Tirunelveli – the biggest of the Dioceses that formed the Church of South India in 1947, is the consummation of the labours from time to time of Missionary Societies in the West – SPCK, CMS, SPG. For very long the name ’Tirunelveli’ has been known all over Christendom as that of a field most congenial to the sowing of the Gospel and very responsive to the missionary effort. Surveying it in 1857, Dr. Caldwell wrote with just elation, “there the eye and heart … are gladdened by the sight of the largest, the most thriving, and the most progressive Christian community in India.”
Like the rest of the country, this region came to be exposed to Christianity which accompanied the European powers who came to trade with India. The earliest were the Portuguese. St. Francis Xavier, though he came with royal authority and as the Papal Nuncio to India, chose to work his own way into the hearts of the Indians. He did very effective work among the fisher folk in the East Coast of Tirunelveli around Tuticorin. He was followed by Robert Nobili, John De Bitto and Joseph Beschi. Unfortunately the great Jesuit order was suppressed in 1775 by Pope Clement, leaving the good work done by it high and dry.
Moreover, Catholic Spain and Portugal lost their supremacy at sea and Protestant countries like Britain, Holland and later Germany emerged as the great maritime nations of the earth.
The British East India Company was formed in 1600, followed by the Dutch East India Company in 1602. Even while competing for the Indian market, they both carried there with them all the venom with which their countries fought at home the Catholic Spain and Portugal. In 1658 the Dutch captured Tuticorin from the Portuguese, expelled the Catholic Fathers from the Fishery Coast, and tried re-converting their adherents. While the Dutch turned many Roman Churches to warehouses, they built an extremely plain but massive Church at Tuticorin, which still stands as the sole relic of an interesting though passing phase in the history of the Tirunelveli Church. Over the porch of this solid structure is inscribed the monogram of the Dutch East India Company (VOC) with the date MDCCL (1750). This is therefore the oldest Protestant Christian Church in Tirunelveli District. With the fluctuations of political fortune it changed hands between the Dutch and the British until it was ceded peacefully by the Dutch to the British on 1st June 1825, with one condition that it should not be named after any Christian Saint. It was named “Church of Holy Trinity” as late as in 1959.
The Dutch Mission in Tirunelveli was rather a passing phase. But of a more abiding and effective character was the thrust into Tirunelveli by the Danish missionaries already stationed at Tranquebar. The earliest among them – Ziegenberg and Plutschau – had landed in 1706 and had been doing excellent work all over South India. Their Journals, reading very much like chapters taken out of the Acts of the Apostles, appeared translated into English; and soon they aroused great interest among the English people. With timely reinforcement by SPCK funds, they were able to extend their missions to places like Trichy, Thanjavur, Cuddalore, Nagapattinam, Madras and then to Tirunelveli. Some of Schwartz’s able SPCK catechists (Savarimuthu, Rayappan, Gnanapragasam and Savarirayan) frequently visited Tirunelveli and prepared the ground. It was during his first visit to Tirunelveli (1778) that Schwartz baptized Clarinda, a Maratha Brahmin attached to the Tanjore royal family, married to an English officer from whom she learnt of Christ. Her name heads the list of names in the Tirunelveli Church Register. Before Schwartz’s second visit to Tirunelveli in 1785 Clarinda, mostly at her own expense, had erected a small but substantial church that still stands in Palayamkottai. Schwartz dedicated it in 1785 and appointed the ablest of his catechists, Sathianathan (to be ordained later in 1790) to be in charge of the new congregation.
Rev. J.D. Jaenicke was the first Tranquebar missionary to reside in Palayamkottai and supervise the work done in Tirunelveli from 1791. In 1799 was formed the first purely Christian settlement in the district with 28 Christians – Mudalur (first village), on the initiative of David, the first convert of the place, and with the financial assistance of Captain Everett, a friend of the SPCK in Palayamkottai. The first small church built by the early Christians was burnt by the non-Christians in 1803. This resulted in a church being built with brick and mortar in 1816, which was renewed and extended by Rev. Norman in 1883. Its magnificent tower (202 ft high and the highest among the church towers of the Diocese) was added in 1929.
