YMCA: Down memory lane

Saturday, 14 June 2014 00:00 -     - {{hitsCtrl.values.hits}}

The planting of a YMCA for Ceylon, as the country was then known, entered the heart and mind of William Chapman, a Staff Assistant at Cargills. Not satisfied in allowing this dream to remain a theoretical concept, Chapman translated it into deeds by inaugurating the YMCA at a meeting held at Wesley College, Dam Street, Pettah. Those involved to serve on this historic first-ever association as pioneers and pathfinders were James, C. Jansz, (President), J.A. Honter (Vice President), William Chapman (Secretary), Justin A. Rode (Asst. Secretary), J. Wijeyakoon, A. Van Geyzel and E.F. Blacker. They were the very first members of the YMCA and as a team, formed the first Committee of Management. Chapman as the Convenor of the Central YMCA and as a member of the Glasgow united YMCA had its constitution with a few alternations adopted for the local YMCA here. This coming together was on 24 June 1882. In those formative years the Central YMCA did not have a permanent place of its own. For 10 years from 1884 it operated in a rented hall, and in 1894 met in the De Soysa building at Slave Island. The first regular place of the YMCA was in the Racquet Court located between Pettah and Fort. With the Racquet Court being needed by the Government for the construction of granaries, the Government in appreciation of the good work done by the YMCA leased out the present site in the Fort. It is on this piece of land that the impressive present YMCA building was built. It was opened on 22 February 1924 and stands as a silent witness to all those who laboured in the past for the wellbeing of the YMCA. There are many who through the years served the YMCA as Presidents, it is invidious to mention names, but there are a few musts, whose names comes swiftly to mind in Sir Henry De Mel, S.J.C. Kadirgamar, Sir Oliver Goonetilleke, Dr. J.H.F. Jayasuriya, Dr. Paul Pieris, Sir Charles Collins, S.J.C. Schokman, Mallory Wijesinghe, etc. There was a long line of European General Secretaries, the last two were Murray Brookes and G.P. Wishard, who was succeeded by the first Sri Lankan in R.O. Buell, who served for the longest period of 25 years. The others who followed were P.H. Mendis, L.G.G. Wijesinghe, Leslie Perera, Alagan Kadirgamar (serving for 11 years) Shantha Fernando, Chandra Fernando, Christopher Bartholomuesz – the current General Secretary, and A.J.P. Wijesinghe. The most significant aspect of the YMCA’s service to the nation is the welcome it extends to all persons regardless of distinctions relating to religion, race, caste, creed, sex, social or economic status. Above all it is committed to the development of body, mind and spirit of not only the young, but the old as well.     Sports/indoor games Mention must be made that it was the YMCA that introduced the self-service cafeteria system through its well-patronised restaurant. The YMCA provided facilities for public speaking and debate through its Forum and was also well supported by a library that had adequate, readable and useful material. Meanwhile, it paid much attention to religious activities and the fostering of music, drama, the arts and culture. It would be interesting to know that it was the YMCA that started the city playground movement and popularised games such as volleyball, basketball, boxing, judo and camping. It inaugurated all island meets in wrestling, gymnastics, table tennis, carrom and billiards. The YMCA gymnasium was the first and best in Ceylon. It was the YMCA that introduced and popularised many sports like boxing, badminton, carrom, chess, draughts, basketball, volleyball, wrestling, etc. The invention of basketball is credited to Dr. James in 1927 by Walter Cammack. Basketball was first introduced to a leading Buddhist school (Ananda College) in 1927. The YMCA popularised table tennis in the early ’30s and many famous players who represented Ceylon and Sri Lanka like Pesi Pestonjee, Jothipala Samaraweera, Namal Gunasekera, Tamara Hewage, the Lakdawelas, etc. were YMCA members. In 1940 two of the world’s best players, I. Keldn and Miklos Szabados, played at the Central YMCA. In 1935 the YMCA was the first to introduce carrom. In 1940 a Billiards Club was formed. The new billiard room was opened on 2 May 1980 with Sports Ambassadors Glen Miller and Robin Cook playing the first shots. Boxing is a sport in which the YMCA has represented Sri Lanka at the Olympic Games due to the untiring efforts of Danton Obeyesekera. Albert Perera, Leslie Handunge and G.D. Pieris represented Ceylon at the 1948 Olympic Games. Wrestling was also a sport that thrived at the ‘Y’. One of the great enthusiasts was the late one time Minister of Sports, V.A. Sugathadasa, a member of the YMCA.   Shelter for refugees In February 1942 the YMCA came to the assistance of the authorities in providing accommodation for refugees from Malaya. It was on 5 April 1942, the day of the historic Japanese air raid, that the YMCA really rose to the occasion. A large number of people sought shelter in the ‘Y’ as the sirens wailed.  The ‘Y’ building in addition to being solidly constructed was also insulated against blast by thick protective barriers of sandbags.   Library The library was the first-ever opened to the public and is probably one of the oldest in South Asia.   