St. Henry’s College, Ilavalai celebrates its centenary

by Meno Thiruchelvam

Ilavalai is a hamlet tucked away 16km from the Northern Capital towards north of the Jaffna Peninsula and 8km from the port town of Kankesanthurai. The local populace, basically a farming community, is rice cultivators, traditional growers of betel vines and grapevines bearing green and purple grapes, besides many species of plantains and a variety of vegetables from the rich red soil of the land. With this rural economic base the village is comfortably sustained. Villagers are predominantly Catholics by faith, there is a sizeable segment of Hindus as well, living in harmony down the ages. Outlaying the St. Henry’s enclave, beyond the expanse of lush green paddy fields half way to the seaside, there lay fishing villages dotted along the beach from Senthankulam to Valithundal, 1.6 km away to the right and to the left curving to Mathagal, 4 km from the St. Henry’s heartland. Inland environ encompasses Pandateruppu, Sillalai, Alaveddy and the adjacent Periyavillan are the town and villages within the ambit of 5 km radius to St. Henry’s. Most of the students are from these areas, daily cycling or bussing to the college from their homes.

In this picturesque village setting, nestled among the backdrop of palmyra and coconut palms, flanked by the majestic St. Anne’s church and the sprawling Holy Family Convent, there stands the colossal edifice: St. Henry’s College. Timelessly this institution remains yet as Ilavalai’s undisputed iconic heritage as the “A” Grade school over there. A hundred years ago, the Catholic clergy saw to the crying need of an English school for the boys of the village and its environs. Thus, the St. Henry’s came to be founded in the year 1907, named after King of Germany turned Saint Henry II (973- 1024) and then the Bishop of Jaffna, Rt. Rev. Henry Joulain (1852-19 19) who took the Saint’s name as his. The man who founded St. Henry’s was Rev. Fr. Ligoury Rodrigo OMI, who hailed from Kurunegala, then in the Jaffna diocese. He had his total education in Jaffna from St. Martin’s little seminary to the big seminary through St. Patrick’s. With only two teachers, Fr. Rodrigo, the assistant parish priest of the adjacent St. Anne’s Church managed the affairs of the school for three years.

In 1910, the Bishop of Jaffna entrusted the Brothers of the Society of St. Joseph (SSJ) with an enormous task of housing, developing and managing St. Henry’s almost from the scratch. Rev. Bro. Felix (1910-1921) became the first principal and in 1917 the school was registered at the Ministry of Education as an approved English medium school. It was during the period of Rev. Bro. S. Philips (1921 — 1928) that the laboratory facilities were provided enabling science and agriculture subjects to be introduced into the curriculum and enabling children to excel in the ESLC examinations. Bros. M. Devasagayam (1928-32 and 1935-38) and E.I.Chrysostom (1933-35) were at the helm preparing students for Senior Cambridge and London Matriculations Examinations. This period saw that the college evinced talents in the sphere of sports, particularly in cricket and soccer, proving that they were second to none in the North.

In 1926 the school was elevated by the Department of Education to the status of college. A distinct shift came about then with the administration of the school changing hands from SSJ Brothers to the Oblate Fathers of the Jaffna Diocese in 1939. The Brothers’ saga thus ended; the priest, who came next was none other than the grand old man Very. Rev. Fr. Charles S. Mathews O.M.I. (1939-43) an Anglo Frenchman whose unbounded love and understanding of the students and teachers alike helped moulding the boys in the highest traditions of excellence and discipline. It was Fr. Mathews who enshrined the hearty motto for St. Henry’s: “Labor Omina Vincit Improbus”, meaning ‘Hard work conquers everything’ which inspires the Henrician students even today. In his footsteps, Rev. Fr. P.J. Jeevaratnam (1943-53) a graduate from the University of London held the same lofty ideals unswervingly for the decade that followed. Discipline, is yet another faculty that became synonymous with Fr. Jeevaratriam. He institutionalized and regimented discipline to the highest possible order at St. Henry’s College and it was widely known (those days that unruly elements from other Schools were sent to St. Henry’s for correction. He was pivotal for acquiring “A” Grade status for St. Henry’s in March 1951. He was a great visionary.

In 1945, when the then-Government of Ceylon introduced free education St. Henry’s was categorized as an assisted school like the majority of the schools in the island, but remained private and was administrated by His Lordship the Bishop of Jaffna. The two Bishops of Jaffna who served their stints as Rectors were Rt. Rev. Drs. J. Emilianuspillai (1949) and B. Deogupillai (1953-56).

After this eminent duo’s reign at St. Henry’s had a long list of educationists as Rectors of the college in the halcyon decades of 50s and 60s, in the chronological order — Rev. Fr. L. A. Singarayar (1956-63), Rev. Fr.J.F. Stanislaus (1963-68), Rev. Fr. Benjamin Alfred (1967-70) Rev. Fr. M.J. Mariampillai (1970-73) Rev.Fr. J.A. Francis (1973-76), Rev.Fr. Anton T. Rajanayagam 1976-89) Rev. Fr. Justin B. Gnanapragasam (1989-2002).

During Fr. L.A. Singarayar’s period many students gained entry into universities in the disciplines of medicine, engineering, arts and science. He also demonstrated his defiance against the takeover of private schools by the State in 1960; thus St. Henry’s chose to remain a private Catholic institution solely managed by the Bishop of Jaffna. Fr. J. A. Francis helped winning the coveted Singer Shield Cup beating St. Benedict’s to 3-1 and became All Island Champions in 1975 and had put St. Henry’s on the map of Sri Lai The saga of St. Henry’s football dominance continued until 1977.Again during Fr. Anton Rajanayagam’s rector-ship in 1977 St. Henry’s had won the ANCL Cup beating St. Patrick’s College 2-1 and became All Island Football Champions. The same year the College had to be handed over to the State due to severe financial constraints and Fr.Anton guarded the students and community against the atrocities of Indian Peace Keeping Force (IPKF) who came to the North in 1987 following the Indo-Lanka Peace Accord.

The Rector who followed next Fr. Justin B. Gnanapragasam, had to chart the course of St. Henry’s amidst of war, migration, displacements, evacuations and eventually exile; The rector moved St. Henry’s to Manipay then briefly to Mirusuvil during 1992 to 1996. On 13th May 1996 he brought St. Henry’s back to its traditional home of Ilavalai and re-grouped the students and folks alike, embarked on a massive rebuilding process following the weariness of war and hard times with enormous support from the Henrician OBA Groups of Colombo and overseas. He was the longest serving head of St. Henry’s and the founder of the Henrician Trust, thus leaving a legacy for posterity.

The incumbent energetic young Rector Rev. Fr. K. James Singarayar had taken the reins of St. Henry’s in 2002. At present its total strength is 558 students and 32 members of staff. He has the generous backing of the Old Henricians Community in organizing and uplifting the all important computer education and in guiding today’s students to greater heights, nurturing them into well groomed disciplined, formidable men of tomorrow.

[Picture Courtesy of : henricians.com]

[The Writer is Secretary-Henricians, Colombo (OBA), Sri Lanka]

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