Gericke and Kohloff were in nominal charge of SPCK mission in Tirunelveli after Schwartz and Jaenicke. The field work was left to the 30 SPCK catechists. The terrible famine of 1810-1811 took a heavy toll of the Christians, and the opposition to Christians stiffened everywhere. It was then that Rev. James Hough, who became the Government Chaplain in Tirunelveli in 1816, held the breach so valiantly.
“I planted, Apollos watered; But God gave the increase.” (I Corinthians 3:6)
What St. Paul said of the early Church is remarkably true of Tirunelveli as well. Schwartz planted it and left it to the care of Sathianathan and his band of catechists. The sapling Church was watered by the SPCK missionaries operating from Tranquebar and Tanjore, and at a time of drought saved by Rev. James Hough – providentially posted then as Army Chaplain at Palayamkottai. From the twenties of the 19th century there flowed in two main streams to water this promising field. One was the Church Missionary Society (CMS) which rushed its men to Tirunelveli in 1820 in response to a SOS from Hough. The other was the Society for the Propagation of Gospel (SPG) to which SPCK transferred its field in 1825. Together they took charge of all further expansion of the Tirunelveli Church unit until it blossomed into a Bishopric in 1896, and the two missions themselves merged their fields into a single Diocese in 1924.
Of the two missions CMS had an early start. On the day its first missionary, C.T.E.Rhenius (5.11. 1790), set foot in Tirunelveli (7th July 1820) The Church in Tirunelveli might be said to have come into its own. Acquiring for CMS the valuable property which Hough had purchased from Vengu Mudaliar in 1818 to the south of the main road in Palayamkottai, Rhenius and his assistant Schmid, soon got entrenched in a strategic complex from where they began to operate their mission. The first CMS congregation in Palayamkottai (Murugankurichi) came into existence on 10th March 1822, and the earlier SPCK congregations gradually got merged with the CMS congregations. Even the ones like Nazareth were entrusted by the SPCK to the care of Rhenius until the SPG could find the manpower to take them over in 1829. In 1824 Rhenius purchased from his Hindu friend and philanthropist, Vengu Mudaliar, for a concessional price of Rs. 750, the valuable property to the north of the High Road in Palayamkottai. Shifting the Seminary across the road to the newly acquired campus, he planned and built on the land so released a church which, with its lofty steeple added by Pettitt in 1845 and its several extensions from time to time, stands today as the Holy Trinity Cathedral, an imposing landmark in the whole district.
Operating from Palayamkottai, Rhenius touched a number of villages all over the district and planted small congregations (Sattankulam 1823, Neduvilai / Megnanapuram 1825, Idayankulam 1827, Asirvathapuram 1828, Nallur 1832, Surandai 1833). Where the early Christians met with persecution, Rhenius helped to colonise them in safe Christian Settlements. Thus he colonized in 1827 the Christians of Puliakurichi in a village he purchased out of money donated by a devout Prussian gentleman, Count Dohna of Scholodin, and named it after him as Dohnavur.
It was just when Rhenius stood at the crest of his missionary career that there burst out an unfortunate schism in the Tirunelveli Mission of the CMS. His health began to fail under the tension and strain caused by it, and on 5th June 1838 at 7:30 pm the Apostle to Tirunelveli quietly entered into the presence of his Lord and Master. By intense and systematic work Rhenius had set up as many as 371 congregations in Tirunelveli all within 15 years, which made Dr. Wolf, the great Jewish missionary – who came and stayed with Rhenius for a week during September 1833 – regard him as the greatest missionary who had appeared since St. Paul. His grave in Adaikalapuram, just a few yards off the national highway, is being treasured as the resting place of the most restless of the missionaries who ever came to India.
The man chosen by the CMS to take the place of Rhenius was Rev. George Pettitt who is best remembered as the builder of the stately steeple on the Holy Trinity Cathedral (1845) besides some solid churches in outstations like Alwarthirunagari 91846), Dohnavur (18470 and Pannaivilai (1847). He also founded the renowned Anglo-Vernacular School of Palayamkottai in 1844 with an eminent Eurasian educationist. William Cruikshank (who was blind from the age of ten), as its headmaster. This was the forerunner of the later C.M. High School and College and the model for every Christian boarding school to follow. Pettitt was also the first to set up a Theological Seminary whose classes were held in an airy room of the newly built tower of the Holy Trinity Cathedral, Palayamkottai.