Forum    Apart from the parent organisation it’s the Forum among the YMCA’s offspring that provides the longest and most glittering array of alumni. Those who search for records and superlatives have called it ‘the oldest talking shop outside Parliament’. Perhaps the most distinguished of the Forum’s products was S.W.R.D. Bandaranaike. Some of those who ‘cut their teeth’ at the Forum were Anandatissa de Alwis, G.G. Ponnabalam and K.N. Choksy, amongst others. The first Ceylonese Bishop of Colombo Rev. Lakdasa de Mel was a Patron of the YMCA. A salutary characteristic of the YMCA is that it has a fine rapport with other religious organisations, such as the YMBA, YMMA and the YMHA spanning a period of 125 years. A young men’s association existed in Colombo in 1859 and in Kandy in 1861. Objectives of the association were the religious, moral and intellectual advancement of its membership. The Membership in those early years was divided into four classes, namely, 1) Active members 2) Associate members 3) Sustaining members and 4) Honorary members The first part of the association that was formed was the Library. The nucleus of the present library was formed in the latter part of 1883 when Donald Ferguson presented 15 volumes of ‘Biblical Museum’. These were supplemented by Dr. Vanderstraaten in 1889.   Sunday services Sunday services began in March 1884. These services supplied a long-felt need since the Baptist services had stopped by then. The Sunday school began in January 1884 with seven teachers and 28 students. One-and-a-half years later, it had swelled to 109 students. Temperance work began chiefly amongst children in May 1885 and continued till May 1893. The first Sports Meet was held in June 1884   Magazine A quarterly magazine was started in September 1883. It was the first YMCA magazine in Asia. In 1889 the magazine was run as a monthly. Since 1897 the magazine was known as the ‘Young Men of Ceylon’.     1894-1904: The stage of development This period of 10 years was known as the Stage of Development. The association moved into the rooms at Slave Island on 8 November 1893 with a membership of 105. In 1894 the YMCA moved to the de Soysa building in Slave Island. The Paris basis of membership was introduced in 1894. An Athletic Club was started and in December 1901 a conference for students and Christian workers was held in Kandy in connection with Mott’s visit. It has been described as one of the most memorable gatherings ever held in Ceylon. On 16 September 1904 the foundation stone for the new building at the Racquet Court building (which is now the Chalmers Granary) in Pettah was laid. The gymnasium was officially opened on 5 November 1906.     Other phases of development In 1909 the Tennis Court at the Racquet Court Building was begun. It was in the Racquet Court building that the 25th anniversary was held. The YMCA later shifted to the B.S. and S.I. building in front of the Fort Railway Station at Front Street. In 1912 the first-ever All Ceylon YMCA Convention was held on Thursday, 7 November for 225 delegates. Dr. Mott and Eddy were the speakers. In 1917 the old Racquet Court Building was razed to the ground and the YMCA relocated to the old soldiers and sailors building. That same year a movement that was to impact the lives of many students, the Student Christian Movement (SCM), was formed. On 11 March 1921, the famous preacher Rev. Stanley Jones visited Ceylon. On 22 February 1924 the new building in Fort was opened. It was described as the most up-to-date, beautiful, best-arranged building in Burma, India and Ceylon. That same year the first annual YMCA Championship boxing meet was held in the Gymnasium. In 1926 the first art exhibition was held by the YMCA. Though there was a great depression during the 1930s, the YMCA survived. In fact the YMCA became a place where hope springs eternal. On 17 May 1934 Dr. Rabindranath Tagore visited the central YMCA. In 1935 the YMCA was the first institution to introduce carrom to Ceylon. The Forum, which is one of the oldest clubs of the YMCA, was formed in 1938. Boxing became a prominent sport in the YMCA and Danton Obeyesekera’s contribution should be acknowledged as the Clifford Cup for Boxing was won many times. 1941 was a significant year for table tennis in Sri Lanka. For the first time in the history of table tennis in Ceylon an All-Ceylon Juvenile TT Tournament was held on 7 and 8 March. 1944 was also a benchmark year since the YMCA Sinhalese Literary society was formed. At the inaugural meeting S.W.R.D. Bandaranaike, E.W. Kannangara and W.A. Silva were invited to speak. Two key members of the YMCA were appointed to significant posts during the year. Rev. Lakdasa de Mel was appointed as the Assistant Bishop of Colombo and Sir Oliver Goonetilleke appointed as Financial Secretary. In 1946 Anandatissa de Alwis was appointed President of the Sinhalese Literary society. 1957 marked the 75th anniversary of the YMCA in Ceylon. This was marked by a special Thanksgiving Service on 8 December at St. Paul’s, Milagiriya. It also marked the 25th anniversary of the TT Club at the YMCA. It was an eventful year as the YMCA also annexed the Clifford Cup in Boxing. On 12 September 1958 the Colombo YMCA debating forum, which is the oldest debating society in the island, entered its 100th session. On 30 July 1962 the National Council of the YMCA was opened. The YMCA restaurant had by this time gained in popularity and was catering to around 3,000 customers per day. By this time the Dehiwala YMCA too had reached a milestone, having celebrated its 50th year. The last quarterly issue of Ceylon Men appeared in print in 1964. Thereafter, a Newssheet made rather sporadic invasions into the literary consciousness of the membership. There were many reasons for the cessation of the Ceylon Men in its original format, the chief one being the prohibitive cost of publication and the heavy, resultant drain on the perilous Y finances.  