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Bens’ destiny shaped by a band of Brothers..

St Benedict’s College is marking its milestone 150th anniversary with a long line-up of events on its calendar. Among the celebrations have been the Benedictine Walk and Carnival, musical show, jubilee Mass at the Cathedral and the release of a commemoration stamp. Old Ben Felix Dias traces the 150-year saga of the pioneering Catholic school in Kotahena.
St Benedict’s College is marking its milestone 150th anniversary with a long line-up of
events on its calendar. Among the celebrations have been the Benedictine Walk and Carnival,
musical show, jubilee Mass at the Cathedral and the release of a commemoration stamp.
Old Ben Felix Dias traces the 150-year saga of the pioneering Catholic school in Kotahena.

Their sesquicentennial calendar for 2015 comprises the College sports meet on January 31, the Benedictine Walk and Carnival and the launch of the special sesquicentennial song on February 7, the College sports activities in May, the Benedictine Musical show at BMICH on June 6, the College Day jubilee mass at the Cathedral and the launch of the commemorative stamp at the College premises followed by a formal dinner at Cinnamon Grand on July 10. The Old Boys Saints
Quadrangular cricket tournament on the third week of July, the OBU Dinner Dance on December 19 and the College Christmas Carols on the second or third week of December.

By Felix Dias

A heroic tale of Catholic Missionary love and labour unfolds itself in the history of the past 150 years of St Benedict’s College, Kotahena.

If one counts the preceding 26 years of it existence in the little English School at Wolfendhal Street under its colonial title of “The Roman Catholic Seminary”, St
Benedict’s is the first Catholic English school in the island.

The school at Wolfendhal was managed by the Oratorian Fathers. Three Irish principals Lennon, Doiley and O’Connel and two Ceylonese heads Don Domingo Wijesinghe and Francis Sales were in charge until the school moved to Kotahena in 1865 and became St Benedict’s College under the Sylvestro–Benedictine monks. The De La Salle Brothers came to St Benedict’s by one of those providential designs. In 1865, Bishop Sillani, the Apostolic Vicar of Colombo, had completed a monastery for the Sylvestro- Benedictine monks in Kotahena. In December the same year, three De La Salle Brothers who were on their way to Europe from Mangalore disembarked at Galle and paid a visit to Colombo. Bishop Sillani seized his chance and prevailed upon the Brothers to stay in
Colombo and take charge of the college to which they agreed without any reference to their superiors in Europe.

The college, under the three “Holy Rebels” Brothers Hidulphus (Director), Daniel and Leo were given the monastery for their residence and classrooms. This building now houses the Brothers’ quarters and the cathedral parish hall.

The official and legal takeover of St Benedict’s College came about on 23rd April, 1868, under Bro. Pastoris, Provincial Visitor. Bro. Modeste Marie (1868–75), a
German, was the first official director of the college. His group of Brothers made a vigorous start with 200 pupils and seven classes, and in their very first year impressed the government officials and the Central School Commission.

General Hodgsen, who made the first inspection, expressed his “unqualified
satisfaction at so complete a success in so short a time”. Bro. Modeste conducted the first prize giving, inaugurated a debating club and introduced Art and Modern Languages as subjects. Things moved fast and the Brothers Gabriel (1880-87) and Maurice (1887–89) saw St Benedict’s pioneer Commercial Education – the first school in the country to introduce this stream. With the number of students increasing, new buildings were erected at the present site, an unused graveyard, to accommodate the students.

However, there was a knotty problem that dogged the education given by the Brothers. They did not teach classics, being forbidden by the Rules of 1717 of their founder John Baptist De La Salle, who feared that he would lose his Brothers to priesthood, if they became proficient in Latin. This situation created the need for a school in Colombo that taught classics to their children. The answer was the start of St Joseph’s College, which Archbishop Bonjean initially contemplated as a branch institution under the Oblate Fathers.

His first seven-year stint was termed “Seven years of plenty” and he is widely regarded as probably the greatest director of the college.

