To Catholics in and around Colombo who had no access to proper education St. Benedict’s College Kotahena, a pioneering initiative of De La Salle Brothers was a beacon of hope.
At this time Kotahena was home to the three main educational houses in Colombo, the Colombo Academy (later Royal College) in Wolfendhal, S. Thomas’ College in Aluthmawatte Road (Gal Palliya) and St. Benedict’s College, although in later years Royal College moved to Reid Avenue and S. Thomas’ to Mount Lavinia.
St. Benedict’s College, which was moved from Wolfendhal to its present location in 1865, was the only educational institution for Catholics in the South administered by the La Sallian Brothers following the footsteps of their founder John Baptist De La Salle who renounced the world to educate the poor in France.
The college attracted the cream of the Catholic community and it has an outstanding and unparalleled record of producing some of the finest gentlemen of this country.
The pastoral letter of Archbishop of Colombo, Christopher Ernest Bonjean on January 6, 1892 amply denotes the noble values the school imparts to it students in the following “At the head of our vast system of schools stands St Benedict’s Institute, the leading Catholic College of the archdiocese. Founded in 1865. St Benedict’s has always maintained its reputation for the sound education it imparts to its pupils”
With the clamour for unity and religious amity today, St. Benedict’s College has led the way by example through its distinguished alumni, the Anagarike Dharmapala the foremost National Hero of Sri Lanka, the Most Venerable Narada Nayaka Thera considered one of the greatest Buddhist scholars, the Most Ven Soma Maha Thera, the author of over 30 books on Buddhism and recognized as one responsible for the spread of Buddhism in Europe and the famous Hindu Kurukkal Siva Shri Deiva Sigamany of the Munnesweram Temple. They are the pride of all Sri Lankan Buddhists and Hindus and to be products of a Catholic school is ample testimony to the equality and religious harmony that exists in this great institution.
The history of Catholic education in Colombo could be traced back to the beginning of St. Benedict’s, a trailblazer in catholic education in the country. The growth of St. Benedict’s was significant and in the words of Archbishop Bonjean “ We have been amply rewarded by the growing prosperity of this Institution, its efficiency has daily increased, and it counts now 475 pupils, a number never reached before and not equaled by any other Institution in Ceylon”
As the demand for education among the Catholic community grew, the need for teaching of classical languages too became a necessity. Discussions were held between the Archdiocese and St. Benedict’s College continued for the inclusion of these subjects in the curriculum. While the Christian Brothers were firm that only teaching of only English, the Archdiocese was desirous of teaching the classical languages. A decision was taken and to satisfy both needs, I once again quote Archbishop Bonjean in his pastoral letter. “The creation of a separate Institution on a grand scale was out of the question, and that, for two decisive reasons – The first was the lack of means and secondly on how to conciliate our new departure with the existence and future prosperity of this invaluable institution now under the Christian Brothers. It was felt that whilst both institutions kept on the distinct lines proper to each, they should coalesce in one and the same educational establishment under the time honored name of St Benedict’s. for we were not going to give up the good things we had, in an attempt to get something better”.
He further went on to say. “It were simply premature at this early stage to enter into minute details of the organization which the harmonious working of both branches of St Benedict’s Institute thus constituted will necessitate, We have laid down the broad lines of the plan and this is all for now needed”
After this initial development of this branch spanning a period of four years, the Archbishop with the assistance of the Administration of St Benedict’s established the second Catholic school in Colombo in 1896 namely St. Joseph’s Colombo 10, on 12th December 1894. To strengthen this new school many Teachers and Students transferred from St. Benedict’s, this sacrifice paid rich dividends as it signaled the beginning of the long road to success of Catholic Education in Sri Lanka.
St. Benedict’s continued to support in many ways towards the formation of all other Catholic institutions in and around Colombo, Benedictine Rev Fr Nicholas Perera was the founder Rector of St.Peters Colombo 4 in 1922.
It is impossible in the space of an article such as this to enumerate all the notable achievements of Benedictines, which significantly include a number of ‘firsts’ in every field. This limited resume however, will be sufficiently indicative of the vast contribution made by Benedictines.
Beginning with the Catholic Church, St. Benedict’s produced the first Sri Lankan Catholic Bishop in Dr Bede Beekmeyer, the first Indian Catholic Bishop in Dr Tibutius Roche and the first Tamil Bishop in Dr Emilanius Pillai. Fr Peter Pillai was considered the most learned man in the British empire at one time and his record of academic achievement has never been equaled, he was also one of the most distinguished rectors of St Joseph’s College Maradana and the founder of Aquinas University, Archbishop Dr Oswald Gomis, the present Auxillary Bishop Emmanuel Fernando and Prof Rev Fr Tyrell Alles, these are just a few of the eminent Benedictines who served the Catholic Church.
