The Story of St. Benedict’s By Bro. Anselm Calixtus - Page I
|“At the head of our vast system of schools stands St. Benedict’s Institute, the leading Catholic College of this Archdiocese. Founded in 1865, St. Benedict’s has always maintained its reputation for the sound education it imparts to its pupils. The good done by the devoted Brothers of the Christian Schools during their long years of service in Colombo is above all praise…”
(Pastoral Letter of Christopher Ernest Bonjean, by the Grace of God and of the Holy Apostolic See, Archbishop of Colombo, Domestic Prelate of His Holiness, Assistant to the Pontifical Throne—Colombo, 6th Jan. 1892—p.3)
“The year 1866 in which we first had the pleasure of welcoming the Christian Brothers among us, and in which our Alma Mater, St. Benedict’s Institute, was opened under their care, formed an epoch in the history of Catholic education in Ceylon. For in that year was introduced into this country, by the establishment of your Society here, that system of education whose excellence has received world-wide recognition. The impetus then given to education has since borne abundant fruits and St. Benedict’s has now taken ranks as one of the foremost educational institutions in the Colony. We would gladly see the day when the system of the Christian Brothers shall spread itself and find in the other parts of this island a field for further extension of their beneficial influence.”
(An Address read by Mr. Advocate Sampayo on behalf of the 250 Old Pupils of St. Benedict’s on the occasion of the Visit of Very Rev. Bro. Aimarus, Asst. Superior General, 27th Nov. 1887, published in the CEYLON CATHOLIC MESSENGER, Nov. 1887.)
The early nineteenth century saw the resurgence of Catholics from the disabilities and persecution occasioned by the Dutch. Thanks to the generous initiative of Sir Alexander Johnston, Ceylon’s First Chief Justice, the “Act of Freedom” promised by His Excellency the Governor, Thomas Maitland, was promulgated in 1806. This Act which referred to the Catholics as “a numerous and peaceable body,” gave this minority group the right to open schools for their children. In appreciation, Fr. Ione Benito, Superior of the Congregation of the Oratory at Goa, and the four Oratorian Fathers and the grateful Catholics of Colombo, praised and thanked the Chief Justice. The TE DEUM was chanted and there was much festive rejoicing.
Forbear of St. Benedict’s
Sir Alexander Johnston, the Catholics’ declared patron, had encouraged the Oratorian fathers to have an English School for the Catholic Community. Subscriptions had been collected but nothing definite had been done till Ceylon came to be erected into a new Vicariate Apostolic in 1834. It had been attached to Cochin since 1557. With the re-organization of popular education in Ceylon after the Colebrooke Reforms, and with the creation of the Colombo Vicariate, there arose enthusiasm for English education among the Catholics.
This enthusiasm for English education soon bore fruit. In 1837 His Excellency Sir Robert Wilmot Horton helped the Vicar Apostolic of Ceylon with a donation of £50 for the first catholic English School in the Island. Hence, on May 15, 1839, the long-cherished dream of the Catholics came true. The Roman Catholic Seminary (the school that was destined to become St. Benedict’s 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.
It had for Vice-Patrons, the Rev. Fathers Sebastian Pereira, Caetano Antonio, Caetano Rosario, Jose Pereira and Mr. V.M. Vanderstraaten. A School Committee of fourteen was chosen to look after its interests. J. P. Misso was President of the Committee and J. Sansoni, its Vice President; S.C. De Heer was Secretary and J. Wright, the 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, respectively. For quite a long time the Seminary had three teachers.
The Seminary numbered eighty students, of whom, sixty eight were Roman Catholics, eleven Christians of other denominations, and one Muslim. The Curriculum of studies comprised English, reading, writing, grammar arithmetic, algebra, geometry, history, geography, chronology, Greek, Latin and Sinhalese. It was indeed, a superior classical school! The school authorities had also stated in their Prospectus that “the tenets of the Roman Catholic Faith are strictly inculcated on pupils professing that faith, but no interference takes place with the religious education for those of other denominations.”
The Ceylon Chronicle of 20th July, 1837 had reported that the Roman Catholic Mission had 101 private Vernacular schools attended by 1755 pupils, all boys. Now, at long last, the Catholics could be proud of a well-organized Superior English School in Colombo. All the mission schools were partly fee-levying and partly supported by mission funds. Attendance at the R. C. Seminary increased to 144 in 1843, and to 152 in 1845. The Governor’s Blue Books named the school in different ways. At first it was called the Roman Catholic Missionary Society Seminary in Colombo (1845 to 1849), then it was called the Cottanchina School (1850 to 1853), and again it was named the Seminary at Cottanchina (1854 to 1859). By 1859, the twentieth year of its existence, still directed by three teachers, the pupils had increased to 211. The school had had a Sinhalese Principal in H. F. Sales, since 1846. He drew a salary of 54 pounds a year and supervised the school up to the advent of the De La Salle Brothers (1866).
Meanwhile, in 1849, the Northern Vicariate of Ceylon (Jaffna) was created and Mgr. Bettachini administered it till his death in 1857. The same year also saw the death of the last of the Oratorian Bishops, Mgr. Caitano Antonio, Bishop of Usula, Vicar Apostolic of Colombo, and the succession of the first Sylvestro-Benedictine Bishop, Mgr. Joseph M. Bravi, Bishiop of Tipasa, as Vicar Apostolic of the Southern Vicariate. But Bravi died in 1860, and his Vicartiate was administered by the Vicar Apostolic of Quilon. Dr. Hilarian Sillani was chosen Bishiop of Callinico and Vicar Apostolic of Colombo in September, 1863.
