IN 1906, for reasons connected with the health of a member of the family, "Padre" Rowlands was advised to leave Bonchurch and go to a more bracing climate. This led to his going to Switzerland for some months, where he undertook a Chaplaincy at Les Avants, above Montreux. After a brief but healthful sojourn in the bracing air of Switzerland, the "Padre," with his daughter, Miss L. Rowlands, travelled to other parts of the Continent.
Being once more free of all ties, his thoughts, as so often before, reverted to Ceylon, and the longing came to him to return. He was now seventy years of age, but as he was able to offer as an honorary worker, he thought it possible that the C.M.S. might have some sphere of work for him in the Tamil Coolie Mission, where he could make use of his knowledge of the language and do the work which had never ceased to be dear to his heart. After praying about it, he was led to offer to the Society, making the stipulation that he should not have to appear before a Medical Board!
If he had been in any doubt as to whether he had taken the right step or not, all doubts were removed by the events that followed. One morning, during the stay of "Padre" Rowlands and his daughter in Rome, when calling at the post office for letters, he found one from the C.M.S., accepting his offer on his own terms, and by the same post came a letter from Ceylon, written by his old friend, John Ferguson, editor of the Ceylon Observer, asking him whether he could not see his way to come out again, as the Mission was sorely needing his help. Was any further guidance needed?
The voyage is thus described by his daughter, Miss Rowlands, who accompanied him:
"October 1907 saw us actually on our way back to Ceylon. We travelled by the P. & O. Mongolia, and it was a memorable voyage. Father, with his winning way and his kindly consideration for all he met, always made friends on his journeys. On this occasion one of the passengers came to him with the request that he would conduct a daily Bible reading. This he very gladly agreed to do, though he knew it would difficulty, as he was not exempt from mal de mer! Thirty-five assembled the first day, many of them men. The numbers kept on growing until sometimes as many as seventy would be there, quite a fair proportion being first-class passengers, who came to the second saloon for the occasion. Very encouraging were those morning readings on the Epistle to the Ephesians, and many were the expressions of gratitude for help received.
"On the last day but one of the voyage, Mr. and Mrs. ------, two Australian passengers, invited us to tea with them in the second-class saloon. Little realising what lay behind, we accepted the invitation. Great was our surprise on arriving to find the saloon well filled with those who had attended the Bible readings, and who wished to give father some tangible token of their gratitude. They had collected about twenty-five pounds. Father was much moved, and, in returning thanks, said, that as he did not really need the money for himself, he hoped that they would let him have the pleasure of giving it to the work to which he was going. This did not satisfy them, so at last a compromise was arrived at, and he promised to keep back some portion to spend on a piece of furniture for his bungalow.
"Among the things he most valued was a little book with a picture of the Mongolia on the front page, containing all the signatures and addresses of those who had contributed to this gift. This was accompanied by an address, signed by seventy of the passengers, of which the following is a copy:
"'REV. W. E. ROWLANDS,
"'DEAR SIR,--We thank our God and Father that His grace and love to us is such that He inspired you to commence and conduct for the first fortnight the exposition of the Letter to the Ephesians, and now that you are compelled by circumstances to leave us, before separating, we desire to express to you our deep sense of gratitude for the help you have given us in the understanding of this precious portion of God's Word, and to assure you that this, your ministry of it, will live in our hearts, and be a help to us the remainder of our sojourn on earth. We would also recognise your real Christian character and its daily influence upon our fellow-passengers.
"'In acknowledging our personal indebtedness, we would ask your acceptance of the accompanying practical expression of our love, with the assurance that, although separated, we shall often think of you before the Throne of Grace.'" (Here follow signatures of passengers.)
"I remember well," the writer goes on to say, "one of the Australian men passengers coming to his cabin to say 'Good-bye,' and his words were, 'Mr. Rowlands, you have made us all love you.' It seemed part of father's very nature to be always looking out to lend a helping hand, or do a kindness for some one, and many were the friends he made in this way, and the lives he was able to touch, often with far-reaching results.
"How glad I was to be able to share his joy on once more sighting the shores of beloved Ceylon, after fully twenty-three years' absence. I can see him now, his face radiant, as he said, 'It seems like a dream--too good to be true.'
"On our arrival at the port of Colombo there were many reminders that the Tamils still had a warm place for father in their hearts. What touched us most was to see the number of Tamil Christians who had come on board, some whom father had left as young men and women, now grown grey, and others, the children of those he remembered. One of the first friends we sighted was a Bible-woman, Elizabeth, who, with her daughters, had come among the first to welcome him. Each of them brought a very choice bouquet of roses in their hands, the admiration of all on board. Father said: 'Yes; these are love-tokens from my dear people.' Elizabeth, then grey-headed, was one of the dear pupils of Borella Boarding School. Many other Tamils there were on the jetty, who, having heard of this 'father of the Tamils' from their parents, wished now to see him for themselves.
"Mr. De Livera, a Sinhalese gentleman, also wishing to do him honour, had sent his private launch to take him on shore, a kindness so utterly unexpected, and one which father never forgot.
"The Rev. J. V. Daniel, the Tamil pastor of Christ Church, Galle Face, was also on board to meet him. He had come with the request that father should preach the following day--Advent Sunday--to his congregation. But after twenty-three years' absence, father was not sure whether the language would be at his disposal, and so he dared not promise more than to take some part in the service. He therefore read the prayers, as easily and naturally as possible. It thrilled him to be there, and to see the church full of worshippers, and to hear the Tamil tongue again, and also to partake of the Holy Communion with a large number who were present. We both felt that it was just a foretaste of the great Advent Day, when all differences of nationality will be forgotten, and when we shall together sing the song of the Redeemed.
"We were also at the English service at 10.30, and at the evening service at 5.30, at which father preached, taking as his text, 'Prepare ye the way of the Lord.'
"Several people came to me afterwards and said, 'How wonderfully vigorous your father is!' I myself had marvelled at his energy in that great heat. I felt myself slowly melting, though only sitting quietly in the pew. On Monday morning father said: 'If we had to go back to-morrow, it would have been worth coming, for the joy we have already had.'"
On the Monday morning "Padre" Rowlands left for Haputale, in the breezy uplands of the Uva Province, on the eastern side of the central mountain range, which was to be his headquarters for five happy years.