ST. Benedict’s College Those were the days
St. Benedict’s College, Colombo – the mother of Catholic schools in Sri Lanka – celebrated its 150th jubilee. The main events will be held on Friday July 10, at St. Lucia’s Cathedral, Kotahena with a Holy Mass con-celebrated by Cardinal Malcolm Ranjith, scores of Bishops and Priests most of whom are past pupils of St. Benedict’s. This article is by one of Sri Lanka’s leading journalists E.C. B. Wijesinghe and was written to mark the centenary of the college, 50 years ago.
“E.C.B. Wijesinghe, well-known figure of the local stage (“Ralahamy” to thousands of admirers), Journalist, and raconteur reminiscing about his boyhood at St. Benedict’s exclaims –
Those were the days!
I was lucky in that I attended St. Benedict’s during its vintage years. For over half a century the Brothers had struggled and striven to put the school on the educational map. At last the dawn of a new era was in sight. The rains of disappointment and despair had come and gone. The harvest was ready for the gathering and the voice of the turtle of triumph was heard throughout the land.
Secret of Success
The Brothers had, somehow, discovered the secret of success. Gregory Weeramantry had swept the board at the Cambridge Local Examinations with over half a dozen distinctions, following it up with winning the University Science Scholarship. U.D.R.Caspersz came immediately afterwards and stunned the academic world by repeating Weeramantry’s performance. From mouth to mouth the word went round that St. Benedict’s had the most efficient teachers in the land. It created a tradition that is being maintained up to the present day.
It was also the time when Brother Symphorian was producing English scholars that were the envy of Warden Stone who presided over the destinies of our venerable neighbouring institution, S. Thomas’ College.
In charge of Mathematics and Science in the higher forms was Brother Octave, a pint-sized Frenchman with an enormous head, who had the reputation of writing textbooks in Conics and the Calculus, then being used by the French Military Academy.
There was also Brother Abel the friendly friar from Alsace Lorraine who suffered fools gladly. No wonder some of us loved him so much. He built up a reservoir of affection and goodwill for the school which would not easily dry up.
Brother Luke, who was destined to be the first Black Pope of his Order in Ceylon, had just begun to cut his wisdom teeth. His ferocious devotion to duty made him the terror of the slacker. His hypnotic eyes, transfixed you with a glance and the most innocent victim felt like a criminal in his presence. The guilty suffered with the not-so-guilty in the stern disciplinary process.
He came from Jaffna
He came from Jaffna and brought his Mathematical brain along with him. No one could deny he was a great teacher. The word ‘failure’ was not in his dictionary, and when the examination results of his pupils were announced, even the ranks of Tuscany could scarce forbear to cheer. No wonder he climbed to the utmost rung of the educational ladder.
Age has mellowed him. He can rest on his oars, reflecting during his retirement on a life well spent in the service of his master. His pupils, of whom I was one, would hope he has many miles to go before he sleeps.
Thinking of my old teachers, the mind automatically switches back to Brother James, who is now an institution nearly as old as St. Benedict’s. His age is a secret which will die with him.
In my time he taught English and was also in charge of the De La Salle Literary Union. Culture was written all over him. His accent was flawless. He spoke the tongue that Shakespeare spoke. One would have thought he was born at Stratford-on-Avon, and not on the banks of the Irrawaddy.
Rules of Etiquette
He knew the rules of etiquette from A to Z and was a firm believer in the old adage that “Manners Maketh Man.” No boy passed through the Court of Brother James without being a gentleman, at least trying desperately to be one. He reminds me of another illustrious Burman, U. Thant, the Secretary-General of the United Nations. In another dispensation Brother James, might have blossomed into a great diplomat.
Other teachers who made a significant impact on the College, to name just a few, were: Brother Ignatius who lived and worked and died among the kindergarteners; Brother Philip, the Bharatha autocrat of the boarders’ breakfast table; Brother Michael, an artist with coloured chalks, who was also in charge of the venerable clock in the tower. He used to blush like a rose at the slightest provocation, despite his dark complexion, and was promptly nick-named “lamisi” (a coy maiden); Brother Cajetan, a Frenchman with a straggly ginger-coloured goatee.