St. Benedict’s comes into existence
During the inter-regnum there was laid the foundation stone of a new College to be called St. Benedict’s. One “J.B”, an eye-witness and reporter to the Examiner of the 28th February 1863 gave a vivid account of the impressive ceremony as follows:
“The corner stone of a new Catholic Educational Institution was laid last Friday evening by the Rt. Rev. Charles Hyacintus Valerga of St. Elias. The stone bore an inscription in Latin which, as far as I could gather, read thus: --
‘This corner-stone of St. Benedict’s College was laid by his lordship the Rt. Rev. Charles Hyacintus Valerga of St. Elias, Bishop of Miriofide, and Vicar Apostolic of Quilon, and Administrator of Colombo, in the presence of the Rev. M. Caetano and Rev. Sillani on the 13 day of February, 1863.’
“The Ceremony was in strict accordance with Ritual of the Roman Catholic Church; and at its close the Rev. Miliani delivered an impressive address on the subject of education. He dwelt particularly upon the word “Seminarium” which means a collection of seeds, and said he hoped the seeds sown in the College would bring forth good and plentiful fruit.
“As the people assembled on the occasion, who numbered more than a thousand, were chiefly Sinhalese, the address was delivered in their own language. This class amongst whom are many wealthy and influential families, are well known to be much attached to the Church, and are noted for their liberal support to any measure devised for their improvement; so that it will be superfluous for me to add that the project of this new institution has met with their hearty co-operation.
“The building of the College has been entrusted to two energetic Rev. Gentlemen, and I have no doubt that the work will be carried on with all possible speed.
“The standard of Education in the College will, it is said, be high, competent teachers being got out from Europe to take charge of the various issues.
“A Preparatory Elementary School will be attached to the College from which the more advanced pupils will be promoted from time to time.
“A Divinity Class will also be formed for the benefit of those who after a regular course of studies in the College, might wish to enter the Ministry.
“This event opens a new era in the history of the Roman Catholic Mission in this Province, and the thanks of the Catholic Community are due to those good men who originated this noble scheme and who are striving to their utmost to carry it out as expeditiously and successfully as possible.”
The Sylvestro-Benedictines planned the buildings of the College in the style of an Italian Benedictine Monastery, a rectangular structure with the ground floor enclosing a courtyard and the first floor containing a number of not-too-spacious cells for the monks, several broad spacious halls and verandahs and a campanile towering high over the front roof, a row of class-rooms and a basement ending in wine-cellars and grain stores. It was an elegant compact building serving both as a monastery as well as an educational establishment capable of housing two to three hundred day students and a small number of boarders.
When the School was a building, Sillani proceeded to Kottar, in India, where he received his episcopal consecration from Dr. Valerga. A colourful reception awaited him on his return to the Island on board the schooner “Josephine” which put into port on 5th January, 1864. In 1865 the buildings were completed. In 1866 H. F. Sales moved in with the pupils of the Seminary. During this year 368 boys and 170 girls of the English and Sinhalese schools and 4 Sinhalese teachers seem to have been housed together in the new buildings.
Quest for Brothers
Sillani was hopeful when he wrote to the Superior-General of the Brothers in Paris, on September 10th, 1866, as Semeria in the Northern Vicariate had unsuccessfully done a few years previously, inviting Brothers of Italian, Spanish or English origin to take charge of St. Benedict’s College, Colombo. But Brother Philip was not in a position then to grant the Colombo Bishop’s request. He replied to Sillani in French that
un manque absolu des sujets, et surtout des freres sachant 1’italien, 1’espagnal ou 1’anglais, me rend Mgr. Impossible 1’accomplissement a votre desir, du moins pour le moment actuel, which is,
“An absolute dearth of subjects, and above all, of Brothers Italian, Spanish, or English called for, makes it impossible for the moment to accede to your request, Mgr.”
Arrival of First Brothers
The Vicar’s disappointment was, however, short-lived for in the December of that year three De La Salle Brothers who were on their homeward journey to France from Mangalore disembarked at Galles and visited Colombo. Sillani profited by the chance to coax the three Brothers, Hidulphus, Ulfin Daniel and Hermelard Leo, to stay and enter into an agreement with him to take charge of the College. They were experienced and trained teachers from France and had taught in school for some time in Calcutta, Malabar, and Burma, successively. Sillani learnt from them that another Brother, an Irishman, who could be made “the Professor of English” could also be expected in the near future.
Brother Hidulphus became the Director of the Community of the three Brothers and Headmaster of the College, and then advertised St. Benedict’s Institution, (as he called it) in the Colombo Examiner on January 16, 1867 while the Editor of the Journal commented enthusiastically on the “new educational institution of the Roman Catholic Community.”
Bro. Hidulphus wrote that the object of the Institution was to afford Catholic youth and others, “whatever may be their creed or persuasion,” a regular course of education. “The masters intend to adorn the minds of their scholars,” he said “with every necessary branch of knowledge, thinking thereby to render them able to discern the beauties of virtue.” He assured the parents that no exertions would be spared by the Brothers to impart to the children entrusted to their care such necessary requirements as will fit them for a civilized society and that they will use all possible means which would seem conducive to the development of both the mental and physical faculties of their pupils.
The Institution was to consist of a Day and Boarding School where the courses of study would include English Language “with frequent exercise in composition, elocution and derivation,” other languages such as French and Sinhalese which were to be taught if required and at the expense of the parents, and sacred and profane history, physical and commercial geography, the use of globes and the elements of astronomy, arithmetic, book-keeping, algebra, geometry, mensuration, trigonometry and natural history.
As the College was not endowed, the Brothers were supported by the Bishop while the Mission economat remained responsible for the school accounts. Monthly fees were paid by day scholars and boarders, the fee for a boarder being £3 to be paid in advance. In the event of boarders being brothers they became entitled to a “reduction of 5 shilling per head per month.” Books and stationery, drawing, music, laundry and medical facilities provided had to be paid for as “extras.”
