How the visionaries transformed the land by lighting the hill



St. Michael’s College, Batticaloa – 150th Anniversary

By B. Nimal Veerasingham

“You are the light of the world. A city that is set on a hill cannot be hidden. Nor do they light a lamp and put it under a basket, but on a lampstand, and it gives light to all who are in the house” (Matthew 5:14-16)

‘Education is simply the soul of a society as it passes from one generation to another’ said 19th century English poet Gilbert K. Chesterton. Nelson Mandela put that in practical terms as ‘Education being the most powerful weapon which one can use to change the world’.

It is not difficult to grasp why Education is glorified as being the ‘truth that will set one free’, as has been witnessed by the mottos of many Universities around the world. This includes Johns Hopkins University, the premier research University in the US with affiliation to 39 Nobel laureates.

Our nation’s constant high literacy rate is a testimony to the placement of education. It is a result of locally inborn instincts of curiosity and advancement, aided to some extent by the arrival of foreign visionaries and missionaries. Many renowned educational institutions around the country are marking centuries of continued awakening of minds and uplifted lives, cornerstones of a progressive society.

The Eastern township of Batticaloa is no stranger to this phenomenon. Little known is the fact that one of the first English educational institutions in the country has its origin at Batticaloa. The Methodist Central College was founded in 1814 by the Wesleyan missionaries. On the other hand, St. Michael’s College Batticaloa rose from its humble beginnings, starting in 1873, to the monumental towers at the centre of the town, lighting the hearts and minds of the population.

St. Michael’s college Batticaloa is marking its 150th year of service to the region, and country, this 29th September, on the feast of its patron saint Archangel Michael, the slayer of ignorance with truth.

The humble beginnings could be traced back to Fr. Francis Xavier, Ceylon’s first secular priest, who was born in Jaffna and served in Bolawatte and Chilaw. He was commissioned to start an English boys school at Batticaloa with the sum of Rs, 500.00, but the energised and driven Fr. Xavier started not one, but three schools, including St. Cecilia’s Girls English school and St. Mary’s Tamil school. The first headmaster of St. Michael’s College was Joseph Sethupathy Abraham of Karampon who served the school tirelessly for more than 50 years. Though French Jesuits took over the diocese of Trincomalee, in 1895, which includes the administration of St. Michael’s College, it’s the local visionaries who breathed life into the concept of education that eventually lift countless as productive souls of the society.

The results from the journey envisioned by the local futurists might have been elusive during their lifetime, but 150 years later the region and the country applaud and admire their boldness in sowing the seeds of education, without any expectation of a foreseeable and bountiful harvest.

The monumental building that dominates the Batticaloa town’s landscape for nearly one and a half centuries did not happen without a reason, both metaphorically and corporality. It is clearly a sign of a structure up on the hill in relative terms.

‘Puliyanthivu’, as the Batticaloa town is called, is an Island surrounded by the legendary lagoon of the ‘Singing fish’. For the naked eye though it might seem geologically flat, the centre is on higher elevation. Most of us as students at different times have felt it when coming to college from the surrounding streets. I certainly felt it coming to school both from the Southern and Northern flanks, climbing steadily up from both ends of Central Road. The upper elevation also allowed a clear hearing of the ’long bell’ to all in the surroundings, that rang from the Eastern tower announcing the initial readiness for the beginning of classes.

I cannot say with certainty when the visionaries who negotiated with almost 42 individual owners who held ownership to the plots that hold the present-day Saint Michael’s college, had any idea that they were constructing a foundation, a mortar and brick space for the public good, up on a hill. Why did the idea be at the centre, rather than closer to the much-desired lake or in the surrounding spacious outskirts; a question naturally appears to an intrigued mind?

The Jesuits, who took over the school transforming the character and instilling progressive ethics, were in fact living up to the scope and vision of a lamp on the hill. Many a times while acknowledging the local visionaries with similar construes, we tend to query as to how differently the Jesuits, who mostly arrived from North America and Europe, envisioned the path to complete growth, intrigued minds and strengthened bodies.

It was more than ploughing back the scientific knowledge of the West; rather a determined dedication as per their calling to promote science and education as a way of serving God. By the eighteenth-century Jesuits had contributed to the development of pendulum clocks, pantographs, barometers, reflecting telescopes and microscopes to scientific fields as various as magnetism, optics and electricity. They theorized about the circulation of the blood, the theoretical possibility of flight, the way the moon affected the tides and the wave-like nature of light. At a time, in presumption when theology seemed to be in conflict with science, the Jesuit order spearheaded the scientific knowledge-based education to thousands of institutions around the world.

During my time at college, I did personally experience that mixture of practical application of science and visionary drive many of us were familiar with. Education, ethics, and sports in the Jesuit tradition is a call to human excellence.

Once the inter-school soccer season starts at Batticaloa, late Rev Fr Harold Weber SJ would be the most robust as the dedicated guardian of the game. Depending on the age groups he will ensure the right measured soccer fields are ready for practices and matches, both within the current stadium and outside near the old courthouse.