Just to impress upon the outstanding contribution to Sri Lankan society, mention should be made of some of the eminent Benedictines in their chosen professions namely Justice De Sampayo, Justice Marshal Pulle, Dr Cyril Fernando, the leading physician of his day, Prof Kandiah, the first Ceylonese to obtain the D Sc, Mr. C M Fernando the country’s first Crown Counsel,
Dr A W Joachim the greatest soil chemist who rose to be the first Ceylonese Director of Agriculture, Prof P B Fernando the first Professor of Medicine of the University of Ceylon , Mr. P Navaratnerajah Queens Counsel, Professors Mylvaganam, Chapman, Kingsley De Silva Orthopedic surgeon Dr Rienzie Peiris, Mr. A N S Kulasinghe the country’s leading Engineer , respected Public administrators who served with distinction as Secretaries of various Ministries were Mr. Annesley Jayewardene, Mr. Ronnie Gunatilleke, Dr Joe Fernando, Dr Reggie Perera, Dr Athula Kahandaliyanage, Mr. Justin Dias and Dr Michael Joachim.. Among the Entrepreneurs were Sir Chittampalam Gardiner, A G Hiniappuhamy, S Selvanathan, D Esuwaran and in recent times Sumal Perera, Jeyam Perumal, Ranjith Kodikara, Dudley Thambinayagam,Naushad Mohideen and Errol Weerasinghe.
Of the many Benedictines who have added luster to the Country’s Diplomatic service is Ambassador Jayantha Dhanapala, a distinguished diplomat who held the highest position ever by a Sri Lankan in the United Nations as under Secretary General. Many Benedictines have served in the armed forces and Police among them are the 12th Commander of the Sri lanka Army General Cecil Waidyaratne, the 6th Commander of the Sri lanka Air Force, Air Vice Chief Marshal Dick Perera and the 14th Inspector General of Police Herbert Weerasinghe.
Of Journalists there were Editors like Quintus Delikan, Felix Gunawardena, Clarence Fernando and of course the popular E C B Wijesinghe, and in recent times Sports Journalist Elmo Rodrigopulle and Lasantha Wickremetunga. Reggie Candappa is considered the doyen of the Advertising Industry in Sri Lanka.
In the film and music industry St Benedict’s has a record unparalleled by any school. personalities such as Vijay Kumaranatunga, Ravindra Randeniya , Robin Fernando and S Nayagam who produced the first Sinhala film are household names and considered as kings of this industry, in the music industry Sunil Shantha is considered a legend, some of the greatest names in music such as Jerry Crake, Denzil & Bosco, Peter Prins, Dharmaratne Brothers, Spit Fires, Savages, Jet Liners, Grace and in recent times Voice Print, Rebels, Julius Michell and the Tissera Brothers, Shavindra and Viroshan. In the field of sports, St. Benedict’s has an enviable record unsurpassed by any school in the country, having produced champion teams for Cricket, Football, Basketball, Hockey, Cadetting, Gymnastics and athletics, in soccer St. Benedict’s has a fabulous record being almost invincible in the post World War -02 period, a famous Benedictine footballer V A Sugathadasa became the Country’s first Minister of Sports, Wisden has registered two records from St. Benedict’s one being the nine Fernandopulle brothers who played for the first eleven team all as wicket keepers and the second being the record of Lionel Fernando who scored 214 Runs and took all 10 wickets in an interschool first eleven cricket match.
Another record of sports was when Joe Saverymuthapulle and his two sons Joel and Jeremy captained the 1st eleven Cricket teams. Great all round sportsmen include Felix Dias, Allen Gunasekera and L P Rayen. Many Benedictines have gone on to represent Sri Lanka in their chosen sport: Names that come to mind are Rangith Fernando and Ranjan Gunatilleke in Cricket, Rozen Rodrigo, Denzil Walles and Tissa Kodituwakku in Soccer, The Fernando Brothers Stanley, Homer and Subash in Hockey, Cosmos Perera, Malsiri Perera and Percy Perera in Basketball, Rohan Gunaratne who Captained Sri Lanka in Rugby, Nalaka Fernando in rowing, Angelo Santiago in Table Tennis and Gymnast James Perera.
What is most special is that St. Benedict’s College has during her long history been a quiet and humble Institution that has silently produced some of the finest gentlemen of this Country; many have adorned positions of high office both here and overseas with humility, equality, fairplay and brotherhood. These outstanding human qualities have been instilled in them through this institution, surely keeping in mind the message conveyed in one verse of the College anthem:
“True to our God and true to all men,
Follow we ever life’s holy plan
Doing the duty that is to do,
Bearing the cross with the crown in view”