Parents were asked to visit boarders only on a Thursday which was according to the French custom of the Brothers, a weekly holiday instead of Saturday, and boarders were allowed, if they wished, to go home for the first Thursday of every month. Day scholars paid a monthly fee which ranged from 1 shilling in Class I to 1/6d in Class II, 2/6d in Class III, and 3/- in Class IV.
The Christmas Vacation lasted a month from 12th December. It was preceded by a “public examination and distribution of prizes.” All applications for places whether as day scholars or boarders were to be made to Bro. Hidulphus, the Director.
In its editorial comments about the new Institution under the care of the Christian Brothers and the auspices of the excellent Dr. Sillani, Vicar Apostolic of South Ceylon, the Colombo Examiner hoped that the Institution would supply a great want long felt by the Roman Catholic Community and “under such excellent control and management, will, we have no doubt, do much good.” It added that the building which had been only recently completed afforded ample accommodation for a large number of pupils and was a handsome structure. The charges at the College were said to be moderate and the studies provided “of a practical character.”
In March 1867 the Central School Commission thought of levying a fee on boarding departments, especially, on the rooms used as residential quarters for boarders in the Academy buildings at St. Sebastian. Its Principal, Barcroft Boake, however, opposed the scheme and generally defended school boarding houses as valuable institutions because of the facilities they provided for moral education. On that occasion, St. Benedict’s College was also commented on by the Editor of the Examiner, in his defence of boarding schools and moral education.
It was then reported that Bro. John, an Irishman, had arrived at St. Benedict’s and there were, therefore, four Brothers “with several native assistants assiduously engaged in their work of education” at the College which had on roll 300 day pupils. But the Boarding Establishment had not been as popular as the Day School “owing, doubtless, to the fact that parents in a town always find it cheaper to keep their children at home than board them at a college; while as regards outstations we (the Editor) believe the institution is probably not as yet sufficiently known.” The Editor thought that in course of time St. Benedict’s would, without a doubt, provide “the benefits of a comfortable home to children from outstations,” which parents would “better appreciate and more largely avail themselves of.”
Bro. Leo’s Feast Day
During the short time Bro. Leo taught the First Class (the highest form), he had won the esteem of his pupils. When his patronal feast day arrived, “they presented him with a beautiful watch and chain and an address expressive of their affection and gratitude to him for the pains he had taken to impart to them a sounds and liberal education.” The school room occupied by the class was decorated with flowers, evergreens and tender leaves of the coconut palm on the walls was a semi-circular pattern made of leaves, that read “Long life and happiness to Brother Leo.”
There was also a cordial interchange of good wishes between the scholars and their teacher while tea and cakes were served, and another teacher, Botticelli, played music on the harmonium. The evening was devoted to sports, and when the day ended, the boys wished “health and prosperity to yourself and all the other members of your community.” Thus the atmosphere of the College was gay and pleasant and the rigours of a strict monastic code practised by the Brothers had been softened to accommodate it to the needs and moods of the young.
French Accent Disturbs
There was, however, one serious defect with regard to the Brothers which was soon to cause dissatisfaction among a group of parents. Some of the French Brothers “spoke English with a strong French accent” while some were irritated by the indifferent preaching of the pastor of St. Philip Neri’s Church whose English and Portuguese were equally difficult to understand. During the months of May and June several letters appeared in the newspapers criticising Sillani for not making a proper selection of European priests and Brothers. One Pro Bono Catholicus had written to the Examiner that the pronunciation of their “present pastor has now become the daily topic of conversation among the Catholics.” Another writer observed that:
“this year Bishop Sillani has inaugurated a new Catholic School at Cottanchina, Colombo, called St. Benedict’s Institute which he has placed under the care of Christian Brothers. His Lordship deserves our best thanks for having taken this step in the right direction, but I regret to observe that three of the four Brothers whom his Lordship has ordered out are Frenchmen whose pronunciation of the English language is, as a matter of course, very defective so that the boys who attend their school find it very difficult to understand them. The Bishop herein has made a great mistake which his Lordship would do well to take into consideration and remedy.”
The Colombo Observer and the Ceylon Times carried similar letters. In defence of the R. C. Bishop, the Editor of the Colombo Examiner replied that the Bishop might have done better, had his means permitted it, to secure a large number of teachers for St. Benedict’s College but it was grossly unjust to cavil at an institution which till recently was “a mere experiment and was still in its veriest infancy.”
When a number of anonymous letters began to appear in the local papers against Sillani and the Brothers, irritated and grieved by such attacks against their Bishop and his priests and religious teachers, a large body of Catholics drew up a petition signed by a thousand two hundred and thirty of them, which they presented to the Bishop on Trinity Sunday 1867 protesting against the anonymous attacks made against his Lordship and his administration, and recording their filial loyalty and thanks to him and expressing their satisfaction “at the able and zealous manner in which the Christian Brothers were conducting at St. Benedict’s Institution.” The Bishop replied with an apposite quotation from St. Paul: “Have peace with them. And we beseech you brethren, rebuke the unquiet, comfort the feeble-minded, support the weak, be patient towards all men.”
First Brothers Re-Called
Nevertheless, these happenings discouraged the Brothers who left St. Benedict’s for Europe in August, as suddenly and unexpectedly as they had arrived eight months previously. The Bishop was left in a quandary not knowing where to turn for teachers. The Examiner regretted what had happened and mentioned that the business of the College would, nevertheless, be conducted for the time being by Fathers Vanderstraaten, Assauw and Brandt Fernando in conjunction with the Irish Brother John, who, apparently, has changed his mind and stayed on, while the Bishop renewed his negotiations with the Brothers’ Superior General in Paris, to get the others back.
A Protestant parent expressed his appreciation “of the good and kind, zealous masters of the Cottanchina Institution,” who had been recalled by their Superior in Paris.
