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Monday, 18 July 2016

Lost In The Passage Of Time: The Origins Of One Of The Other St. John's Church of Rangoon

This story is brought to you with the support of the
AGBU UK Trust.

 *NOTE: The hyperlinks in square brackets [ ] do not work in this blog, please scroll to the bottom to read the links.

Generally speaking, when one thinks of St. John’s Church Rangoon one normally thinks of the Armenian Church. Currently enjoying a renaissance in popularity, the Yangon St. John the Baptist Armenian church is breathing easier these days, thanks to the recent intervention of the Armenian Holy See to reclaim and revive it from years of stifled possession of an unauthorised non Armenian incumbent.  Rescued in the nick of time, its beginnings, roots and history are once again proudly and rightly lauded by Armenians around the world. Its precious fabric now rests securely for future generations and visitors to worship in.

But what of the other St. John’s Church of Yangon? No, it is not Armenian, but it does have a significant Armenian association, and one that is sadly forgotten today.   Even the St. John's Catholic Church website cannot fully recite its own early years. 

Time has diluted the importance of the Armenian connection.  Let me try to revive it.

St. John’s Catholic Church Yangon. Built in extraordinarily quick time, within a 20 month period. It was made possible by the generosity of a Catholic Armenian of Rangoon, Gregory Avanis.
Image courtesy of

The basic foundations were dug after the end of the second Burmese-Anglo war in 1853.  Bishop Balma had decided to make the city his permanent place of residence, and it was at this time that he laid down in the military cantonments, the foundations of the church of St. John the Baptist.” This early development was “left in an unfinished state until the year 1857.[1] Questionable as to whether it would ever be built, it remained like this until a Catholic Armenian, Gregory Avanis came to the rescue.

In his Will[2] he donated the entire cost of the structure, bequeathing the sum of Companys Rupees 20,000 and ensuring its completion.
Gregory Avanis stated in his Will that he had a number of valuable Bengal Promissory notes, these totalled Companys Rupees 54,000. Declaring his bequests, he went on to say: “I further leave and bequeath one Bond for the sum of Company’s Rupees twenty thousand for the purpose of building a Chaple (sic) at Rangoon in the name of Saint John.”

Over the last few years, I have read hundreds, probably even a few thousand pages of old Armenian Wills and Inventories in an attempt to piece together many fragments of lost Armenian family history in India. The Will of Gregory Avanis is written in the same vein as scores of others in Asia. He could not have realised how his act of generosity would help build a church that continues to stand today. He died in Madras in April 1858, having declared his final wishes less than a month before in Madras. 

It seems his heart was in Rangoon.

Leaving a legacy such as this in a Will does not necessarily mean the wishes of the testator would be fulfilled. It is fortunate that in the book “An Outline of the History of the Catholic Burmese Mission” by Reverend Bigandet he gave crucial details of the re-commencement of the building process of the church. 

“In February 1858, the corner stone of the church of Rangoon was laid down amidst a great concourse of people. The ceremony was presided by the Bishop, assisted by the Rev. P. Barbe, C. Paruza, C. Pacchiotti and V. Gabutti. The band of the European Regiment enlivened the ceremony. M. Th. Chrestian laid down the corner stone. During the rainy season, the work was interrupted, to give time to the foundations to sit well in the ground.

The work resumed in the month of October, and carried on without interruption. The church was blessed and, for the first time, opened for divine service on the 3rd Sunday of Advent, of the year 1859. It was erected solely at the expense of Mr. Gregory Avanis an Armenian, native of Rangoon, who since the war of 1824 had migrated to Madras, where he died on the 2nd of April 1858 having just received the information that the work of laying the foundation of the church had been begun.

He bequeathed the sum of 20,000 Rupees, for building the church, and a similar sum in Company’s papers, with the injunction that the interest should be used for repairing the church, and praying for the repose of his soul.”

Rev. Bigandet’s recollections are the perfect independent proof and provenance that St. John’s Catholic Church, Rangoon was started by a Bishop, completed by an Armenian and enjoyed by all who worship there.

After Gregory’s death a tablet was placed in his memory at the St. Mary’s Roman Catholic Cathedral, Madras by his brother Stephen whose own family continued to reside in Rangoon. The memorial inscription reads: “Sacred to the memory of Gregory Avanis, Esq., aged 75 years. This tablet was erected by his affectionate brother Stephen Avanis.[3]

With a little digging, some patience and a lot of time this is another small piece of forgotten Armenian family history brought back to life.

For my earlier story on another Armenian who built a Catholic  church you can find it here “Catholic Armenians: Let’s Build a Church”.


Image of St. John's Catholic Church, Yangon Architecture

[1] An Outline of the History of the Catholic Burmese Mission From The Year 1720 to 1887.  By Paul Ambroise Bigandet
[2] The Will of Gregory Avanis. British Library L/AG/34/29/258/7 1858.
[3] List of Tombs and Monuments of Europeans in the Madras District. P.55

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