The Latin problem was eventually resolved much later in 1923, when the Brothers were allowed to teach the classics.

c towerArts and Science prospered in the early years of the 20th Century, the pupils’ work reached such a standard as to deserve an invitation from the organisers to a place at the Ceylon Court in the famous Paris Exhibition in 1900. They also exhibited their work at St Louis and London Industrial Exhibitions. The first three decades of the new century under directors Christian, Camillus, Cyprian and Bolcan could be termed its golden era for academic results as it reaped its harvest of Science scholarships, exhibitions and Hewavitharana Mathematics prizes. In fact, St Benedict’s became known as the Home for Science & Mathematics. The Roll of Honour included among many others, Gregory Weeramantry, U. D. R. Caspersz and the prodigious Peter A. Pillai, who with his gamut of distinctions, was reputed to be one of the finest brains in the British Empire. In fact, at the prize giving in 1920, the Colonial Secretary Sir Graeme Thomson in his speech stated: “Mr Pillai will need a bullock cart to carry away all his prizes”

After Cambridge, where he obtained his first PhD, Peter Pillai decided to enter the priesthood and after his doctorate in Divinity in Rome he returned to Sri Lanka to become the first Ceylonese rector of St Joseph’s College. He served St Joseph’s for more than 20 years and also started the Aquinas University College, which is the only Catholic University in Sri Lanka. The erudite Brother Wulton James (1921–23) a great visionary, already in 1922 advocated Vocational and Agricultural Education and also the wider use of the vernaculars of the country, long before it was thought of by the governments. Brother Luke (1931–39 and 1943–47), an old Benedictine and the older brother of Fr Peter Pillai, the first native director of St Benedict’s College was a strict disciplinarian and a man with grit and determination. He adorned his Alma mater with an awesome three-story block to house the boarders and the Physics, Chemistry and Biology laboratories and a lecture hall, which were the envy of other schools and even the university.

Under Bro. Luke’s vigilant eyes there was born out of Bloemendhal marshes a magnificent playground, which was initially ready for use by 1940, but taken over soon thereafter by the Royal Navy with the break out of World War II. His first seven-year stint was termed “Seven years of plenty” and he is widely regarded as probably the greatest director of the college.

The war years were very painful seeing the exodus of students and Kotahena residents. The most unenviable task of finding alternative places for the college fell on Bro. Hugh Farringdon (1942–43), who after much travelling and meeting people decided to open two branches – one at Veyangoda and the other at Wattala. The Wattala branch later became St Anthony’s College. The regrouping and rebuilding after the war fell on Bro. Luke in his second term and the Englishman Bro. Austin. The playground also had to be rehabilitated and that was completed in time for the start of the 1950 cricket season.

Bro. Oliver (1951–55) gave the college another three-story structure with a new hall on the third floor. Bro. Alban (1956–58), who came to St Benedict’s after building St Anne’s, Kurunegala, into a top-grade school, was a great lover of sports in addition to his other abilities. He was overjoyed to see St Benedict’s becoming the all-island cricket champions after 40 years in 1957 under L. P. Rayen. He rewarded the team’s efforts by building an up-to-date pavilion and laying turf pitches, which were available only to a very few schools at that time.

To steer St Benedict’s through probably its most critical period of its existence there was the Frenchman, Bro. Athanatius. He was at the helm of affairs during the schools takeover in 1961. He rallied round him the loyal alumni and students, the parents and friends of the college and decided to run St Benedict’s as a private non-fee levying school. It was a very trying time and yet he kept the Green & White fluttering in a troublesome and stormy atmosphere.

Bro. Athanatius was succeeded by genial Bro. Lawrence (1962-64), whose love for his alma mater inspired him on to keep his dear college going, and maintaining its high standards.

To youthful Brother Flavian (1965-68) fell the duty of guiding the college during her centenary year. With his liberal outlook he increased staff and student participation in the administration. The centenary celebrations were held on a grand scale, the highlight being the visit of the Prime Minister Dudley Senanayake as chief guest at the prize giving.

Under Brother Benildus (1974–83), the school achieved financial stability, while the much revered Bro. Alexander (1984–89) brought back the old boys of 1950s and 1960s vintage, including the overseas Bens, in large numbers, to support the school. Several branches of the OBU were formed in main cities in Australia, UK, Canada and United States.

The 125th Anniversary of the college was celebrated in 1990 with the presence of President R. Premadasa, to open the Luke Memorial building, during the tenure of Bro. Philip. The building boom which started under Bro. Alexander continued under all succeeding directors. The school now has new facilities in both the primary and upper school, including three computer laboratories, more classrooms, and library space, a completely revamped playground with an efficient drainage system, a modern swimming pool, and new basketball courts etc.

The tenure of Bro. Granville (2003–12) also was fruitful, with good academic achievements and an upsurge in sports all round. The college, for the first time in its history won the All Island Schools Athletics Championship in 2007.

The good work started by Bro. Granville is being continued by the present director Bro. Janaka, with Bens excelling in athletics. Among the present young athletes is 15-year-old Sahan Thenuka Rajapakse and 17-year-old Supun Nimansa, who are Sri Lanka’s brightest Olympics prospects. The college is fortunate to have one of the national coaches, I. D. Premasiri, as its head coach.