“I cannot allow this opportunity to pass,” he said, “without bearing testimony to the pains and troubles which they (the Brothers) invariably took to include into the minds of their pupils a good and sound English Education.”
He remarked that it was with no small pride that he had observed his children improve under “their mild teaching.” He deplored their departure “just at a time when the Institution showed signs of vitality in all its departments.” There was a great influx of applications for admission to the school and that had necessitated the preparation of an additional classroom. He cherished the hope that “these trained teachers will be permitted by their Superior to return to their sphere of labour which bears abundant proof of success.”
Brothers Return for Official Start
The wish of the Bishop and the majority of parents was soon realized when a fresh group of Brothers headed by Bro. Pastoris, the Provincial for the Far East and pro-temp Director, took official charge of St. Benedict’s on May 1st 1868. According to the admission register, the College had on roll 204 pupils, and the new group of teaching Brothers were Cyprian, Aloysius, Peter, Frederick and Benedict.
During the temporary withdrawal of the Brothers from St. Benedict’s, Rev. Fr. Vanderstraaten O.S.B. and his four assistants had not only looked after the school of 250 pupils, but had also made improvements so that it was possible for Mgr. Sillani to write to His Excellency, Sir Hercules Robinson, Governor of Ceylon, on December 6th, 1867, on the subject of State Aid to the Institution. His Excellency was told that “We (the Sylvestrines) have thirty-three schools for boys. Among the boys’ schools there are two Superior English Schools in the Vicariate, one at Cottanchina known as St. Benedictine’s Institute, and another at Kandy, where the higher branches of education are taught under the direction of able masters. The College at Cottanchina was built entirely at the expense of the Mission with the aid of private donations; the annual expenditure amounts to £306 for 250 boys.”
Sillani urged upon His Excellency that the Catholic Mission of the South (Colombo) was as much entitled to assistance from Government as the Catholic Mission of the North which had enjoyed a grant since 1852. Here Sillani was deviating from his predecessor’s financial policy with the Government.
Mgr. Sillani most willingly invited an inspection of St. Benedict’s with a view to having it declared “efficient” as such an inspection was a necessary preliminary to the Central School Commission’s sanctioning a Government Grant. A statement of all the schools in the Vicariate was appended to the memorial in which four assistant teachers of Fr. Vanderstraaten were named: Bros. John (Wall), David Fernando, Murphy and Ferdinands. Mr. Sendall, the Inspector of Schools having made his first official visit to the school on July 20th 1868, made a formal entry in the Information Register at St. Benedict’s.
Classes and Curriculum
In 1868, St. Benedict’s had seven classes with a roll of 23, 27, 30, 35, 43, 54 and 87 pupils, respectively. The average age of the pupils ranged from 14 years in the first class, to ten years in the seventh, and the fees from 3sh. to 1sh. per month. The average attendance was 309 boys and the subjects taught in school were Latin, English, reading, writing, grammar, history, geography, algebra, mensuration and Catechism. The Readers Books I to IV, and the texts on grammar, geography, arithmetic and mensuration were by the Irish Christian Brothers. Latin was from Cassel’s “Lessons in Latin,” and History by Grace and Morris; there were Colensos’ Algebra, Cassel’s Euclid, and Cardinal Wiseman’s Catechism. The Staff was composed again of the De La Salle Brothers Cyprian, Aloysius, Peter, Frederick and Benedict; and two lay assistants: Gabriel Silva (£1-15-0d) and Marcel Rodrigo (£1-10-0d).
First Official Director
In the staff list no mention was made of Bro. Pastoris. He had returned to France on October 10th, 1868. The first official Director of St. Benedict’s was Bro. Modeste Marie, a German who had come out to the East in 1856 as a La Sallian Missionary. He had gained some experience in teaching at Singapore, and later in the early sixties, at Mahe in the French Colony of Pondicherry where he had, for two years, tutored the son of Monsieur Liautand, the French Chief of Staff, and at Cannanore where he had been the Director of the Elementary School from August, 1867 until the time of his transfer to Colombo in July, 1868. At Cannanore he had won the esteem of Lord Napier, Governor of Madras, who had visited his school on November 18th, 1866 and had expressed his pleasure and given a promise to help build a more spacious school and better quarters for the Community of Brothers.
Officials are Impressed
At Colombo, Bro. Modeste Marie made a success of St. Benedict’s Institution. In December 1868, he presented his six classes of two hundred and sixty-six pupils under a staff of six Brothers to public examination and inspection by the Officer Administering the Ceylon Government and a team of officials from the Central School Commission and earned their praise. His Honour, General Hodgson, took a prominent part in the examination of the scholars on both days of the inspection and a detailed account of the examination and of the prize-giving that followed was reported in the Colombo Examiner and in the Ceylon Times.
The Examiner congratulated St. Benedict’s and the Catholics of Colombo who “could be justly proud” of their school. A thorough inspection had been made of the school and of the subjects taught in the different classes, except the lowest (the sixth). Music, dialogues, recitation and “scenic representations” interrupted the examination at “convenient intervals.” His Honour expressed his “unqualified satisfaction” not only at the correctness of the answers to the “many searching questions” that were put, but also “at the degree of intelligence and vigour of expression” with which the scholars recited their “passages from memory.” He said that he was particularly pleased that “native boys of the third and fourth classes knew, what nine Englishmen out of ten did not know, the distinction between “shall” and “will,” and he illustrated the vital importance of that distinction by instancing the fate of that illiterate man who said: “I will be drowned and nobody shall save me.”
At the conclusion of the examination General Hodgson spoke a few words of encouragement to the boys, stressing that the country owed a debt of gratitude to the Bishop (Sillani) who founded the school and to the “professors” who, it was evident, had taken such great pains in training their pupils.