By this time CMS had wisely decided to adapt the “Station Missionary System”. Its missionaries were to be located at strategic centers, each corresponding directly with the Madras Committee. Pettitt, as the senior most among the new missionaries, was put in charge of the mission at the headquarters, Palayamkottai. Next in importance was Megnanapuram, which developed under the fostering care of Rev. John Thomas. He built the massive and imposing church capped it with a stately spire (192 feet high), designed by the London architect, Hussey and dedicated it on 9.10.1868 in the presence of Lord Napier, Governor of Madras, who acclaimed the church as the noblest he had seen in India, surpassing in beauty even St. Paul’s Cathedral, Calcutta. Rev. John Thomas also founded the Schools for Boys and Girls which have flourished ever since and been models for similar rural boarding schools which followed at Dohnavur, Sattankulam, Pannaivilai, Nallur and Surandai. Operating from Megnanapuram Rev. John Thomas spread the church to a network of villages around, the most important of them being Vellalanvilai, the native place of the renowned Bishop Azariah.
Yet another station so carefully cultivated by CMS was Pannaivilai which was out and out a product of Rev. J T Tucker, who laboured there for 20 years, baptized 3000 converts and built 60 simple churches. Somehow both CMS and SPG concentrated on the east of Tirunelveli district. CMS however, penetrated to the west, south and the north as well. Nallur and Surandai in the west, were developed by Schaffter, Hobbs and Barenbruck. Dohnavur in the south was another fruitful field of the labours of the indefatigable Walker, with whose cooperation Amy Carmichael founded the renowned Dohnavur Fellowship.
All the time Palayamkottai was being developed into a powerful CMS headquarters, with as many as 35 missionaries stationed there in 1892 (the highest for CMS centers in the world). As an educational agency CMS made greatest impact on the community. The CMS College for men was set up in 1880, and the Sarah Tucker College for women (the first college for women in Madras state) in 1896 with just 4 students on the roll. Apart from the traditional schools, CMS started in Palayamkottai two very unique and pioneer institutions – the School for the Blind (1890) and the Florence Swainson School for the Deaf (1887). As adjuncts to its educational effort, CMS founded in 1847 its own Printing Press and CMS Book Depot in 1882. Both these ventures have survived and grown with the times.
Later day missionaries brought their own special gifts to the service of the Tirunelveli Church. Rev. Scott Price instituted in 1892 the Tirunelveli Children’s Mission which has steadily grown into a huge movement moulding thousands of children in their impressionable age, by a systematic study of the Scriptures, to become committed Christian citizens. Walker introduced the Harvest Festivals as something congenial to Indian mind, corresponding in a way to the Hindu “melas” or festivals. The first Harvest Festival was held in 1891 at Sachiapuram. Several centers copied the Festival – Nallur in 1892, Palayamkottai in 1895, Pannaivilai and Surandai in 1896. In January 1880 CMS and SPG joined hands in celebrating the first Centenary of Tirunelveli Church.
The last of this long line of CMS missionaries and one who strode like a Colossus for over half a century was Edward Sargent. He came to Tirunelveli on 7-7-1835 as a 19-year old lad Lay Catechist to assist Pettitt. Except for a short spell of 4 years when he went for training in Islington, his life was devoted to missionary work in Tirunelveli, where he filled by turns every conceivable position until he was consecrated on 11.3.1877 as one of the two Assistant Bishops of Tirunelveli (along with his SPG counterpart, Bishop Caldwell) at St. Paul’s Cathedral, Calcutta. For another 13 years Bishop Sargent led the Tirunelveli Church by his wise counsel and gentle but firm guidance. Straining himself in failing health, he died in 1890. The void felt by his passing away, as also that of Bishop Caldwell in 1891, hastened the move for a separate Bishopric for Tirunelveli. It took some time, however for the legal hurdles to be overcome and the long cherished dream could materialize in 1896.