Just last week, S Benedict’s College finished overall runners-up at the senior Sir John Tarbat Public Schools Meet, breaking four long-standing records – a performance never seen in its long history.  St Benedict’s also won the All Island Inter School T20 Cricket Championship in 2015 under Mahel Jayalath with Prefect of Games/ Master-in-Charge Vivian Saverimuthupulle.

Music, both Western and Eastern, Oriental Dancing and English Shakespeare Drama and Sinhala debating are ingrained in young Benedictines and they have performed creditably at all-island schools competitions.

In additional to the many great directors, there were several other Brothers who toiled hard for the students of St Benedict’s. The most loved among them undoubtedly was Bro. James from Burma. He provided spiritual guidance to thousands of students and trained hundreds to be altar servers, with a number of them later becoming bishops and priests.

Bro. Francis, from India, prepared thousands of primary students for First Holy Communion and deservedly a four-storey new block in the primary is named after him. Brothers Mathias and Modestus were more like fathers to many boarders who came under their care. Bro. Theodoret was the Dean of the Faculty of Science, during whose time St Benedict’s produced a great many doctors, engineers and scientists. In an earlier era Pro Director Bro. Cassian was the right-hand man of the great Bro. Christian, who in addition to teaching planned and supervised the construction of the iconic Clock Tower building.

One must also never forget young Bro. Edward, who was like a breath of fresh air with his song request programme during the interval and the launch of Our Own Shows in the 1960s. This was re-enacted on June 6, 2015, to a packed audience at the BMICH, with an absolutely brilliant display of vocal talent and equally strong performances on the instruments, the whole show being of international standard.

There also were hundreds of lay teachers who gave their services to mould the students of St Benedict’s. It is too numerous to name them all. However, it is a duty to name a few. Standing tall among them was R. H. Phillips, the doyen of Ceylon’s Science teachers, who was called the Perfect Catholic Educator by the Head Prefect Anslem Gunasekera – now a Medical specialist in Australia – when Mr and Mrs Phillips were invited to be chief guests at the 1960 prize giving.

Bonny Fonseka was the much-loved Commerce Teacher and the Choir Director. The Choral Tradition of the College which peaked under him is being still maintained under the present young Choral Director Krishan Rodrigo. A Gnanapragasam organised a number of Geography Exhibitions. K. S. Perera the Art teacher, George Atkinson, the Gymnastics coach and Prefect of Discipline, Horace Perera, the historian, Major Douglas Chapman, the Commander of the Cadet Corps are all remembered with gratitude.

In more recent times, Wilfred Perera, the Sinhalese and Arts subjects teacher, J. F. Jegarajasingham , the editor of many College Magazines including the Centenary and Millennium 2000 issues, Alfred Fernandopulle, the trilingual Science and Mathematics teacher, and C Pathmanathan, the scout master and mentor stand out.

Sports at St Benedict’s in general and cricket in particular suffered a great deal in the first half of its existence due to the unavailability of a playground. There were however some notable feats such as Norman S. Koelmeyer’s champion cricket team of 1917, and the first champion football team of 1928 led by Edward Jayatunge. Soccer tradition was however maintained from that time up to recent years.

The 1950s and 1960s were the golden years of Benedictine sports, the college reigning supreme in football, hockey, basketball and cricket with excellent coaches Albert Fernando (football), Brian Assey (hockey), Ram Sundaralingam (basketball) Edward Kelaart and Bertie Wijesinha (cricket) and exemplary Prefects of Games in Bro. Ladislaus, A Gnanapragasam and Bede Puvimanasinghe.

Several national stars were produced during this period notably Percy Perera, Asia’s Best Shooter and Cosmas Perera (basketball), Rayen Brothers L. P. and J. P, Dennis de Rosayro, Fernando Brothers Stanley, Homer and Subhas (hockey) Rohan Gunaratne (rugby), T. Wanigaratne (football) and Lionel and Ranjit Fernando (cricket).

Angelo Santiago led several Benedictine teams to championship honours in table tennis in the late ‘60s and early ‘70s. He reigned supreme, becoming the national champion in 1971, ’74, ’78, ’85, and ’86. In cricket, the 1964 champion cricket team of Sunil Fernando, termed the “Invincibles”, remains the best team in the school’s history. Coaches Edward Jayawardene (football), Batcho Selvaraja and Ravi Irugalbandara (hockey) also produced many Champion teams.

The contribution made by St Benedict’s to the Catholic Church and Catholic Education is immeasurable. It gave the Church its first Ceylonese Bishop Dr Bede Beckmeyer, the first Indian Bishop of Latin Rite Dr Tiburtius Roche, the first Ceylonese Bishop of Jaffna Dr Emilianus Pillai, the younger brother of Father Peter Pillai and Bro. Luke and two current bishops Archbishop Emeritus Dr Oswald Gomis and Auxiliary Bishop Dr Emmanuel Fernando.