However, in 1966, it was decided to publish Ceylon Men in its original format on a quarterly basis, containing not just factual information but aims and purposes of the movement. In 1970 the library consisting of 15,000 books was organised according to the Dewy Decimal Classification System. 1973 saw the re-introduction of the Inter-School Shakespeare Drama Competition jointly organised by the Colombo YMCA and the Rotary Club of Colombo North. This competition has been held for the past 40 years and has been keenly contested and it is indeed very encouraging to note the response, especially from the outstation schools. 1979 was declared as the International Year of the Child (IYC). IYC programs were held with Christian half-hour broadcasts with emphasis on children. Prefect seminars were held with 1,400 school prefects being trained. In addition a Sinhala essay competition was conducted by the Dehiwala Branch of the IYC. A 500 voice youth choir brought together children from many schools, and 5,000 needy children were given a day of fun, games and music with a wholesome lunch. By 1980 the YMCA consisted of nearly 50 committees, which included men and women of all ages. The membership of all three branches had increased steadily for many good reasons. There was a larger participation of young people in all programs. Facilities were now being extended to women and children who were getting into the habit of using the YMCA more frequently. Total membership of all branches reached 3,500. Steps were taken to make the Dehiwala and Mount Lavinia branches autonomous. At that stage the Colombo YMCA hoped to establish program centres in Bambalapitiya, Havelock Town, Wellawatte and Colombo North. The history of the 100 years of the YMCA was being written.   1981-2009 The peace and tranquillity of the entire nation was totally disrupted from 1981 to 2009 during which the country was engulfed in a civil war. The Colombo YMCA too was adversely affected due to its positioning in the midst of the High Security Zone in Colombo Fort. Naturally, day-to-day activities were hindered and progress came to a standstill. Although the cessation in the war in 2009 enabled a breath of relief from the fear and anxiety that prevailed during the period of unrest, the overall condition of the YMCA at this period of time was utterly depleted, and the accommodation in particular required repair and refurbishment as a matter of urgency. In the years 2012 and 2013 a major rehabilitation took place under the able leadership of Lal Withanage, the President, and the Board of Directors of the YMCA. A complete transformation took place whereby the YMCA was able to provide a range of accommodation to suit every pocket, including super luxury rooms as well. During the month of February 2014 the YMCA celebrated 90 years in Fort while its existence in Sri Lanka will be 132 years on 24 June 2014. The present YMCA building was opened on 22 February 1924 and as such the day was celebrated in the most fitting manner possible where the President, Directors, General Secretary and staff gathered at perhaps one of the oldest chapels in Colombo, the YMCA Chapel, to give thanks to God for the past 90 years in Fort. A Prefects’ Leadership Seminar was held in both English and Sinhala on 3 April 2014. About seventy students attended the program, which consisted of lectures on leadership, etiquette, etc., conducted by well-known professionals. During the rest of the year the Youth section proposes to conduct the following activities. Arts and Speech Contest with the Rotary Club of Colombo North and the dates will be fixed in June 2014. Six members of the youth are to be trained on a week day. A Sports Day will be held at the end of the year and certificates/trophies will be awarded for winners in badminton, table tennis and gymnastics. Table tennis: Pavel Rehorek from Switzerland conducted a two-day seminar for schoolchildren at the YMCA gymnasium. Judo: A demonstration of Sambo, a derivative of Judo introduced by the KGB, was held at the YMCA Gym on 21 February.  There is a distinct possibility of introducing this art to Sri Lanka through the YMCA. One of the Secretaries from the Russian Embassy and his wife graced the occasion. Aikido: An Aikido training program together with a demonstration was held on 21 and 22 February at the Gym followed up by a special demonstration at the Public Library on 23 February. Billiards and Snooker: The YMCA fielded three teams for the A, C and D divisions in the Interclub tournament. The C team won the division while the D team ended as runners up. Draughts: A tournament was held in February.     YMCA Easter Rally at Hyde Park The Colombo YMCA celebrating its 90th year in Fort held its Annual Easter Rally at the Philip Gunawardene Grounds, Hyde Park on Saturday 26 April. The Rally was well attended with special items by the Korean Church of Sri Lanka in English and Tamil songs conducted by the All Saints Church, Pettah. The Korean Church performance was vibrant and very enthusiastic and they sang lustily. The Tamil songs demonstrated the fact that the YMCA is open to all languages and creeds. As the President of the YMCA Lal Withanage pointed out in his welcome address, the YMCA is open to all irrespective of caste, creed or religion. This was also emphasised by the Rev. Dr. Leslie Keegal of the Foursquare Gospel Church in his message. Christ came to forgive the sins of all mankind, and is not just for Greeks or Jews. The Choir of the Foursquare Church also sang some congregational songs in Sinhala and Tamil and the curtain was brought down by an extensive drama depicting the life of Christ by the YSS Group from Kandana.