The Society for Propagation of the Gospel in Foreign Parts had spearheaded its operation to India by 1820, established the Bishop’s College at Calcutta for the training of its personnel (15.12.1820) and chosen strategic stations for work. The SPCK on the 7th June 1825 resolved to hand over its South India Mission to SPG Tirunelveli, as one of the ‘transferred congregations’ of the Tanjore Mission. Accordingly, Rev. David Rosen at Cuddalore came to Palayamkottai on 6th November 1820 and took charge of the SPCK mission till then looked after by Rhenius on behalf of the Tanjore Mission. He began well, reviving the former SPCK stations of Nazareth and Tuticorin and set to work vigorously, appointing some inspecting Catechists on the model of Rhenius in CMS. He was given two missionaries by SPG to assist him – Rev. J L Irion and Rev. Charles Hubbard. Neither of them stuck on to work, and Rosen himself left the country in 1838 leaving SPG Mission in a sorry plight.
It was then that Rev. Caemmerer (then at Madras) stepped in and by his devoted labours for two decades raised Nazareth to its pre-eminence in SPG Mission. The Church rapidly extended to dozens of neighbouring villages. Together they provide a splendid pattern of well knit Christian community. The visitor approaching Nazareth today is greeted by a heart-warming sight of spire rising over spire even in some humble villages, and by the chiming of Church bells in unison, inviting their faithful to worship. Pillayanmanai, Agapaikulam, Valaiyadi, Mookuperi, Pragasapuram, Oyangudi have all got some very imposing churches to show worthy monuments to the depth of the Christian life and witness among the rural folk of this area.
Among the successors of Caemmerer mention must be made of Rev. Dr. Strachan (1870 – 1876) a brilliant Doctor of Medicine and a Gold Medalist of Edinburgh University. He was the founder of the SPG Medical Mission in Tirunelveli and the first Dispensary he opened in Nazareth drew patients from places 40 to 50 miles away.
Already developed into a model Christian settlement, Nazareth was to attain still greater eminence during the long and dedicated stewardship of Rev. Canon Arthue Margoschis (1876 – 1908), the maker of modern Nazareth. He was a young man of 24 when he came to Nazareth,, and he plunged into his work, strengthening the existing mission and adding new dimensions to its work. He initiated the Nazareth congregation into several time-honoured habits of exemplary Churchmanship, still so faithfully retained. It was however, the various institutions that he founded and perfected in his time that have endeared his memory to posterity. He erected St. Luke’s Hospital (18920 to carry on the medical mission begun by Dr. Strachan. The Art Industrial School and its Orphanage, opened by him in 1878 to absorb usefully the large number of orphans left by the great famine of 1877, was something unique in the whole State of Madras. A Training School for Women (1877), a High School for Girls (1886) – the first of its kind in the State of Madras, a High School for Boys (1889) followed one another in quick succession, so eminently catering to the needs of the compact Christian community in and around Nazareth.
Next in importance only to Nazareth were two other centers in and around which SPG developed its mission in Tirunelveli. They were Sawyerpuram and Idaiyangudi. The first was a settlement of persecuted Christians on land provided by one Mr. Sawyer, an Anglo-Indian layman in the employ of East India Company, who was very friendly with SPCK missionaries. The village thus formed in 1814 was gratefully named after him as Sawyerpuram. The Christian settlers quickly organized themselves, and as early as in 1838 had built for themselves a small church and a school attended by 10 children. It was, however, with the advent of intrepid young Dr. G U Pope in 1842 that Sawyerpuram shot into prominence in the annals of missionary history. He established in 1844 the renowned “Sawyerpuram Seminary”, which for a long time was the nursery of hundreds of Indian clergymen, teachers and catechists. The esteem in which this reputable center of learning was held can be seen from the fact that the Oxford University contributed to the formation of a suitable library within its walls.
Dr. G U Pope’s efforts were equally directed to the extension of the Church. He carried the light of the Gospel into every neighbouring village, and stationed catechists trained by himself in Christian doctrine to minister to the needs of the congregations. He built the All Saints Church at Subramaniapuram enduring extreme hostility and insult. The lovely red-brick Holy Trinity Church at Sawyerpuram was built by Rev. Huxtable and Rev. Sharrock and dedicated on 11th November 1877 by the Most Rev. Johnson, Metropolitan of India.
