavilan, all non-Catholics, living in Kazhahalai (Kalahalai), pushed into Tholagatty and, perhaps, with their opposition to the Catholic Church of St.Anthony, the Church lost its hold and prominence in the area and became almost abandoned.[4] The people of Tholagatty became parishioners of the Church of Our Lady of Immaculate Conception in Oddahappulam.
In the course of time some of the residents of Tholagatty, due to pressure of space for living and cultivation, left Tholagatty and settled down in the stony land of Payilikkaladdy which was close to their parish Church of Our Lady of Immaculate Conception. By their hard work and toil they converted the stony land into an arable and fertile land.
In the year 1914, the parishioners of the Church of Our Lady of Immaculate Conception from the two villages of Tholagatty and Payilikkaladdy broke away from the parish over a dispute and put up a shed in Payilikkaladdy with St. James as their Patron Saint.[5] The Parish Priest of the Church of Our Lady of Immaculate Conception functioned as the parish priest of St.James’ Church as well.
After the break away, the school which was in Oddahappulam was also shifted to Payilikkaladdy in the compound of the new church of St.James.[6] However, it was shifted back in the early 1930s by an amicable settlement.
Mr.Antony Martyn, commomly known as Ilaiyavi, who had been the chief spokesman during the breakaway, Mr. Mariar Siluvesthiri, both of Payilikkaladdy, and Mr.(jpNah)Thio Soosai of Tholagatty were appointed as leaders of the parish to assist the priest in carrying out his administration. Mr.Antony Martyn, Ilaiyavi, was a Moopar and had the right to sing the last Viruththam-tpUj;jk; in the Novenas before the Thirai-jpiu (The big sanctuary curtain) was opened and to carry the candles before the statue. Mr.Siluvesthiri was the sacristan. Mr.(jpNah)Thio Soosai was in charge of collecting the contribution. Mr.Soosai Vernadu was the catechist (Annavi) and Mr.Alesu Anthony, grandfather of Rev.Fr.R.Mariyanayagam,omi, was the caretaker of the Church and the premises and in charge of the ringing of the Angelus.
The land on which the hut for the Church was put up, (it is said) belonged to Mr.Siluvesthiri and the compound in front of the Church to Mr.Alesu Anthony’s wife Gnanappu, the daughter of Kamel.[7] The lands must have been either donated or bought later.
In the early 1930s a decision was taken to put up a stone structure for the Church. Artisians of masonry[8] and carpentry of the two villages and some with roots in the villages living outside were gathered together under the co-ordination of Ilaiyavi and a plan was finalized and the construction begun by them on the same place with voluntary labour from the villagers. A temporary cadjan shed was put up to house the Church till the building was completed. However the construction came to a standstill at the cupola due to lack of funds to purchase the necessary materials. A cadjan roof was put up within the walls of the building and services were conducted.
Later a permanent roof with tiles was put up, yet the construction of the building was incomplete. The progress of the construction was in stages with the interval of even few years in between. Various parish priests with their assistance and encouragement were able to keep the construction work on the move. Among them the one who had revived the construction work in a big scale in the early 1960s was Rt.Rev.Bishop L.R.Anthony who was then as priest staying at Tholagatty as Director and Priest in-charge of the Rosarian Monastery and was overseeing the parish as well. The other parish priests who worked before and after him that have to be specially remembered are Rev.Fr.Soosaipillai Nallaiah,omi,(died, 9th Mar.1963), Rev.Fr.S.Villavarasingham,omi,(died, 3rd Nov.1995), Rev.Fr.Francis Kulas,omi and Rev.Fr.P.E.Selvarajah. It was during the time of Fr.Selvarajah, who was staying at Tholagatty as Director and Priest in-charge of the Rosarian Monastery and was overseeing the parish (from 1966-1972), the sanctuary area of the church was refurbished and the ceiling was fixed. The succeeding parish priests followed suit and the construction work of the church was completed in the late 1970s. One among the other masons[9] of the parish who worked on the construction during this period was Mr. Sebamalai Thiruchchelvam who also gave the final embellishment to the fa├žade and to the sanctuary arches.
The Church festival that was celebrated on 25th July or on the following Sunday was an occasion for the people of the two villages who had their roots there but were living outside to come to the Church, stay with their relatives, take part in the activities related to the festival and have a happy time.[10] This annual celebration is not taking place now as the villagers have taken shelter elsewhere due to the ongoing civil war. When the government declared the area in and around the Palaly Air Port as High Security zone in 1990 those two villages also came within it and the people left the place in October in a hurry even leaving back most of their possessions. They are now scattered all over the country and in foreign lands and are losing touch with their kith and kin. No one is permitted to enter the place. Their houses, belongings and fields have become ruins. So is the Church built over several years with great sacrifice and labour.

