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Padre Rowlands of Ceylon

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

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

Chapter XIV. England: Bonchurch, 1895-1906

WITH returning health, "Padre" Rowlands now felt the desire for more active work, and as the return to Ceylon seemed to be out of the question, he gladly welcomed the opportunity which came later to settle down in a country parish in England. At various times he had been offered eleven livings. When, however, the living of Bonchurch, Isle of Wight, was offered to him, he accepted. Work amongst village folk had always appealed to him. He often said that "the lines had fallen to him in pleasant places"--first in Ceylon, afterwards in Torquay, and now in the new sphere in the beautiful Isle of Wight.

It seemed to him no mere coincidence that, when packing up to leave Torquay, he found that he had in his possession (though he did not know it) the mallet that was used to lay the foundation-stone of the church to which he was going. This had come to him through his wife, Emily Adams, whose uncle, William Adams, the author of The Shadow of the Cross, then resident in Bonchurch, had laid the foundation-stone of the church.

The population of the parish was only six hundred, yet the same zeal and energy which had characterised his work in Ceylon was also shown here. Services, Bible classes, house-to-house visiting were carried on with conscientious diligence, and his time was fully occupied. The people realised that in Rowlands they had a true shepherd, for if one of the flock were missing in church on a Sunday, that one would be surely sought out during the week, and the reason for absence discovered.

A resident in Bonchurch during part of those years, the Rev. G. B. Harding, has kindly contributed a brief sketch of the man and his work. He writes:

"Well does the writer remember walking with his wife from Ventnor, where they were staying, to Bonchurch, on a Sunday morning in March 1898. It was an exquisite day--a day of loveliness--bright with early spring sunshine. As we entered the churchyard we were struck with its beauty, and thought that no more beautiful spot could have been selected for the site of God's temple. Sufficiently back from the road to prevent the noise of passing traffic reaching and disturbing the worshippers, stood the little church of Norman style. Flanked east and west by tall and stately elms, the sanctuary seemed the very abode of God's peace.

"We had not been seated many minutes before the bell ceased, and the rector and choir entered the church. The Rector ascended the reading-desk, which has since been removed, and after a short silent prayer began the service. It was a plain service, devoutly rendered. The sermon was very scriptural, and earnestly delivered. No one could attend that service without being convinced that the parishioners had 'a man sent from God' among them.

"Thus it was that we first saw the man who was soon to become our Rector, and under whose ministry we were privileged to sit for about eight years. We were looking for a house, and were fortunate to secure one in his parish. Shortly after taking possession, the Rector called, and the impression formed of him at the first service was confirmed. As the months passed and we knew him better, the more we loved him. We came to know him as a man 'full of faith and the Holy Ghost.' He held strictly to evangelical principles. It is said that he was once asked why he did not wish the people to rise from their seats when he and the choir entered the church. 'Because,' he replied, 'I am only a servant.' 'Yes, but we rise to our ambassadors.' 'True,' was the answer, 'but not when the King is present.' That explains the man. He looked upon himself simply as a servant of Christ. Christ to him was the Alpha and Omega of his life and ministry.

"Mr. Rowlands was, like his Divine Master, a man of prayer. No work of any description was undertaken without his first bringing it before God in prayer. Those of us who were privileged to hear him pray, at either the prayer or Bible meeting, knew that they were in the presence of one who knew what wrestling with God in prayer meant. Prayer indeed was the very breath of his spiritual life. Believing in the efficacy of prayer himself, he frequently, personally and through the medium of the parish magazine, urged his people to make more use of private and public prayer. Before the Parochial Mission--November 5-13, 1900--commenced, he earnestly besought them to pray for the missioners. 'Let prayer for the missioners, and for those who will be associated with them, be fervently offered, not only then--at the meeting before the Mission began--but daily throughout the Mission, for only so can there be a definite expectation of blessing to result from their work.'

"Again, during the South African War: 'We would urge upon all those who know the efficacy of believing prayer to give the war, and all those suffering from it, a place in their daily intercessions, especially in their families.'

"'In connection with the war, there is another suggestion we should like to make, which is that those who have members of their families absent in South Africa, or on their way to that country . . . should send in their names to the Rector, in order that the list might be quietly read out before the special prayers are offered Sunday by Sunday, or on weekdays, and that the intercessions of God's people in behalf of those exposed to danger may thus be made more definite' (Parish Magazine, March 1900).

