My aunt Marie was a Catholic on her mother’s side and, though she was not especially ostentatious about this, it was clearly a vital aspect of her life. I remember once, when I was young and staying with her and her father at Palm Court, she was delighted when I said that I preferred to go to the Catholic church with her for Christmas. It was a time when I was trying to assert my independence, but did not feel quite bold enough to miss going to church altogether on days of obligation.
My uncle the Bishop was disappointed. He remarked when he came to lunch that day, in the tones of mock heartiness I had begun to realize meant he was serious, that he had not seen me in his church.
‘He came with me,’ Marie answered quickly, before I could say anything. ‘I took him to midnight mass last night. It was packed, but he enjoyed it, even the smells.’
She had warned me about these before, in explaining that her church attracted a vast range of people, some of whom would not be as hygienic as our own class. Some pride about this however came through in her tone of indulgence. I think that in a way this signified to her the universality of her church, as opposed to the essentially middle class character of the Anglicans.
My uncle’s reply was entirely in character. ‘That’s all right then,’ he said, in what was clearly genuine relief. ‘It doesn’t matter where you worshipped, so long as you went somewhere.’
I was impressed as I always was by the breadth of his vision. That did not stop me from not going to church altogether the next time I was in Kurunegala. He proved philosophical however about that too, and said that that was a phase most young people went through and he hoped that later I would return. It was Marie who tried to persuade me, using his possible disappointment too in trying to convince me to accompany her.
I resisted. Apart from any ideological reasons, I was also put off Marie’s church by the priest. He was a large man with a prickly beard and reminded me of Fr. Matthew, the Anglican priest who had been in charge of the parish in Colombo that we went to when I was a child. Later my mother said we stopped going there because I had refused to be kissed by him at Christmas and insisted that he was disgusting. Evidently my instincts were sound for many years later, while I was at Oxford, he was arrested on a charge of having murdered his wife as well as the church organist. He had seduced the organist’s wife and she was also charged, though acquitted in the end. He was convicted. It transpired in evidence that he had also probably killed his predecessor who had died very suddenly. There had also been a number of other seductions.
I knew none of this of course in the sixties. Still I felt suspicions too about Fr. Jude in Kurunegala. One very simple reason for this may have been the influence he exercised over Marie, who had taken after his arrival to doing much more for the Church than she had done in the past. She was just about forty at the time and I can see now that a charismatic religious figure, just a few years younger than her, was the sort of thing she needed to give her a settled role in life as she began to move towards a solitary middle age. For me however it seemed an affront that, while I was on holiday there, instead of all treats being exclusively for me, she should waste her time baking cakes for the orphanage or making short eats for the Boys’ Club which Fr. Jude had established.
Amongst the young too, who evidently began to flock to his church in greater numbers than before, Fr. Jude was able to attract a devoted following. He had great plans for them, for vocational training and so on, in areas in which the church was only just beginning to take an interest. As things happened however, some of the boys he had collected around him evidently evolved other ideas too. The Club became one of the main targets in the town for investigation after the 1971 JVP insurrection, when the country experienced an attempt at violent revolution by the young. It was the first such incident, and therefore affected everyone strongly, even though over the next couple of decades the phenomenon was to become endemic, in the north of the country as well as the south.