“All this must, no doubt, be flattering” remarked the Examiner “to the feelings of the humble ecclesiastics of St. Benedict’s who are not generally accustomed to hear their usefulness acknowledged in this manner,” as they had been repeatedly accused of being “the active agents of ignorance.” It was, therefore, with sincere pleasure that the public watched the progress of “this infant Institution” which had already attracted “so much admiration and applause” at its very first appearance before the public.
Some text books such as Henry’s First Latin and Cassel’s Euclid used in the school were “so atrociously bad” that they were severely condemned as unsuitable. They were used at Queen’s College and at other principal schools in the Island; but it was equally true, the Inspectors thought, that “no one had been able to know anything of the Latin or Euclid without the use of some other authors.” It was also pointed out that there were too many sub-divisions in the school in mathematics, as many as sixteen, though there were only six classes in all.
When the Examiner had reported the inauguration of St. Benedict’s College about eighteen months previously, when it was only a couple of days old, it had hardly anticipated that the success of the Institution “destined for the education of the largest religious Community in Colombo,” would be so complete in such a short time. It then entertained no doubts that “the gentle and suasive manners” of Bishop Sillani combined with the vast influence the Catholic clergymen were known to possess over their congregation would ensure a large attendance of pupils as well as material support in contributions and donations from parents.
The arrangements regarding the masters seemed also to justify the hopes of the Catholics for the Institution’s prosperity, for the teachers who had recently arrived in place of the three who had left “were men of superior stamp and of great earnestness of purpose.” Some Catholics had failed to give Sillani credit for an amount of perseverance and tact which subsequently proved to be equal to all emergencies and had helped to elevate St. Benedict’s College “to the dignity of an existing and prosperous Institution.”
The editor of the Examiner had the pleasure of taking part “in an examination of the classes” with General Hodgson and had come out “with pleasing conviction” that the seven Christian Brothers had done their work with care and diligence and with an amount of liberality which would have reflected credit on any Colonial institution. In English and Latin Grammar, geography, geometry, algebra and history, the students has been put to what General Hodgson characterized as “a severe and trying ordeal” and they had gone through the ordeal “with credit to themselves and honour to their teachers.”
He was also present at the first solemn prize distribution the following Monday evening, December 21st, when there was an entertainment by the school, attended by a large number of parents and well-wishers so that the Examination Hall which was very tastefully decorated with evergreens and flowers contained about 300 persons, “many being obliged to stand in the verandahs for want of room.”
After Mgr. Sillani and the other clergy present had welcomed Lieutenant-General Hodgson and the Hon’ble R. F. Morgan, Doctor Willisford and other prominent educationalists, Missionaries and Members of the Central School Commission such as Messrs, Lorenz, Caley, Wickwar, Loos, Keith, Frederick, Beven, Raus and Brooke Bailey, Secretary of the Commission, the programme commenced with a scholar, E. Melhuisen presenting “an address of welcome” to the officer Administering the Government and of thanks for his kindness at presiding at “their first public examination and prize-giving.”
After some music there followed a dialogue: “The Precious Speller” between John and Charles O’Hara. Next M. Silva recited “very feelingly, the Verses Written in the Churchyard of Richmond.” E. Toussaint sang a song “in a most beautiful strain” so that the audience was greatly pleased with “the feeling manner” in which it was rendered.
Then followed the public examination of some pupils who displayed their learning in Algebra, Latin and English as they had done in their school examination earlier. The pupils’ answers reflected great credit on the teachers and the parents were impressed and appreciative of all they saw. A dramatic performance of “Box and Cox” followed and in the scene “Furnished Apartments” the parts of Dr. Planus and Mr. Fuggles were so well played by Melhuisen and Askew that the audience was really amused.
After distributing prizes to twelve students, His Honour addressed the pupils in very complimentary terms. He was also glad to find from what he had seen that “the Buddhists, Christians and Pagans received their instruction at St. Benedict’s College without any distinction of class, creed or colour, side by side,” and he added that when he left Ceylon he would not fail to inquire how the Institution was getting on. Mgr. Sillani was thanked for what he was doing in the interests of education and of the Catholic soldiers of his (the General’s) Command; parents were advised of the necessity of sending their children to school at an early age.
More First Events
In 1869, in the fist year of education under the Department of Public Instruction, St. Benedict’s had been recognized by Inspector Walter Sendall “as certainly efficient” for Capitation Grant, and that year, James Stuart Laurie recognized it on his first visit to the school as efficient for superior English Education. Since 1869 the Institution headed the list of grant-earning institutions as the school presenting the largest numbers of scholars for examination.
More events of interest took place in the last few months of 1869. In September, F.J. Askew and W. Lafaber took their habits and new names as Brothers Anastasius of Mary, and William Joseph. They were the first Ceylonese La Sallian Brothers admitted to the Society. In December, in connection with the School’s Prize-Giving, the play The Maladiction was staged in three Acts by a cast of forty pupils. The play was such a tremendous success that a repeat performance had to be given within a week and admission then was by tickets of Rs. 4/- for first class, and Rs. 2/- second class. After Christmas, Brothers Timothy and Thomas arrived from the Malabar Coast, and Bro. Peter of St. Benedict’s joined them to form a new community which took charged of St. Mary’s School, Negombo, in January 1870. J. P. Landsberger was one of the twenty four passes for the Island in the Government Preliminary Examination of December 1869. Thus, Landsberger became the first Benedictine to pass a public examination.
Aided by a team of religious trained teachers from his Congregation and guided by the pedagogical principles to be found in the La Sallian “La Conduite des Ecoles Chretiennes,” Bro. Modeste continued to organize and administer his school efficiently till his departure to Calicut in 1875. During his directorship Bro. Modeste had succeeded in providing the school with a library, and for the spiritual and moral advancement of the scholars who had just left school or were on the point of finishing their schooling, he opened two Associations or Sodalities which soon provided a forum for discussion of spiritual subjects and a venue for extra-curricular activities such as drama, music, elocution, debating, public lectures, and pilgrimages.