"Mr. Rowlands was a diligent Bible student. His sermons were saturated with Bible teaching; but many thought he excelled as an expositor of God's Word. Probably many remember with gratitude those beautiful expositions on the Epistles--Ephesians, ist Peter, ist John, and Hebrews--he gave us on Friday mornings. The late Canon Phillips, who at that time resided in the parish, once said to the writer: 'What a beautiful exposition Mr. Rowlands gave us this morning! I should like to hear more of that sort.' That must have been the opinion of all who were privileged to hear him, and valued scriptural truth.

"Not only was the Rector a man of prayer but also a man of action. The Rectorship of Bonchurch was no sinecure. One has only to look through the services announced in the parish magazine to be assured of that. Besides church services, there were numerous meetings of various kinds through the week. The day schools also required his attention, and he was a most diligent and successful visitor. He was quick to seize any opportunity for doing good. A member of his congregation said to him at a friend's house, 'Mr. Rowlands, it would be an excellent thing if a Men's Club could be started at Upper Bonchurch.' 'Yes, it would,' he replied, 'but the difficulty is to find a suitable room.' 'I believe,' answered his friend, 'that Mrs. Joliffe's coach-house and stables are now vacant.' Before a week had passed the Rector had secured possession of the building, and had given orders for certain alterations to be made, which would adapt the premises to the requirements of the Men s Club.

"Mr. Rowlands possessed a heart full of sympathy for his suffering fellow-creatures. The writer has seen him more than once moved to tears by the recital of some one's distress or bereavement. His sympathy often took a practical form. Two men, collecting for a deserving case, were walking along the Leeson Road, Bonchurch, one evening, and one inquired of the other as to his success. 'Well,' was the answer, 'I have just seen the Rev. Rowlands, and he has promised five pounds. He is a good and generous man.'

"All his parishioners knew how intensely interested he was in Foreign Missions. Scarcely an issue of the parish magazine appeared without some reference being made to the work. It seemed to be woven into every fibre of his being. It is well known that he first gave himself, and then two sons, to the mission field. He was once heard to say,' If I did not feel that God had placed me here, I would return to Ceylon.' "

During "Padre" Rowlands' stay in Bonchurch the contributions of that small parish rose from £109 in 1895-6 to upwards of £300 in some later years. Moreover, he also did a great deal of deputation work for the C.M.S. in Hampshire and the Isle of Wight during that time.

Two great sorrows came to the venerable missionary during his residence at Bonchurch. In May 1900 there occurred the death of his eldest son, Charlie, then retired from Ceylon, and living at the Rectory. "Charlie" Rowlands was well known to the planters of his day, when living on Attabage Estate, near Gampola. There are those who still remember and speak of a famous midnight ride in record time on one of his beloved horses from Pussellawa to Gampola, when only the surefootedness of his horse and his own magnificent horsemanship down the narrow winding road saved him from serious mishap.

As the writer of the sketch of "Padre" Rowlands' life and work in Bonchurch says: "All who knew Mr. Charles Rowlands loved him. He was a courteous Christian gentleman, interested in all good works."

The second blow came in April 1905, when the sad news came of the death of his second son, Harry, a missionary in Kangra, North-West India, who was killed in an earthquake. The first news of the catastrophe came through the papers, but as no names were given of residents in Kangra, only in Dharmsala, the family were kept in suspense for several days. In the end the worst rears were realised, for Harry was found to be amongst the victims. His young wife had only arrived from India three weeks before, having been invalided home. It was on a Friday that the blow fell, and in the evening of the following Sunday "Padre" Rowlands preached a beautiful sermon on the text, "Made meet to be a partaker of the inheritance of the saints in light." One of the psalms for the day was Psalm xlvi.: "God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble; therefore will not we fear, though the earth be moved, and though the hills be carried into the midst of the sea." Could anything have been more appropriate? As so often before, in times of great sorrow, the "Padre's "clear faith kept him from being overwhelmed, and he bore such with quiet fortitude.

Deeply grieved were the parishioners when, in 1906, it was announced that their beloved pastor, who for eleven years had gone among them "preaching the kingdom of God," had resigned his position as Rector of Bonchurch. Large congregations assembled to hear his last words. Lovingly, faithfully, and not without emotion, did he deliver his final message, and "commend them to God, and to the word of His grace."

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