Though I have accompanied Fr. Weber many times in his scooter, holding soccer balls for practices, never thought of asking a question of principle, that came to haunt me later and at the same time provided a glimpse to the spirit of those who came to serve others.

Once the Rev Father is in the town’s spacious main playground irrespective of the time of the day, he would be looking for any small stones that accidently ended up in the field. It would look like a natural gentle walk, but his eyes are glued to the ground all the time. There could be many reasons why stones end up in the field, but for most athletes barefooted, it was deadly in a fast-moving soccer game or any kind of short or long-distance running. Fr. Weber always would be looking for those show stoppers to prevent accidents and injuries and at times even when the blazing sun is high above at noon.

A Jesuit and a student councillor attached to St Michael’s college looking after the welfare of all citizens of Batticaloa provides a conclusive answer to the ethics held high and nourished at the helm. It might be a small act of concern for others but when the ethics get stretched it touches all walks of daily lives and becomes the centre of harmony and peace embracing all without conditions. His appearance in his best cassock at any sports or public events foretells his view of respect and appreciation to all, rather than limiting his flock within the walls of college towers.

One of the greatest Tamil scholar Swami Vipulananda’s time both as a student and a teacher at Saint Michael’s captures this appreciation for excellence and acceptance spirit of Jesuits, Fr Weber showcased in the playing field and beyond.

Swami Vipulananda, with his birth name Samithamby Mylvaganam, appears many times in Saint Michael’s College journals as a contributor of essays where he was also noted as an excellent trained teacher later. One of the greatest minds that ever rose from the East spent nearly eight years (1906 – 1914) within the College walls closely associating with Jesuits, especially with Rev Fr Bonnel, the architect of the current school buildings that we see today. The fundamentals of Cambridge Senior examination that he passed with flying colours, while at Saint Michaels, no doubt would have allowed him to slide at ease later through his Bachelor of Science degree at University of London.

Late Mr. K Kanapathipillai, former Principal of Shivananda Vidyalayam who himself was a student at College, noted how as the science teacher, Fr. Bonnel bound volumes of the past question papers of the Cambridge Senior Examination in Mathematics, Chemistry, Physics, botany and geography along with solutions, and then distributed among the students. ‘He labored hard to build up and maintain the first science laboratory in Batticaloa for the advancement of the students in a more meticulous and inspiring manner’ noted Mr. Kanapathipillai.

Swami Vipulananda was more than a literary scholar; he was a genius, Master of science. Though he became the first Tamil Pundit passing the Madurai Tamil society examinations he was a multilingual scholar. After researching for more than 14 years he produced the seminal book of scientific research in Tamil called ‘Yazh Nool’. The book was an effort to understand and explain the intricacies and technicalities of the Tamil music genre in general, especially with string instruments, using calculation methods based on mathematics and physics. Many experts of the subject still say that it is not for the ordinary.

He also wrote ‘Mathangaculamani’ a translation of Shakespeare’s twelve plays in the literary traditions of Sanskrit, Greek and English focusing on aspects of plot, structure, sequence of action, characterisation, subjective experience, and gestures. He was editor to many publications and wrote several books including a dictionary of technical terms in Chemistry. He wrote extensively on Vedanta philosophy, Tamil literature, and translated selected poems of Subramanya Bharathi, Sangam literature and devotional hymns from Tamil to English.

The disciplined higher education at Saint Michael’s College and its backbone Jesuits certainly would have impacted and enabled Swami Vipulananda’s reach as a multi-talented scholar and an incorporator of global scientific and literary traditions.

But it goes beyond. He would have witnessed the self sacrifices of the Jesuits, what Mr. Kanapathipillai noted as ‘their purpose was a divine one, inspired by no less divine call; to set aflame the spark that was already in one’s pupil’.

As the records show austerity was the hallmark of Fr. Bonnel’s entire career. A bare plank served as his bed and a brick or two propped up his head and served as his pillow. From early morning till late in the evening; till the hour he had his head on the hard pillow, it was a day every minute which he was aware of; and each minute he endeavored to put to the best use; a walking university.

The College journal from 1924 noted with pride that Pandit Mylvaganam had been promoted to the rank of Sanyasi in the Rama Krishna Mission, under the name Srimath Swami Vipulananda and was now attached to Rama Krishna Mutt in Madras. Ramakrishna mission is a unique order of ascetics and volunteers dedicated to serve the weaker segments of community, irrespective of religious, caste creed, or language differences through schools, hospitals, and orphanages.

Why Swami Vipulananda chose Ramakrishna Mission as his life mission and to which extent his exposure to austerity, science, sacrifices and dedication of Jesuits especially Fr. Bonnel playing in the decision is anybody’s guess. All we know are the selfless actions of giants who walked among us in our lifetime like Fr. Weber, who embraced the whole community with his unlimited dedication, love, and concern.

We all hold the spark to ignite greater good for the future and to light the world, just like those who founded and shaped the journey at St. Michael’s College without expectations. Are we willing to invest and envision a bountiful harvest beyond our lifetime? The school that was built on the hill cannot be hidden; the light lit by the local visionaries and foreign missionaries continues to glow as Saint Michael’s College, Batticaloa steps into its one and half century of excellence.