Project Canterbury

Padre Rowlands of Ceylon

By R. P. Butterfield, M.A., B.D.

London and Edinburgh: Marshall, Morgan and Scott, Ltd., no date.

Chapter XIII. England: The Years of Weakness, 1884-1895

IN August 1884, after a term of eleven years' devoted service, five of which had been spent in the most physically exacting sphere of all--the Tamil Coolie Mission--Rowlands returned to England, fully expecting, after a restful furlough, to return to his work. But God willed it otherwise. Long years of overwork and unprecedented exertions in a tropical climate had played with his magnificent constitution. On arrival in England, he was obliged to put himself into the hands of a surgeon and undergo an operation. But not even then were pain and suffering ended, and for the next nine years painful and continued illness was his lot. One can imagine how such comparative inactivity would be galling to one of his alert mind and energetic temperament.

In consideration of his long residence in the Tropics, and having with him the faithful friend who had mothered his children, and who herself had been resident in Ceylon for thirty years, Rowlands thought well to settle in Torquay, where he took a house, which he named "Lanka," the ancient name of Ceylon.

The story of these years would be incomplete without the history of his faithful Tamil servant, Philip, who had been in his service for nine years previous to his return to England. Philip load come to him as a Hindu, and for six years was quite unresponsive to the claims of Christianity. Rowlands had at this time in his employ a very earnest Tamil, named Moses David, still living in retirement, who acted as clerk and catechist. Moses David was accustomed to gather the servants at "The Priory" each evening for Bible reading and teaching. He had such a gift for this that Philip was always a most attentive listener. Finally he made known his wish to become a Christian, and to be prepared for baptism, when he was named "Philip." When "Padre" Rowlands was making his preparations for going home, Philip approached him and expressed his wish to accompany his beloved master to England. The "Padre" replied: "Philip, you know you are like a son to me, and when I go to England I will take you."

Philip, therefore, found himself a member of the household at Torquay. Every day at morning and evening prayers Philip would be seen with his big Tamil Bible on his knees, following most attentively whilst his master read in English. Not only that, but daily, as his master's health would permit, Philip would be invited into the study that they might read the Tamil Bible together and have prayer.

Every servant in the house loved Philip, and said that they had never seen any one like him. He was ever doing acts of kindness for each one of them, and his face was always beaming. To Rowlands he was ever devoted, anticipating his every need, and taking care that the medicine prescribed by the doctor was never forgotten.

In due course Philip had to return to India to be married. There he found a new employer, with whom he stayed for a while. Again he found himself on his way to England, this time being engaged to sell cigarettes at the Antwerp Exhibition for his employer. Antwerp proved too cold for him, and he contracted a very bad cold which eventually settled on his chest. Antwerp being too cold and damp, Philip was sent to one of the London hospitals. Rowlands heard of it, and at once wrote to a surgeon with whom he was acquainted, asking that Philip might have every care and attention, for which he would be responsible. Owing to illness, Rowlands could not go himself to see Philip, but got his son (the Rev. F. W. Rowlands, since a missionary in Japan) to visit him, and also Mrs. Mola, whose husband, years before, had been associated with Rowlands in work among the Tamils in Ceylon. How Philip's face lighted up as they came in and ministered to him! Life, however, was fast ebbing away, and Philip passed peacefully to his heavenly rest, Rowlands making all necessary arrangements for the funeral.

The years of weakness in Torquay were very eventful ones in Rowlands' life. There he met Miss Emily Charlotte Adams, niece of the author of The Shadow of the Cross, whom he afterwards married. Previous to this he removed to another house in Torquay--"Vansittart," in the Higher Erith Road; out the new home was quickly to be shadowed by death, for after ten and a half months of very happy married life Mrs. Rowlands was called "home," leaving a motherless babe only thirteen days old. The blow fell heavily and seemed all-mysterious, for hers was a life that apparently could ill be spared. Her interests in Christian work were many and varied, her heart was full of tender compassion, ever ministering to the wants of others, and her love for the poor was evidenced by the fact that there were about a hundred poor people at her funeral, and many of the shops in the town had their blinds drawn. Rowlands met this heavy blow as he had met all others--his trust in God was not shaken for one single moment. He believed that God stood behind every event in his life, and when asked to preach in Holy Trinity Church, Torquay, some little while later, many were overcome as he testified that "his heart was fixed, trusting in God."