The Lasallian Education which started at St Benedict’s spread its wings, with sister schools coming up in all parts of the country, and this thrived up to the time of the schools takeover and less so thereafter. It left its mark on the Catholic Church with seven of the 11 Bishops of Sri Lanka at present being products of Lasallian schools. It also provided directors for all Lasallian schools and many other Catholic schools, with four of St Peter’s rectors being old Benedictines, including its first rector Fr Nicholas Perera and its present rector Fr Trevor Martin.

In the fields of Science, Medicine, Engineering, Law, academia, Business, Architecture, Arts, Media, Advertising and other fields, Benedictines stand out compared with many other schools. The Old Boys Union was founded in 1904 by two of Ceylon’s most illustrious sons, Sir Thomas De Sampayo, the First Ceylonese Acting Chief Justice and Sir Marcus Fernando, the First Ceylonese to obtain Doctor of Medicine Degree (M.D.) of the University of London.

Among the many Benedictine elite are Prof P. B. Fernando, first Professor of Medicine of the Faculty of Medicine, University of Ceylon, Prof A. W. Mailvaganam, first Professor of Physics, Professor Terrance Chapman, First Ceylonese Professor of Bacteriology, Dr A. W. R. Joachim, first Ceylonese Director of Agriculture, Prof A. Kandiah, first Ceylonese to obtain the Doctor of Science (DSc) Degree, Dr C. V. S. Corea, father of Homeopathy in Sri Lanka, Dr A. N. S. Kulasinghe renowned multi-discipline engineer and innovator, who was the first chairman of the Sri Lanka State Engineering Corporation, Prof Amirtharajah Appiah, world authority in Environment Engineering, Architect Prof Lakshman Alwis, Prof. Nihal Amarasinghe , development banker and international civil servant, Dr Oswald Fernando, world-renowned kidney transplant surgeon, Senior Engineer Dr Michael Joachim, incumbent chairman, Sri Lanka State Engineering Corporation.

Eng. John N. L. C.  Fernando, a pioneering IT professional in Sri Lanka introduced Computer Technology to students of St Benedict’s way back in the early 1980s. Others of note are Dr Rohan H. Phillips, Chief Engineer McDonald’s worldwide, service commanders Air Chief Marshal Dick C. Perera, Inspector General of Police Herbert Weerasinghe, Army Commander General Cecil Waidyratne, V. A. Sugathadasa, first Minister of Sports, Speaker of the House Stanley Tillekeratne, and Reggie Candappa, father of the advertising industry in Sri Lanka. Excelling in the media were newspaper Editors Felix Goonawardena (Times of Ceylon), Clarence Fernando (Daily News), Lasantha Wickramatunge (Sunday Leader), E. C. B. Wijesinghe (Sun Newspaper), who also was the legendary stage actor well known for his roles in He Comes from Jaffna, Well Mudaliyar, and The Dowry Hunter etc. – still remembered by the Colombo Society.

Sinhala Cinema also has been enriched by old Benedictines Vijaya Kumaranatunga, Ravindra Randeniya and Robin Fernando. St Benedict’s has produced some of best entrepreneurs such as Sir Chittampalam A. Gardiner, Hubert A. De Silva, Herbert Cooray, and K. C. Selvanathan, founders of large business conglomerates. Being the pioneer of Commerce education St Benedict’s has produced a host of bankers, including Edgar Gunatunge, heads of many private and public sector institutions and several ministry secrataries. Last but not least world-renowned Buddhist monks Most Venerable Narada Thera and Most Venerable Soma Thera are proud products of St Benedict’s College.

Any description of St Benedict’s is incomplete without mentioning the groundsman par excellence Rogus Perera, who shed more sweat for the college than any other employee. Rogus was the ground boy for 56 years and always tried to do a perfect job. His aim was to provide the best playing conditions for the students. He needed no supervision whatsoever in carrying out his duties.

The main event of the Sesquicentennial Celebration was held on Friday, July 10, beginning with the concelebrating of Holy Mass by His Eminence Malcolm Cardinal Ranjith with Benedictine bishops and priests at St Lucia’s Cathedral, Kotahena. This was followed by an assembly under the banyan tree presided over by President Maithripala Sirisena. A first day cover was handed over to the President to commemorate this occasion.

On the same evening a celebratory dinner was organised at Cinnamon Grand Hotel, with Prime Minister Ranil Wickramasinghe in attendance.

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