By Rev. T.S. Premarjah –
ACM’ drawn into an ‘Unwarranted Dispute’ and in danger of losing by the foolishness of ACM President in 2021 and Tamil Jingoism
The premises of Union College Tellippalai and the Church of the ACM (CACM) Parish Hall and the Missionary Gravesite were once a single block of 4.5 acres of land over 400 years of mission history, under the rule of the Portuguese, the Dutch and British and for some years as independent Ceylon. It contained a large Roman Catholic Church, named after St Peter and St Paul, built in 1658 to accommodate 2000 people, besides a school building, and a mud house for the Priest-in-Residence (called a Glebe then, meaning “plot of land belonging to an English parish church or an ecclesiastical office”) also from the time of the Portuguese. The Mission House was later built by the Dutch and the famed Dutch Chaplain, Rev Philippus Baldaeus lived there.
The Mission House (Lot-5) was later used briefly by Rev Palm, an English Chaplain from the London Missionary Society under the British. When he was transferred to another Mission Station, all the buildings were in ruins. American Missionaries on arrival in Jaffna in October, 1816, were given the entire premises and buildings for their missionary work. The Mission House was repaired in a few months, while the missionary rented a house in Tellippalai, and moved to this renovated building as the Base for the work of ACM under the America Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions (ABCFM) in Tellippalai. Once built, the Missionary occupied the Mission House and the Parish Priest, usually a local, occupied the Parsonage. One of the earliest occupants of the Parsonage was The Reav. Cyrus Kingsbury who after training at Batticotta Seminary from 1927 was Assistant Priest at “Tellippally” according to ACM Archives. The twin board that sits on the inside wall of the Church tells the history of 200 years of transforming mission work.
The secret to the transforming power of the Mission was the high quality and dedication of those who came. Take The Rev. James Richards, who while a student at Williams College in 1806 came up with the idea of the American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions (ABCFM) while sheltering from rain under a haystack with a four others. This is today’s tourist site, the Haystack Monument in Williamstown, MA which led to the ABCFM, one of the largest and most active missionary societies in America. James Richards graduated from Williams College in 1809, and from Andover Theological Seminary in 1812, when he offered himself for service to the ABCFM. Under the direction of the Board, he studied medicine and surgery so he could be even more useful in the mission field. Those like James typified the quality of people who came to serve us. Another measure is that quality is that when Grover Cleveland was President of the US, his sister was the Principal’s wife at Jaffna College, another ACM-founded institution, originally Batticotta Seminary.
The Missionary-in-Residence was in charge of the Church and all the institutions – English school, Bilingual school, vernacular village schools, printing press, teacher-training school, students-in-residence, industrial school, seminary classes for Catechists and candidates preparing for Church ministry were managed from this place. The grand scale of the education enterprise by the American Mission is described in the doctoral thesis by Chintamani Hettige Piyaratna at the University of Pennsylvania (1968)
In 1935, when Mr AA Ward left for America, a national Principal in Mr I P Thurairatnam was appointed by the ACM for two institutions among many, the English school and Bilingual school, which became one in 1939 as Union College. Subsequently, the Printing Press moved to Manipay, the teacher-training School was amalgamated with the CMS school in Kopay, which became The Teachers’ Training College Kopay. Catechists’ training continued in the Tellippalai Mission Station and the Industrial School. As the work was now shared by national clergy and professional laymen and was growing and contributing to nation building, a big regrettable change came in 1961.
The Govt of Ceylon Vested a major portion of the ACM property for the Union College, while a meagre portion – Church building, Parish Hall and Mission Gravesite were left in the hands of the ACM and the Church. The Mission House became vacant at the retirement of Mr I P Thurairatnam in 1964. A long negotiation was held between the Ministry of Education officials and ACM. At the end, the Mission House was returned to the ACM, and the Parsonage was given to Union College due to the agreement made in 1968.
The report in the Diocesan Annual Bulletin of 1968 states on pp. 17-18:
The Take-Over of Schools took place at the beginning of 1961. The Act also involved the take-over of all property which could be construed by the authorities as having been used by a school in any respect. Where a Church and School stood on the same premises, how much was to be taken over as school property and how much was to be left for the church depended on the discretion of local education authorities. Christian bodies in the rest of the island do not seem to have had much room for complaint about the treatment they received. We [however] seem to have been the exception. In a number of cases, we were simply left with a few yards round the churches. After months of negotiations, we are getting back some of the lost property, mostly by conceding an equal amount of property. At Tellippalai and Chavakachcheri, we are getting the old Mission Houses by conceding the present parsonages. At Uduppiddy, Delft, Sandilipay etc, Mission Houses are not involved, but largely the same principle of exchange is operating. The case of Dr John Scudder’s historic old house at Pandatheruppu will go before an Arbitrator. We are glad that after a period of extreme frustration, we are getting some relief.
