Mission Chapel Church, a proud symbol of African history
One of Guyana’s oldest and most historic churches is the Mission Chapel Congregational Church, situated at Main and Chapel Street, New Amsterdam. The story of Mission Chapel is quite an interesting one which ties in nicely into what Guyana is celebrating at this time of the year, the anniversary of Emancipation of African Slaves.
In this church, African slaves were taught to read and write and had their religious education.
The man who is credited with the founding of the church, an English Missionary, the Rev John Wray, landed in Demerara on Saturday, February 6, 1808, through the invitation of Dutch Planter, Hermanus Hilbertus-Post. He owned Plantation Le Ressouvenir.
With assistance of Post, Wray established Bethel Chapel on Post’s Estate and started a successful mission among the slaves.
Slaves, during those days, met a lot of challenges when it came to receiving religious education. In fact, all forms of education were stifled by the British planters, as they feared that the slaves would become wise and rebel if they were to be educated. In 1815, Mission Chapel Church was founded by Rev John Wray, whose arrival to Guyana marked the beginning of Congregationalism here. Due to his successful efforts working among the enslaved population, he was invited by the Commissioners managing Crown property to establish a Mission among the slaves in Berbice.
Towards the end of 1812, a new door opened unexpectedly to Wray. There were in the then separate Colony of Berbice a number of estates belonging to the English Crown. These estates, for many years, had not been productive enough to pay expenses. The slaves on these estates were known as “Crown Slaves”. The condition of these slaves had been lamentable, many of them having no clothing at all, and only the most miserable huts in which to dwell.
In 1813, Rev Wray arrived in Berbice and established Orange Chapel at Sandvoort. As New Amsterdam grew in importance as a township, they began holding services in temporary buildings in the town. He made several attempts to secure permanent accommodation, but his efforts were thwarted by the powerful plantocracy.
In 1818, he purchased Lot 12 of the first empolder of the town of New Amsterdam and commenced holding services under a tamarind tree on the site. The purchase transaction of the site was completed on December 31, 1818 and work on a permanent building started. The first Mission Chapel was completed and consecrated in February 1819. The debt on this building was liquidated in 1821.
During 1822, the Mission Chapel Congregational School was built and the church was enlarged. However, in the aftermath of the Demerara Uprising in August 1823, both Church and School were destroyed by arson at the instigation of an embittered plantocracy.
The incident acted as a spur to Wray’s efforts on behalf of the hard- pressed and exploited slaves. A second Mission Chapel building was completed and re-directed on June 12, 1825. The number of converts continued to increase so that this second building eventually became too small.
The foundation of the third and present Mission Chapel was laid in 1841 during the ministry of the Rev Ebenezer Davies, the son-in-law of Rev Wray.
Today, the church comes alive during August when its anniversary is usually celebrated. The pastor of the church today is Rev Tyrone Sulker and while the building can accommodate over 1,500 persons, current membership is about 250.
According to one of the church’s oldest members and deacons, Donald Thom, the church has several ministries today, including a Diaconate comprising of the minister and 16 deacons; a Sunday school, Women’s Union, Prayer Group, Youth Fellowship, etc.
The members are on a mission to preserve the monument and to undertake renovations which will ensure the survival of the physical structure.
Thom said that the building will be rededicated later in August and he made appeals to the general public to come on board and assist financially towards the rebuilding efforts. He thanked Ameerally Sawmills and A. Ally and Sons who helped them during the process ongoing rehabilitation process. He stated that a lot of money is needed to complete the works but “has faith that members of the community” and “business entities will assist with final completion”.
An appeal was also made to President Bharrat Jagdeo for assistance as well as the international body for Congregational Churches.
The Mission Chapel Church, a church rich in its history, was a place of refuge and worship for the African ancestors during a time of oppression.