Sawyerpuram was also the venue of the SPG’s first experiment in “Medical Evangelism”. From the small beginning of a clinic set up in 1854 there sprang up St. Raphael’s Hospital, which became increasingly popular and did signal service during the outbreak of epidemics following the famine of 1877-1879. The hospital came under Indian leadership when Dr. A Joseph assumed charge of it and served faithfully till 1896.
It is significant that Dr. Pope’s Seminary blossomed into a College and was affiliated to the University of Madras in 1880. Rev. Sharrock was its first Principal. Bishop Caldwell thought it good to shift the College along with the High School to Tuticorin, leaving Sawyerpuram with a Middle School in 1883.
Based at Sawyerpuram, Dr. Pope directed his labours to Pudukottai and Puthiamputhur in the north. It is interesting that the first Church at Puthiamputhur was erected in 1844 out of funds contributed by the Sawyerpuram Church BuildingSociety. From Puthiamputhur, the Church spread north to Nagalapuram which has since been a significant Christian outpost in a predominantly backward and troubled area.
The other SPG stronghold, Idaiyangudi (the shepherd’s dwelling) in the extreme south of Tirunelveli district, was so entirely a product of the labours of Dr. Caldwell. The village had earlier come under the influence of Gericke and Sathianathan. But the early converts, with no adequate supervision, had relapsed into Hinduism. It was among the wreck of those once Christian congregations that Caldwell was sent in 1841 to labour, to gather up the fragments that remained and restore what was lost. With such devotion and wisdom did Rev. Caldwell apply himself to his task that his rewards were phenomenal. Entire villages accepted Christ, churches and schools sprouted up so fast that Idayangudi soon became a model Christian settlement. The Holy Trinity Church, built under Caldwell’s personal supervision and even with his own labour during a period of 33 years, was consecrated by him after he became Assistant Bishop of Tirunelveli in 1880. The chiming bells were a gift from Lord Napier, then Governor of Madras. On becoming Assistant Bishop, Dr. Caldwell moved out to Tuticorin, which was his headquarters since 1983. After Bishop Sargent’s death he had for a few months the Episcopal oversight of the CMS field as well. He died while at Kodaikanal on 28-8-1891, and his body was brought to be buried so fittingly beneath the altar of the Church at Idayangudi which he built and ministered in. His passing away brought to an end the age of the mission, with the stage well set for the merging of the two fields of CMS and SPG into a single Bishopric in 1896.
Before any tangible advance could be made towards the merging of the missions, both the Societies had good reasons for pausing awhile to celebrate significant landmarks in their histories. CMS was born in London on 12th April 1799. Its first Centenary was fittingly celebrated at Palayamkottai in 1899 amidst scenes of great enthusiasm. To commemorate the occasion was built the CMS Centenary Hall in Tirunelveli – easily one of the biggest halls in South India with a capacity to accommodate 3000 people. In addition to its being used for children’s services and special missions, it is being used extensively as a public hall for many deserving cultural purposes.
Two years later was celebrated at Sawyerpuram in February 1901 the Bi-centenary of the SPG in which the leaders of CMC congregations also took a full share. Bishop Williams set the ball rolling for the “Diocesanisation”, when he convened on 28th January 1908 a meeting of all clergymen in his Bishopric and lay representatives of the CMS and the SPG congregations. Many such dialogues followed when differences were ironed out one by one. A common magazine came to be issued and a Common Prayer Book came to be used. A Constitution for the new Diocese was hammered out.
The Tinnevely Diocesan Trust Association was constituted to administer the properties of CMS and SPG. The “Diocesanisation” was almost an accomplished fact before its most redoubtable champion, Bishop Waller, was translated to Madras in 1922. It now remained only to set the formal seal of approval to the Diocesan Constitution. That was left to Bishop Tubbs.
A historic session of the Diocesan Council was held on 11th March 1924 to formally usher into birth the Diocese of Tirunelveli. Both the CMS and the SPG had sent their blessings to the new Diocese, ultimately the product of their joint enterprise and effort. A Central Diocesan Office was established, and for administrative convenience 3 Church Councils (North, Central and South) were set up in 1925.