I do not know in what lycee on the Continent he picked it up, but somehow he knew his Shakespeare.When he read the part of Shylock, one felt that the old Jew had to come to life-gestures, voice and all. In that role he would have put the celebrated Matheson Lang in the shade; Brother Anthony, the gay cavalier from Mutwal, who laughed his way through life; Brother Francis, from Malabar, simple and saintly, in charge of the refectory, turning a blind eye on those who occasionally raided the larder; Brother Alexander, the tall and bald Dutch Burgher with a sharp tongue, head of the commercial classes, and a keen follower of cricket. Addressing a lazy fielder he once said: “If you whistled to the ball it would have stopped.”
E. J’s Droll Stories
There are so many pleasant memories of the old days that come rushing to the mind that I do not know where to draw the line: E.J. Perera’s droll stories; Bonnie Fonseka’s semi classical ditties; Reggie Philips introducing a new hair style called the “Oxford Jack.” George Atkinson exercising his globular biceps; Justin Gerreyn’s comic sketches; Charlie de Silva’s flights of oratory; Joachim Halahakone’s soaring sixes into the convent premises;
Maurice Mendis waiting impatiently in the morning for the key to Hall’s Algebra before he started on his home “work”; Eric Caspersz’s basso profundo thrilling the Cathedral congregation every Sunday morning; Sonnien Jayawardena (son of the late Emmanuel Jayawardena, M.M.C.) coming to school on horse-back all the way from Dematagoda;
Quintus Delilkhan mouthing sonorous phrases from Burke; Cyril Fernando practising hurdles in the Madampitiya graveyard before every athletics meet; Abraham Chittampalam Gardiner in immaculate china silk suit and Panama hat, standing under the banyan tree dreaming of picture palaces; the Pulle brothers, Dionysius and Peter, being cheered all the way from the pavilion to the pitch, as they went into bat; and last of all, the tolling of the bell every half-hour to remind us of the terrible fact that the eyes of the Almighty were on us every moment of our lives.
One of the earliest impressions I cannot refrain from recording was the beauty of the old banyan tree on the hillock spreading its arms out like an affectionate mother waiting to embrace and protect her children.
It so happened that the first classroom to which I was consigned was in the shadow of that tree, just below the old stage, where an sprightly young Irishman, Brother Edward, relieved the drudgery of work with his typical Gaelic jokes.
On important occasions a vast canvas depicting a Venetian canal scene was lowered and served as a curtain. Then the footlights came on and the carefully trained actress trod the boards. It was on this stage that men like Michael Rodrigo took the first steps on the ladder to Thespian fame.
Every prize day included some sort of musical or dramatic entertainment. On one of these occasions I saw a full length play for the first time. It was “Aladdin and the Wonderful Lamp.” The show enthralled me and after fifty years, the performance of H. Atheling Hamer, as Aladdin’s mother, is still fresh in my memory. I went home that evening nursing the secret ambition of becoming another Hamer. The ledgers of the Ceylon Savings Bank swallowed up Atheling and he was virtually lost to the stage.
As I was about to leave school, there appeared on the scene an Englishman called Brother Wulton James, an accomplished scholar. He had specialised in education at the London University. He came with a Master of Arts degree and was a match for the reigning giants in the field of education, like Stone, Highfield, Le Goc and Fraser. He was a man with an attractive personality but those who knew the other James, still regard Wultan James as James the Less.
My mind reels when I think of the galaxy of stars that shone in the firmament of St. Benadict’s when I was a boy.
Looking back to over half a century and retracing one’s footsteps through the dim corridors of time, nostalgia fills the soul.
There is one thing however, that every old Benedictine can truthfully say of his Alma Mater:
As a perfume doth remain In the folds where it hath lain, So the thought of you, remaining Deeply folded in my brain,
Will not leave me: all things leave me: You remain.