After eighteen years in charge of the missions in this island country, I felt very close to the Brothers, especially to the mission aspect where Buddhists and Christians lived together so well with only occasional difficulties with the Tamils, who had left South India and tried to occupy the northern end of Sri Lanka. At this point I could search in the World Almanac and furnish statistics for each new country I will speak about, but that is not the purpose of these reports.
It is well-known that the missionaries came long ago to visit this beautiful country and mix with the other faiths and live together in peace. Sri Lanka has always been a great place to come for vacations and for rest from worries. It has had its own internal and foreign problems, but it has also been the envy of many tourists for the quiet and beauty that it has to offer. The local people have their own version of what one should think of this little island country. Their version is that the Lord was really displeased with Adam and Eve when He found out that they had disobeyed Him and had eaten of the forbidden fruit. He had to punish them, of course, but being the kind father that he was, He placed them in Sri Lanka instead of the Garden of Eden because it was the next best place after Heaven. Like any other country, Sri Lanka has had its ups and downs and especially so with the neighboring country of India whose Tamils came into the country and wanted part of it for themselves. The problem continues to this day.
Some of our French Brothers had come to start our work in Sri Lanka and our Brothers got along very well with the Buddhists who also ran schools. When they came to our schools for studies or to visit, they were well-received by our Brothers, and so it was with our Brothers who attended some of the Buddhist colleges. We were invited to eat with them as they respected our religious life and especially our dedication to education.
The first surprise I had in Sri Lanka was when I saw the many cattle, people, and some elephants walking through the villages going busily about their work. I still recall seeing a big fuel drum of petrol fastened with rope to a cart being pulled by oxen. The reason why it struck me as so odd was that the filled drum had its trademark on the side of the tank: Esso. There were very few cars, with mostly cattle and people sharing the dirt roads. That was in 1959 and I can assure you that it is no longer like that. The streets have been paved and widened but there is still quietness about the place, and no one is in a rush to get anywhere.
When I arrived there I learned about our first arrivals in the original Ceylon in 1911, and that they were much appreciated. In fact of the five Bishops or Archbishop in Ceylon, at least three of them are Marist alumni. Of the first four Brothers who arrived from France, one had died early, two left to return to France, and only one remained, who was introduced to me as the real Founder of the Sri Lanka mission. It was Bro. Francis Anthony, who was very respected by all the Brothers and alumni and left his mark on the country. He was after me until he died to get started with a mission of the Marists in India. He so wanted that grace before dying, and he was delighted when we first started the transactions to get going in India and then later in Pakistan.
At the time I came to Sri Lanka, our outstanding school was Marist Stella in Negombo. We had three or four other schools, and one of them up-country in Bandarawela. It had a tremendous reputation and to this day it is exclusive and appreciated. When we left it due to lack of Brothers to continue the work, it was taken over by the Buddhists, who still call it St. Joseph’s and have the picture of St. Joseph on the wall hanging in the interior court and play area.
We have few schools in Sri Lanka, but those we do have are exceptional. As mentioned before, of the five or so Bishops in the country, three are “Old Boys” of the Brothers as they call themselves. Marist Stella has been excellent in graduating students with high academic achievement as well as students who are well-versed in sports. The Brothers live simply, and do a lot for the poor of the area, especially the parents who have been pleased to let their children join us in our work. The Province has been under the charge of Sri Lankan Marists. The original training house slowly became an exceptional chicken farm, started by a German Marist who had been a missionary in China and came to Sri Lanka. Nearby there is the Postulate and Novitiate where the Juniors are still close to the farm. For a while the General Administration furnished the funds to provide a quiet Novitiate near the new Cathedral of Our Lady. There are seven of the eight schools operating today. A good number of the students are not Catholics but appreciate the good education that they are offered. Champagnat would be proud of his men and their quiet work and dedication to Mary. There are very few missionaries left, and all the administrators now are Sri Lankans.
I wish to single out two Brothers out of so many who were in charge over the years who have left their mark on the Sri Lankan community: Brother Anthony, the first missionary from France, and Bro. Peter Berchmans, the outstanding native. It is a credit to this Province that in spite of its few members it was willing to help out in the Foundation of the Marist Brothers in India, and especially to accept Pakistan as its own foreign mission. Our Sri Lankan Marists have been dedicated to the poor in our schools and also dedicated to the hard work on the farms, providing a way of life to the poor and needy. The Champagnat spirit is very much alive here. My first visit was too short and I promised myself to stay longer next time, and I have done just that, even returning there for a rest and vacation when I was no longer a representative from the General Administration. It has always been a home for me to come to.