Picture here is the celebration ceremony of the 125th Jubilee of the St. Joseph’s, Colombo 10  held on Wednesday (15) in the presence of His Eminence Malcolm Cardinal Ranjith, Archbishop of Colombo. They also held an Eucharistic Holy Mass organised under the guidance of Rev. Fr. Ranjith Andradi, Rector of St. Joseph’s, Colombo 10.

Recounting the first benefactors

The birth of St. Joseph’s occurred in the 1890s after a long period of gestation. The late 19th Century was a period of stability in Ceylon and the milieu and the phenomena occurring during this time are quite important to be documented. The industrial revolution and the Dickensian Era had evolved. The British Empire, dubbed as ‘the empire on which the sun never sets’, was at its peak. Queen Victoria had been on the throne for over half-a-century. Ceylon its colony since 1815, was free for all faiths by then and the gamble to start denominational schools was in progress. This period saw the establishment of some Buddhist, Christian, Hindu and Muslim schools. However, the Catholic Church in Colombo was quite late in their venture to start such a school. There were a number of factors. Missionaries conversant in English and trained to run schools, teachers adequately qualified and the funds to buy property and construct buildings were hard to find.

Colombo’s Archbishop Christopher Bonjean OMI, had envisioned a College of eminent stature, but temporal concerns and ill health had stalled his plan to begin the cause. However, with much demand by the laity, the ageing prelate knew it was time to act. And so, in January 1892, Bonjean published his Pastoral letter on Education, stressing that he would by all means start a College with the help of two well-known Oblate missionaries; Frs. Thomas Guglielmi OMI and Charles Henry Lytton OMI. The laity of Colombo, carefully read this letter and when time was due, Fr. Lytton called a meeting of the prominent Catholics of Colombo.

When the Church appealed for funds, the community came together understanding the need for unity for the sake of education. Hosted in the premises of St. Mary’s Church, Maliban Street, Pettah on 2 April 1892, a number of Catholics were in attendance.
Fr. Lytton, an Irishman of repute had the vital task of convincing these affluent gentlemen the dire need to instigate such a College. His task was an immense success that these gentlemen magnanimously endorsed the idea and subscribed not less than
Rs 18,500. Though this may worthonly around 100 loaves of bread today, back in 1892 this was a significant value. Though we always speak of the men,that is the clergy, who were behind starting such schools, we seldom mention of those who generously donated their personal wealth. At times these men and women are rarely mentioned, often unacknowledged and forgotten. St. Joseph’s however, have placed a large marble plaque adorning the names of those who donated large sums.

The principal benefactors who came to support the cause of buying a land for the College and building its first building, the Clock Tower, were quite a unique group. It was a very diverse group, so to speak. As such, the Tamils, Chetties, Bharathas, Burghers and a variety of Sinhala groups including Karāva, Goyigama, Salāgama and Navaňdaňno became the major benefactors of the school. Divided by race and caste, these benefactors were meaningfully united as Catholics. Two parish congregations of the Archdiocese of Colombo, St. Mary’s, Negombo and St. Anne’s, Beruwala contributed handsomely. Among those who donated the most were Lindamulage John Clovis de Silva, a reputed businessman and Advocate Christopher Brito. Their donation was Rs 5000 each. The next highest donor was Clovis’ elder brother, L. David de Silva of Henley House. The rest of the principal benefactors donated around Rs 1000.

Mudaliyar S. R. de Fonseka, L. Gabriel de Silva, Anthony Nicholas de Silva, Hettiakandage Bastian Fernando, F. J. Lucas Fernando, N. D. P. Silva, John de Croos, Gabriel de Croos, Justice Thomas de Sampayo, Sir Marcus Fernando, Crown Counsel C. M. Fernando, Mudaliyar John Rajapaksa, K. Croospulle, Robert de S. Wijeyeratne and Emmanuel de S. Wijeyeratne, Bernard Alvis, Proctor John Caderaman, J. A. Mann, Chevalier William Abeysundere, Domingo de Silva, Charles Goonetilleke, T. A. Wijeyasinghe, Simon Moraes were among Ceylonese who beneficiated immense sums of money for the establishment of St. Joseph’s College. A standing committee was appointed by Fr. Lytton on the day of that historic meeting at Maliban Street to collect funds. Many unmentioned individuals gave what they could for this most noble cause.

Fr. Lytton on the other hand knew the locally collected money was inadequate. Hence, he travelled across Ireland, England and France looking for funds. It’s quite noteworthy to mention such a tedious task of an Irish missionary collecting funds in Europe for a Ceylonese Catholic School. Patrick Lynam, Misses Moore from Waterford, Thomas Mac Mahon from Limerick along with many other Europeans magnanimously donated for a College in a distant island, they may never visit nor see. Their generosity was nothing but altruistic. Msgr. Aloysius Maver, who would later be appointed as the Spiritual Director of St. Joseph’s, donated a large sum for the Clock Tower.

After the ‘Lake House’ property was purchased by Archbishop Melizan in 1894 for Rs 60,000, the construction of the Clock Tower began in December. It took not more than 23 months to see this five-towered, three-storeyed Clock Tower Building to be built. Even from today’s standards to complete such a structure, within such a short time is quite a commendable feat. The reason for such rapid pace in the construction was not just the diligent work of the workers and the Oblates in Lake House, but also the quick inflow of donations. The total budget for the Clock Tower was Rs 110,000. Of this, Archbishop Andrew Melizan OMI donated nearly one half.

On the verge of the Josephian Celebration for its ‘125th’ year one might wonder how did such a school come up. As stated, it was the collective effort of the laity and clergy. They wanted to start a College which may cater a thorough education, especially that of Classics. Hence, the wealthiest of the wealthiest got involved in this endeavour for they knew their own children did not have a Catholic College to cater their high standards. In such a background, the need to start aCollege with a quality staff, sound infrastructure and the best of architecture for buildings was a must. That they strived and achieved. Dr. Lucian de Zilwa once said the following at Royal College,

“There is one striking feature in the history of St. Joseph’s College. Whereas the other colleges began from comparatively humble origins and gradually rose to their present position, St. Joseph’s College came into being fully armed and equipped to compete with the oldest of her sisters, in a manner that reminds us of the birth of Minerva, or of modern Japan. St. Joseph’s College is an abiding monument to the enterprise, the self-sacrifice, and the enlightenment of the Roman Catholics of this country.”

Though this school initially maintained a strict code for levying fees affordable only to the rich, in the subsequent years after its establishment, scholarships for deserving students were introduced by some of the principal benefactors themselves. They generously endorsed prizes for the prize-giving and other causes such as the sports meet, supporting the needs of the College. If not for this strong support by these laymen, right at the initiation of St. Joseph’s, it may never have achieved such prestigue from its inception. Their contribution should never disappear to the mists of time but remembered till the mountains disappear.

(Pix by Manjula Dayawansa)

By Avishka Mario Senewiratne and Dr. Srilal Fernando


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