Alas! Alas! The Tamil officials cheated unlike officials in the South. After agreeing to take over the Parsonage (now converted to a bus-stand in Tellippalai) in return for the Mission House, the agreement was never committed to writing. There was never a reply to numerous requests from the Church to acknowledge the return of the Mission House which is now being claimed by the Provincial Secretary of Education Elangovan and Union College Principal and Old Boys using fraudulent survey plans by local unscrupulous surveyors.
Since 1969, Rev S T Asirvatham and the successors were resident in the Mission House, except when the people in Tellippalai and its surroundings were displaced due to war. The Church and the Mission House were occupied by the army under the “High Security Zone” from Dec 1990 till 2010!
Union College and the Tellippalai Church functioned in Maruthanarmadam – Union College at Ramanathan College, while Church Worship was held at the Chapel of The William Mather Memorial Women Centre for almost 20 years. (Dec. 1990-2010).
The CACM took occupation again in 2012, and worship services and Sunday school were held at the damaged Mission House on the Verandah. In 2015/16, families of past members living overseas undertook the renovation of the Church building and Mission Gravesite under the management of Mr Ranjan Ratnasingham, working in Colombo. He took full responsibility, overcame obstacles and completed the renovation to the high satisfaction of all. It was also the Bicentenary Year, 2016, (1816-2016) of the ACM. Hence a grand Service of Thanksgiving was held at the Church in October of that year with Mission Partners (Global Ministries-USA, United Church of Christ-USA) present. The American Ambassador, along with the President, World Church Ministries (WCM), Rev Dr Moos addressed the gathering. Since then the Church Services have been regularly held at the Church. In the meantime, Mission House was not in a condition to be occupied by the serving Pastors’ families. But it was taken care of by the Church. They collected funds again from a few members and repaired two rooms at a cost of Rs. 8,00,000/- in 2017. In 2019, Tellippalai Church made an appeal for the restoration of the entire building. This appeal came into the hands of families of past members and descendants of early families of Tellippalai.
In consultation with the Church Building Committee, a few of us, including two former priests who served Tellippalai Church formed a Committee called, Tellippalai Mission House Restoration Committee (TMHRC) focussing on the ‘historic significance’ of the place, and decided to support this entire project by raising funds and agreed in writing that the ‘Restored Mission House’ will be used in part as “Parsonage”, and the Rest of the Building will be a “ACM Mission Library-Archives-Museum”. An MOU was signed between CACM, Tellippalai Church and TMHRC, despite difficulties in obtaining legal documents to prove the ownership of the ACM.
These said disputes concerned the church of South India and CACM making claims to property. This was resolved by a ruling by the Court of Appeal under Case No, 726/2009 in favour of ACM only on 16 Nov. 2020. But the hiatus from 2009 to 2021 as the courts denied justice through inherent inefficiences allowed zealots to move in and try to take over church property.
In the meantime, in this hiatus, Union College Principal, Mr T Varathan and Mr L Elaangovan, Secretary, Provincial Ministry of Education in Nallur, were working behind the scenes, obstructing in the obtaining of legal documents and trapped the ACM President and his two clergy colleagues at a meeting where they found the ‘weak points’ of ACM as a result of not having the necessary documents. They further created a ‘new issue’ of Lot-4 Parsonage (UC) later turned into a Bus Station. In the meantime, an arrangement we the Committee here made with Archaeological Dept Staff, staff from the latter inspected the Mission House and registered it as a “Protected Archaeological Monument” – and gazetted it with Rev Thevanesan’s approval. But after his ‘unwarranted meeting’ with Mr Elaangovan and a delegation from the Union College held on the 7th December, 2020 at the Ministry of Education in Nallur, Rev Thevanesan appears to have been bullied and has been obstructing this move we undertook, and forcefully stopped the Dept. Staff from fixing the sign boards of the Archaeology Department at the sites as protected, at the Mission House and Mission Gravesite walls. His response has constantly been, “I have taken legal advice.” When queried by the CACM Honorary Lawyer, Mr Thambimuthu of Alaveddy, Elangovan seemed ‘clueless’ of the history of ACM at Tellippalai.
We have serious doubts about Rev Thevanesan’s professionalism.
We inform you senior members of the ACM in Colombo and the Executive Committee of CACM to stop his ‘underhand action’ to go along the parties trying to ‘acquire at any cost’ our properties for Union College!
We urge you, the reader to STOP the Ministry and Union College actions and ‘determination’ to takeover a ‘historic property of the ACM whose contributions to the Tamil people is immeasurable and 95% of ACM’s lands at Union College have been annexed in a hate-campaign by zealots.
The move we fear is the plan to make Union College a National School. Prof. G.L. Pieris as Minster of Education must act with professorial caution and not listen to trouble-making religious charlatans who will use the gazetting of the national school to list church property as school property.
This the time to honour the Reverends Richards and co-missionaries; not to spurn the proud heritage they gave us.
*Rev. T.S. Premarjah – Former Parish Priest, Tellippalai Parish (1983-1987)