Under Bro. Modeste’s immediate successors, Brothers Aloysius Gonzaga, and Octavian, St. Benedict’s made no appreciable advance. However, during the Directorate of Bro. Octavian, Colson, the Inspector of Schools, was so pleased with an inspection of St. Benedict’s in 1877, that he manifested the desire that the Government should confine the direction of the Normal School in Colombo to the Brothers. In 1878, Bro. Octavian made an attempt to get the Director of Public Instruction of Madras to affiliate St. Benedict’s to the University of Madras.
Cambridge Junior Local
In 1880 Bro. Gabriel Archangel, a Frenchman who possessed “the art of harnessing strict discipline with great kindness” assumed the directorship of the Institution. Under him St. Benedict’s prepared its first candidates for the Cambridge Junior Local, and Bro. Gabriel increased the school places with the erection of new classrooms in the quadrangle to the North of St. Lucia’s Cathedral.
In November 1880, when the Sixth Standard (then the highest class of St. Benedict’s) had passed all its students at the grant examination in the system of payment by results (1870-1909), Inspector Marsh wrote a special letter of congratulations. It was followed a few days later by another for Charles Bruce, the Director of Public Instruction, who had placed St. Benedict’s in the highest grade, that of High School, according to the requirements of the Code of 1881.
For quite a long time since then the Directors and Inspectors of Public Instruction held St. Benedict’s in high esteem and attended the annual prize-days. When duty prevented Inspector W. Blair from being present on the school’s Prize Day in December 1882, he paid his compliments by letter.
My Dear Brother Gabriel,
It would have given me much pleasure to have been at St. Benedict’s Institute and to have said a few words with reference to the excellence of the educational work done by the Catholic Mission, generally, and the Christian Brothers, particularly. For these three years I have been intimately acquainted with you and your work and it is impossible for any one to know your zeal and devotion without wishing you, as I do this moment, great success.
Long may your institution continue as the largest and one of the best of its class in the Colony.
(sgd.) W. Blair, 20-12-82
In 1881, he presented successfully his first candidate in the Cambridge Junior Local Examination, and in 1883, he secured two passes for St. Benedict’s, and Green, the D.P.I., said in his report that year that,
“Wesley College, St. Patrick’s College, St. Benedict’s Institute and St. Paul’s, Kandy, are all rapidly rising high schools.”
Only two Catholic Schools, St. Benedict’s, Kotahena, and St. Patrick’s, Jaffna, presented candidates for the Junior Cambridge Examinations, during the first five years following the institution of the Cambridge Examinations in Ceylon; and for those years the Catholic successes were only three for St. Benedict’s and four for St. Patrick’s.
A Normal School
In May 1884, at the instance of Archbishop Bonjean, a normal school for training pupil teachers was opened at St. Benedict’s. The school functioned only for a few years, for, the supply of pupil teachers dwindled away. Bro. Bernard Leo was in charge of the trainees and Jayaweera Suares was teacher of Sinhalese. In 1886 three Inspectors from the D.P.I. conducted the oral and written tests and passed the ten students presented for certificates.
It was a pity that the fortunes of this interesting institution were so closely bound up with the passage of pupil teachers. Both Colson, Inspector of the Schools in 1877, and the R. C. Missionaries, the witnesses appearing before the Morgan Education Committee of 1865, had recognised the Christian Brothers as suitable persons to conduct teacher-training institutions in Ceylon. The poet and Inspector of Schools, Matthew Arnold, bore similar witness about the Brothers in England when he gave evidence before the Cross Commission on 6th April, 1886.
Brother Joshua and Marian Sodality
One of Bro. Gabriel’s able assistants was Bro. Joshua, “the pre-eminently qualified President” of the Marian Sodality established by Bro. Modeste in 1869. Joshua made the Sodality a hive of activity for the promotion of its varied interests. He established a music class and conducted a choir which sang in St. Lucia’s Cathedral, and a literary club that met on Sundays to hear distinguished persons such as Hon’ble James VanLangenberg, Advocate Thomas Sampayo, and Dr. Carbery, address large gatherings at the meetings held under its auspices. On the occasion of the visit of His Royal Highness Don Carlos of Portugal to St. Benedict’s on February 1st, 1885, the Association elected him President honoris causa.
Bro. Joshua promoted the study of History, sacred and profane, by sponsoring the award of an annual Sodality prize at the School’s Prize-Giving to be competed for by the students who were Sodalists. The prize was first awarded to M. Anthony in 1884. Joshua was the first to conduct a Sodality Pilgrimage, the first of its kind in Ceylon. Subscriptions were collected for the support of orphans and a Rs. 1,000 contribution to an altar in the Lady Chapel at St. Lucia’s Cathedral obtained from Mgr. Clement Pagnani, a declaration of September 16th, 1882, granting to the Sodalists the privileges of the Chapel for the Sodality functions. A printed copy of the Report of the Sodality-1885, is preserved in the British Museum Library, London.
Bro. Joshua was also the first teacher to try out a course of lessons in Duployan Stenography. But he was a dozen years ahead of time during which Commercial Subjects were to win favour at St. Benedict’s. This devoted missionary, Adolp Joseph Barry of Montreal, Canada served Ceylon youth for 33 years, having entered the Colony at the age of 40 in 1874.
When Bro. Gabriel left for Moulmein in 1887, Bro. Maurice Josephus, the first American Director of St. Benedict’s, appeared to inaugurate an era of American leadership of well-nigh 22 years (1887-1908). With his arrival St. Benedict’s officially adopted the title of ‘College’ which secured its first success in the Cambridge Senior when Edward Cahill and John M. Perera passed that examination, in 1887.