Arul M.Rajendran.
January 2008

[Compiler's note: The above article is written by Mr.Arul M.Rajendran, known also as Arul, at the request of the publisher. Mr.Arul is the youngest of the children of Mr.Antony Martyn (Ilaiyavi) and his wife Philippa.]

Compiler's notes:

1. Mission House:
There was no mission house for St.James’ Church till the early 1960s although there was a complete foundation laid for it up to the plinth level. It was due to the encouragement of Rev.Fr. Soosaipillai Nallaiah,omi, the then parish priest who revived the building work of the church and the mission house in the very early 1960s and the co-operation and untiring efforts of some of the parishioners a small building for the stay of the parish priest during the time of the festival was constructed in the early 1960s. Thus it was Fr.S.Nallaiah who, for the first time in the history of St.James’ Church, took residence in that small building during his time as parish priest. That small building was later converted into kitchen when the actual mission house was completed.

2. St.James’ Community Centre: This Centre was the brain child of Mr.Arul M.Rajendran. It was he, in collaboration with Mr. Soosai Moses started in the compound of St.James’ Church a Community Centre (Vaasihasalai) in December 1946, which later came to be known as St.James’ Community Centre. In this work Rev.Fr.G.T.Balasundaram, omi, the then Parish Priest, gave his wholehearted support and functioned as moderator. This Community Centre greatly helped the youth to spend usefully their leisure time in reading and to gather together and plan out church related activities, cultural events for special occasions and so on. (This Community Centre was in function up to the time the villagers moved out of Payilikkaladdy in October 1990.) He had also started a similar centre for women in the early 1950s; unfortunately this has not lasted after a few years.

[1] Cf. Fr.S.Gnana Pragasar, omi, XXV Years’ Catholic Progress:The Diocese of Jaffna under the Episcopate of Dr.Henry Joulain, omi,1893-1918, Jaffna, St.Joseph’s Catholic Press, 1999 (2nd Print), p.176.
[2] Oddahappulam was originally known as Koddakaip-pulam where goods to be exported and imported through the then port of Palaly were stored. (Cf. Fr. S.Gnana Pragasar, omi, XXV Years’ Catholic Progress:The Diocese of Jaffna under the Episcopate of Dr.Henry Joulain, omi,1893-1918, Jaffna, St.Joseph’s Catholic Press, 1999 (2nd Print), pp. 175-176) It is said that Kallady Veluppillai of Kazhahalai (Kalahalai), Vasavilan, a well known poet changed the name to placate Samathar (oddu – is to join the bones. It was also he who, it was said, gave the name Samathar- kettikaran-nfl;lpf;fhud;).
[3] My father’s grandfather and Thaman Sinnathamby’s grandfather had roots in Idaikaadu. Aasaipillai Pariariyar of Idaikaadu had claimed relationship with our root and acknowledged by us.
[4] Some reference to this effect can be found in the book by Fr.S.Gnana Pragasar, omi, XXV Years’ Catholic Progress:The Diocese of Jaffna under the Episcopate of Dr.Henry Joulain, omi,1893-1918, Jaffna, St.Joseph’s Catholic Press, 1999 (2nd Print), in pages 176-177. In 1928, Rev.Fr.B.A.Thomas, omi established his Rosarian Congregation (the Sebamalai Thasar Sabai-nrgkhiyj;jhrh; rig) a Contemplative Order, in this almost abandoned Church, which later became well known throughout the country and abroad.
[5] St.James the Great is also known as Santiago Major; in Tamil he is known as Santhiyohumaiyor.
[6] I had my initial education in the Payilikkaladdy school, where the belfry is now and afterwards at the end of the compound by the side of the jack tree.
[7] My guess is as the portion of the land with the jack tree belonged to Ms.Prancisca (Pranji), the balance would have belonged to her sister Ms.Gnanappu.
[8] Masons headed by Mr.Athiriyar of Mirusuvil, with Mr.Kamel Michael, Mr.V. Saverimuttu, Mr.Gabriel Michael, Mr.Thamiar Michael, Mr.(jpNah)Thio Soosai, Mr…John (Son-in-Law of Antony Gabriel) and some others.
[9]Mr.S.Sebamalai, Mr.N.Gnanapragasam, Mr.Siluvesthiri Gnanamuttu (Rathinam), Mr.Alesu Thevasagayam and some others.
[10] In 1936, Ilaiyavi produced a Naattu Koothu play for the first time to mark the occasion of the feast with the entire cast from the two villages, which drew a large crowd from the surrounding villages. The play continued to be staged every year and in between too. The name of the play was Prakasiammal Nadagam. Prakasiammal means St.Lucia. It was written by one Mr.Kurusumuttu of Jaffna (almost a blind person). The copy of the script was brought from Columbuthurai from where Ilaiyavi’s daughter, Annamuttu, was married.