"Padre" Rowlands' health for a time previous to his second marriage appeared to have improved somewhat, but now serious symptoms again showed themselves, and it was evident that further medical advice would have to be sought. A journey to London was arranged, with a visit to the celebrated surgeon, Sir Frederick Treves. Although Rowlands had set his mind against another operation, a brief talk with the celebrated surgeon convinced him that there was no other way open. Sir Frederick so filled him with confidence that then and there he made all necessary arrangements to enter a nursing home. Here he had the best of skill, and, as soon as he was able, returned home, to spend the greater part of every day on a sofa for some considerable time.

Before this successful operation Rowlands, with others, had been expressing a wish that a more suitable church could be built in the place of the existing church, known as Holy Trinity. It was a church within the parish of St. Mark's, and had no parish it could call its own. The congregation was gathered from all parts of the town. There were many difficulties in such a scheme, and Rowlands knew that such existed. Much prayer went up that the apparent obstacles might be removed, and now, during his convalescence after the recent operation, Rowlands busied himself again in the matter, and did the bulk of the correspondence. Had one looked into his study, one would have seen him on the sofa with about five little tables around him, covered with letters and account books, etc., writing to this one and that, explaining the scheme, and asking if the recipient would like to contribute a "brick" for the new building. Answers came in thick and fast, obstacles were diminishing, and as the mind of the congregation, and many others beside, was expressed in money, steps were taken to secure a good architect. All who know Torquay will agree that no more effective setting could have been given to a church with a spire of such beautiful proportions than that in which the new Holy Trinity Church was erected in Torwood Gardens. The day came for laying the foundation stone, and only those who, together with "Padre" Rowlands, had laboured in this work could realise how much they owed to God. Their hearts were full of thankfulness for what "He had wrought." Rowlands found time also to act as a chaplain to Erith House, a home for ladies in delicate health, not far from where he lived. He also employed his active mind in acting as secretary, from his couch, for no less than six societies, of which one was the Evangelical College and School Company.

During the early part of these years of comparative inactivity he was urged by Bishop R. S. Copleston to undertake the Chaplaincy of the Dickoya district, in Ceylon. This Rowlands consented to do when health permitted, but the doctors forbade it. Afterwards the C.M.S. proposed that he should take charge of the Tinnevelly Tamil Church, relieving Bishop Sargent, whose health was declining; but medical opinion was adverse from his undertaking such work.

From time to time Rowlands would go as deputation to preach for the C.M.S. in various parts of England. Those who have heard him on such occasions have said, "You would think that there was no other Mission but Ceylon, and no other country, he is so earnest. When he preaches he carries us with him." Indeed Ceylon, and the people and work there, were seldom absent from his thoughts. It was his one desire that he should return, and in order that he might be free in the use of the language, should he be permitted to do so, he always prayed in private in Tamil.

Feeling health and strength returning, after his second operation, he again offered himself to the C.M.S. for Ceylon, and it was arranged that he should go before the Medical Board; but no doctor would take the responsibility of passing him. Nevertheless, Rowlands felt in himself that, knowing the climate as he did, there was no reason why he should not return and do some work for some years to come, though at present the door seemed closed.

Besides his Bible, there was one book Rowlands never omitted to read, and that was his Birthday Text-book, in which were inscribed the names of relations and friends far and near. In fact, so many names had been written in this wonderful book that space would not allow of any more. It was, therefore, interleaved and rebound and more names added! How little those thought, who added their signatures to it, what that book was going to mean to him in the days to come, as every birthday that humble figure would bend over each name in prayer and seek God's richest blessings for the one recorded there!

Nor was this all. Sometimes, finding some lonely planter on an isolated estate, he would ask him to add his name also, and would see that he received from himself a letter by post on the morning of his birthday, with his good wishes. Thus hearts were touched and drawn to him, and instead of being a mere acquaintance, "Padre" Rowlands came to be looked upon as a true and valued friend.

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