In June 1888, the religious solemnities in connection with the Beatification of Venerable John Baptist de la Salle were organised by Bro. Maurice. An item of interest to the public assembled at St. Lucia’s was an immense ‘Star of fire’ composed of a thousand candles exhibiting at its centre a picture of the new Beatus. The Cathedral and school buildings were illuminated and there was a display of fireworks and the Volunteers Band entertained its audience.
Archbishop Christopher Bonjean greeted the New Saint and the Brothers with a special pastoral alluding to the pre-eminence of St. Benedict’s in the grant examinations at which the teaching was judged as “sound, practical and well-adapted to the needs of the country.” The pastoral went on to declare that:
“The success of the sons of Blessed John Baptist de la Salle in the education of the youth of Colombo, is written in living letters shown by the number of their students who are now a credit and a strength to the Catholic Church and an ornament to Society.”
Brother Maurice’s plans
In his educational policy on Higher Education, Bro. Maurice differed from Bro. Octavian. The former did not favour the idea of the affiliation of St. Benedict’s with one of the Indian Universities. Instead, Bro. Maurice wished to obtain from promising Benedictines “the rare advantage of attending one of our own Colleges (St. Joseph’s) at Tooting in London, where the President was Bro. Potamian, better known to the world of Science as Dr. O’Reilly, one of the Alumni of the University of London” and its first Catholic Doctor of Science.
But he was unequal to the task because his “pronunciation of English was adjudged most curious” and was condemned by the public press. When he left for France, and finally for Saigon, his place was taken by another temporary hand, Bro. Eugene Abel, the newly arrived Bro. Provincial Bernard’s assistant. Bro. Modeste, the “Old Dean,” the first Director of St. Benedict’s (1868-1875) who had been in retirement at Modera House, Mutwal, and who had lived in the East for 36 years was accompanied on board the “Ava” on the 18th March, 1889, by a deputation from St. Benedict’s.
A Knotty Problem
In October, 1887 Bro. Maurice participated in the Conference of Managers of Schools called by H. W. Green, Director of Public Instruction, to consider the best mode of reforming the teaching of English in Ceylon schools. In December that year Bro. Maurice issued his first school report at the Prize-Giving, His Excellency Sir Arthur Hamilton Gordon, Governor of Ceylon, presiding, in the midst of a distinguished gathering of the Brothers’ friends and well-wishers. Bro. Maurice having remarked that “at the recent grants examination 217 boys were presented and 214 passed” and that Mr. William Blair in his report had borne testimony to “the excellent manner in which the boys acquitted themselves, especially those of Standard VI,” Mr. H. W. Green then present, observed that:
“The College was to be congratulated for having got about to the top of the examination tree, if not to the very top, as shewn by the results. They had got to the top of a big tree, but should get up to the top of the biggest tree (the Cambridge Examination).”
He noticed that the College has not yet introduced Latin and Greek at the Cambridge Senior Level as the two students presented by the College for the local examination has not taken those subjects which “a great school like St. Benedict’s might well make part of its course of instruction,” as many boys of the College might be expected to follow the learned professions and he was sure that the teaching staff of the College contained “professors eminently qualified to teach Latin and Greek.” Indeed by those remarks the Director of Public Instruction was unwittingly pinpointing what then seemed to be the knotty problem and soft spot in the Brothers’ educational provision for a secondary or higher course of instruction. The “question of the classics” at St. Benedict’s has to be examined.
Wishing to keep the Brothers of the Christian Schools out of the priestly ministry, de la Salle, their 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 their teaching it in their schools. The Rule 1717 declared:
“The Brothers who have learned Latin will make no use of it from the moment they enter the Order and they will act as it they knew no Latin. To achieve this end no Brother will be permitted to teach the language.”
Agitation for Amendment
The abstention from the study and teaching of Latin reflected adversely on the Brothers’ Superior Schools which were crippled of the classics, all over the world, and Ceylon was no exception to the Rule. The Latin question was, however, mooted in the high-ecclesiastical circles, and fiercely too, in the United States where Bishops took a leading part in the agitations to get the rule amended on this vexatious point. Appeals were made to the Institute’s General Chapters in 1873 and 1897 but without success.
Dr. Thomas Sebastian Byrne was specially deputed by the American Bishops to make an appeal to the Propaganda Fide in Rome, in 1899. Being unsuccessful with the Propaganda, the Hierarchy commissioned Archbishop Patrick Riordan of San Francisco at the annual meeting of Bishops in Washington, to plead with the Pope on behalf of the Brothers some of whom were then suffering from reprisals (deposition from office, and banishment) because of their agitations on the Latin Question. The matter was finally settled only in 1923 when Pope Pius XI instructed Bro. Imier, the Superior General and the General Chapter then meeting at Lembecq, Belgium, to amend the Rule that Latin might be studied and taught by the Brothers in their schools.
The situation in Ceylon was summed up by the Bishop Bonjean in his Epiphany Pastoral where he observed:
“At first we had hoped that the Christian Brothers might be induced in view of the very peculiar circumstances of Ceylon, to undertake the direction of a higher division for classical students. But after years of painful suspense the long protracted negotiations with the local Superiors of the Order as well as with its Superior General, we had to arrive at the conclusion that such an arrangement was not possible, owing to the inflexible rule which prevents the Members of the Institute from teaching the Classical languages. We were at the same time assured (a) that the Order would view with satisfaction an undertaking designed to supply what it could not provide itself; (b) that with the single exception of the teaching of ancient classics not allowed by their Constitutions, the Brothers were to continue to impart to their pupils, “a thorough knowledge of English; to teach Mathematics and all the other branches of the Government programme” for aided High English Schools, besides book-keeping, drawing, shorthand and other subjects constituting a sound commercial training” in addition to Art “for which they are so justly famous.”
