The Sunday Leader

The Story Of St Benedicts’ College, Kotahena – Religio, Mores, Cultura

To survive 150 years as a premier teaching Institution despite many vicissitudes is a herculean feat. To consistently improve over the same period, is an act of God. St Benedicts’ College- Kotahena celebrates 150 years of excellence in 2015, the same year The Holy See Pope Francis visits Sri Lanka.

In 1837 Sir Robert Wilmot Horton helped Vicar Apostolic of Ceylon with a donation of 50 British Pounds for the formation of the first Catholic English School in the Island. In May 1839, the long cherished dream of the Catholics came true. The Roman Catholic Seminary, the school that was destined to become St. Benedicts’ College was declared open in Wolfendhal Street by its Patron, The Rt. Rev. Dr. Vincente de Rosario, Bishop of Tamocene and Vicar Apostolic of Colombo. The Seminary, as the school was called in those days, was for superior English Education.

A school committee of fourteen was chosen to look after its interests. J B Misso was President and J Sansoni Vice President. S C De Heer was Secretary and J Wright Treasurer. The school’s first Principal was an Irishman, M Lennon, who was assisted by Don Domingo ( later Mohandiram Wijeysinghe) and J Andriesz as first and second assistants.

The seminary numbered 80 students of which 68 were Roman Catholics. The curriculum included English, Reading, Writing, Grammar, Arithmetic, Algebra, Geometry, History, Geography, Chronology, Greek, Latin and Sinhala. It was indeed a superior classical school. The Prospectus stated “the tenets of the Roman Catholic faith are strictly inculcated on the pupils professing that faith, but no interference takes place with the religious education of those of other denominations.” This holds true to date.

Eventually St. Benedicts College was moved to its present site in 1865 when the Sylvestro- Benedictine monks planned the buildings of the College in the style of an Italian Benedictine Monastery. Rev Sillani, Vicar Apostolic of Colombo was the pioneer behind this effort. He urged the Superior General of the Brothers in Paris to invite Brothers of Italian, Spanish or English origin to take charge of St. Benedicts College which was politely turned down to lack of Brothers but three Brothers, Hidulphus, Ulfin Daniel and Hermelard Leo who were on their way to France from Mangalore landed in Galle and Sillani coaxed them to take charge of the College. Brother Hidulphus became the Director of the Community of three Brothers and Head Master of the College. The College was to consist of a Day and Boarding School from its inception. By now Brother John an Irishman had arrived and the school consisted of four Brothers. Around 300 Day students and about 40 boarders were on roll.

It was in 1868 Bro. Modeste Marie, a German La Sallian Missionary with considerable teaching experience in Singapore and Pondicherry was recruited as the first Bro. Director of St. Benedicts College. He lifted the standard of education to new heights and the school was presented for inspection by the Officer Administering the Ceylon Government and a team of officials from the Central School Commission visited the school where high praise was bestowed. General Hodgson took a prominent part of the inspection and stated “native boys of the third and fourth classes knew, what nine Englishmen out of ten did not know, the distinction between shall and will, which was reported in the Examiner newspaper.

Wishing to keep the Brothers of the Christian Schools out of the priestly ministry, De La Salle, the founder had forbidden the Brothers to aspire to ecclesiastical functions. He had also gone to the extent of forbidding the Brothers the study or use of Latin except in certain very limited circumstances which did not extend to teaching it in their schools. This led to deep thinking within the Catholic hierarchy who wished Latin to be a subject offered at examinations at Cambridge level.

It was under the circumstances of the Latin question described above that the higher classical section of St Benedicts’, to be called St Joseph’s, under the direction of the Oblate Fathers was contemplated and came to be opened in 1896.

St Benedicts’ soon reached the zenith with many promising children some of whom like, the first Ceylonese Chief Justice Sir Thomas de Sampayo, Advocate C M Fernando, the first Crown Counsel of the Island Dr H M Fernando, Attapattu Mudliyar, H A Perera, E G Jayawardene, L B Fernando, Dr C Brito Babapulle, Dr P Muttukumaru, P M A Corea, G C Rambukpotha, B O Pullenayagam, and D A Kekulawela distinguishing themselves in their respective spheres of influence and academic activity.

The College rose to the fore front with brilliant results in the Cambridge University Examinations around 1911.G Weeramantry blazed the trail coming out on top of the list of Ceylon candidates with first class honours. This was repeated next year by U D R Caspersz. L D John Telesphor scored a first class honours in the Junior section. The first time St Benedicts’ presented candidates for the London Inter Science Examination two of the five to pass were from the College. L D Alexander passed and G Weeramantry won the scholarship to prosecute his higher studies in England. In the roll of honour appeared other names of scholars. L D J Telesphor, A W R Joachim, E St J Caspersz, S A Muller, and of course the prodigious Peter A Pillai who secured distinctions in all the subjects he offered.

After Bro Camillus, Bro Cyprian was Director (1915-1917) . With his partiality for music and cricket he soon became a popular figure. St Benedicts became cricket champions and the Cadets won both the De Zoysa Challenge Shield and the Cup for Squad Drill. Music amongst children were kindled which was to earn national recognition in the years to come.

After many foreign Brothers came Bro Luke Gregory (brother of Fr Peter Pillai) as the first Ceylonese Director of St Benedicts’. He built the first three storey building within the College premises for the boarders. A turf wicket for cricket was to follow under Bro Ladislaus.

The concept of higher education had been crystallized in Scholarships and Exhibitions and in a trek to Cambridge and London or else to the Technical, Law, Medical, and University Colleges. From Lennon to Luke the road had been long but the evolution great, culminating as a hill does in a peak or a golden era, in the tens and twenty’s of the twentieth Century. The ascent to the peak had been hard from Modeste to Maurice; the height was reached and kept from Christian, Camillus to Bolcan. There was descent too when the quantity of the growing numbers of the second thousand of students militated against the high quality of education. The teaching of the religious personnel became diluted with the demands of the branch Institutions.

Those who shone in their respective fields of education, social sciences, sport, humanities and religious studies in recent history are well known and too numerous to record. The College has over the years improved her infrastructure to include modern buildings whilst retaining the signature buildings of yore.

Science laboratories, Computer Laboratories, Conference Rooms, College Hall, Modern Tuck Shop, Playground, Covered Turf Wickets, and Swimming Pool have been added with the support of the Old Boys Union and the other supporting groups.

True to the vision of De La Salle, the present day Brothers have continued to uphold traditions and selfless commitment to teaching the poor and under privileged.

The present living quarters of the Brothers adjacent to St Lucia’s Church yet remain in its original style though appearing very dilapidated bearing testimony.

St Benedicts College after a hundred and fifty years of meritorious labour has accomplished much as the first Catholic English School and then diversified to meet the needs of changing times with great aplomb. By and large the History of St Benedicts’ is a heroic tale of Christian love and labour, presently being carefully guarded and nurtured into the next fifty years under the capable hands of Brother Janaka Fonseka the present Director

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