Result of Latin Problem
It was under the circumstances of the Latin question described above that a higher classical section of St. Benedict’s to be called St. Joseph’s under the direction of the Oblate Fathers was then contemplated, and came to be opened in 1896. Bonjean wrote in his Epiphany Pastoral of 1892, “In the contemplated Collegiate section of St. Benedict’s under the direction of the Fathers Oblates of Mary Immaculate and with the co-operation of talented native teachers, such a literary and scientific training will be available as may fit the students for competitive examinations. It was simply premature at this early stage to enter into the details of the organisation which the harmonious working of both branches of St, Benedict’s Institute thus constituted will necessitate. . .”
The two Oblate Missionaries who had been appointed to plan and organise the new foundation were to come to an agreement with the Bro. Director of St. Benedict’s.
“To conciliate our new departures with the present existence and future prosperity of the invaluable Institution now under the care of the Christian Brothers.”
It was felt at that time, that while both institutions kept on their distinct lines proper to each, they should coalesce in one and the same educational establishment under the time-honoured name of St. Benedict’s Institute “for,” said the Archbishop,
“We are not going to give up the good things we had, in an attempt to get something better; and we feel no hesitation whatever in declaring that if the prosecution of our scheme had to be purchased at the cost of an institution which for the space of a score and a half years has proved such a matchless boon to hundreds of Catholic children in Colombo. . . a sense of our responsibility as the Chief Pastor would have compelled us to set our face against it.”
Bonjean did not live to see the fruition of his plans in St. Joseph’s College. The Brothers sent the cream of their scholars to form the first classics class at the new College in March 1896.
Art at St. Benedict’s
The teaching of Art at St. Benedict’s had been quite successful under such an artist as Bro. Cassian of Jesus. The students’ work reached such a standard as to merit an invitation by the Organisers to a place at the Ceylon Court in the Paris Exhibition of 1900. The school’s exhibits which were put on sale consisted of two oil paintings of a Tamil woman and a Sinhalese Mudaliyar; six water colours of a bunch of green coconuts, lovi-lovi fruits, and vanilla aromatica; a study of Ceylon frogs, and etchings of a Kandyan headman, a Sinhalese fruit-seller; a plan of an elephant kraal, a study of ancient architecture, the studies of vegetable products; cinnamon, nutmeg, breadfruit and sago palm.
The Institute also exhibited and put on sale, a series of etched maps of Ceylon with borders showing the Governors, birds, beasts, butterflies, snakes and insects of Ceylon. St. Benedict’s was the only Ceylon school to figure in the Paris Exhibition.
During the three years Fr. Jules Collin administered St. Patrick’s Jaffna, he sent a pupil-teacher to St. Benedict’s for a two-year course of training in Art. Art Exhibitions and at Annual Prize-Givings special prizes were awarded to students and choice specimens of their work adorned the school hall. Bro. Cassian’s pupils became commercial artists whose works were highly valued in Ceylon and abroad. Thus, for instance, in May, 1890, Mr. Magnus Perera prepared the address which the Kandyan Chiefs of Anuradhapura were to present Sir Arthur Hamilton Gordon. The work was accomplished in oriental art and Sinhala characters. The Ceylon Independent complimented Magnus and St. Benedict’s when it said:
“This address is beautifully got up on a highly oriental artistic design by Mr. Magnus Perera, a late pupil of St. Benedict’s, Colombo, and does credit to both tutors and himself. The design is novel and interesting and it is surmounted by the ruins of the buried cities of Ceylon. On either side may be seen the Mihintale Dagoba, ruins of the Brazen Palace, Topawewa Tank, Sat Maha Prasada (Seven storied House) and some sketches of ancient cities, which are drawn in a perfectly artistic manner in frames painted with gold colour. In the midst of these ruins a facsimile of a most ancient Sacred Bo-Tree is drawn, thereby making the work highly attractive. . . The address is written on a painted form of old leaf book which will, no doubt, make the work highly attractive and interesting; and it is mounted on a cloth of silver edged with golf lace of Kandyan workmanship.”
Gabriel Perera sent his exhibits to the Ceylon Court in the Indian and Colonial Exhibition held in London. On the occasion of the celebration of the Canonisation of Blessed John Baptist de la Salle, Henricus produced a piece of art, an immense painting of the Saint, which was illuminated over the high altar of St Lucia’s Cathedral during the ceremonies. In D. John Perera, St. Benedict’s supplied an Art master to the Government Technical College in 1909. The decoration work of the students of St. Benedict’s may yet be viewed in some of the Catholic Churches and Chapels.
Bro. Osmund Gregory as Director
Brothers Gabriel and Maurice were succeeded by Bro. Osmund Gregory, a Candian (1889-1894). On 9th November, the Ceylon Independent thus announced the arrival of Bro. Osmund Gregory, the next Director of St. Benedict’s
“An American gentleman as fit successor to Rev. Bro. Maurice one with great experience ‘out west.’”
Bro. Gregory lived up to the expectations of the public. Inspector Walker was quite pleased with his administration; so too, was Hon’ble Sir Noel Walker, Colonial Secretary. St. Benedict’s had 400 pupils on roll and was, therefore, referred to as the largest school in the Island. In 1890 with the able assistance of Bro. Edwin, the School’s choir master, he produced an excellent choir of school boys who delighted St. Lucia’s congregation with their singing. The Boarding Department was accommodating 33 boarders, the maximum possible, and for the first time in the Annuals of the College, 95 boys were refused admission in 1890 for lack of school places, there being an increase of sixty on the previous year.
The Old Boys’ Association was called upon to help extend the school buildings by another 48 feet to the front to serve as a hall and reading room. Basketball was introduced into the school. He made an impression at St. Benedict’s as a disciplinarian. He systematized the award of marks and introduced a system of periodical progress reports whereby the parents could conveniently follow up the attendance and progress of their children in school.
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