Tuesday, 19 October 2004  
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Hundredth birth anniversary of Fr. Peter Pillai - A luminary in his day

by Tharuka Dissanaike


Fr. Peter Pillai

A century ago, a boy was born to a deeply religious Catholic family in Wennapuwa, south of Chilaw. The day, October 19, was the feast day of St. Peter of Alcantara and the parents, originally from the northern island town of Kayts, named him after the great saint.

Jacob and Anna Pillai had little inkling then, that their youngest would grow up to be great man, who would leave an indelible imprint upon this country's system of education.

The unpretentious headmaster and his devoted wife had little premonition that Peter of Alcantara Pillai would make a tremendous impact on the lives of many in his untiring quest for quality, practical education and social justice.

It is indeed a difficult task to pen out a suitably brief outline of a figure as outstanding as Fr. Peter Pillai- as this great priest, philosopher and educationist was known to many in later years. Even those who knew him well during Fr. Pillai's living years confess to feelings of inadequacy when trying to describe his life and times.

Fr. Pillai, a long-time rector of St. Josephs College, Maradana, the founder of Aquinas University College, a strident campaigner for social justice and fair treatment of the working class, was also an intellectual genius whose educational achievements were outstanding from a very young age.

Long before his priesthood, Peter of Alcantara made headlines in the newspapers. That was at Prize Day of St. Benedicts College, Colombo when Sir William Manning, then Governor presided. The young man made off with so many of his Form's prizes that the Governor suggested that he brings a wheelbarrow to carry them off stage.

He topped the country's results and excelled internationally in the Cambridge Junior and Senior exams. In his Senior Cambridge exams Peter of Alcantara bagged the highest number of distinctions in the world. This enabled him to qualify for a government scholarship to the University College in Cambridge.

During undergraduate years studying Mathematics at Cambridge, Peter, never missed the 'first class train', as one of his admirers once wrote. Even before his final results were out, Cambridge high-ups counted him among the teaching staff.

Another scholarship enabled the young man to do post graduate studies first at Cambridge, then later at University College, London earning both an MA and MSc in quick succession.

It surprised everyone who knew him, when Peter turned to priesthood, spurning a life of further achievement and high position. The transition is best described in an editorial penned in the Josephian Magazine, Blue and White, in 1941 by J.P de Fonseka.

"It must have caused surprise to secularists and others of similar sort who thrive as educators in Ceylon to hear that the Scholar was to enter religion after properly abandoning the world. But he was not turning his back on the world without acquaintance of it.

On the contrary, he has seen a good deal of it. He has mixed in all the social functions and receptions and in university rags, had dined and wined, and had asked, and been asked to ceremonial parties and five o clocks, attended the first nights at theatres and put his money, purely for empirical reasons, on a horse on Epsom Downs'.

Religion ran deep in the veins of the Pillai family. Three of Peter's five elder siblings had joined the religious as priests or nuns. So the transition from mathematics and science in London to theology in Rome may not have been so dramatic for Peter of Alcantara. As a novice priest he read for two doctoral theses.

Despite the very catholic nature of his upbringing, Fr.Pillai chose to explore the Doctrine of Bhakthi in the teachings of Ramanuja, considered to be one of the greatest Hindu teachers for his thesis on Divinity. It was mid 1936 when Fr. Pillai, now a priest, came back to his motherland.

He borrowed a white cassock and began his missionary life, with boundless zeal and high idealism, fighting hard against social iniquity and injustice. He founded the movement for social justice in 1937 and consisted of a group of people committed to restoring social order and fight for issues that plague the poorer classes- equal opportunity for education and employment being paramount.

The movement published journals is Sinhala (samaja samaya) and English (Social Justice) elucidating Christian social thinking of that era. In the 30s in Ceylon, as it was still named, the Trade Union movement was just fledgling and working conditions were deplorable.

There was no eight-hour work day or holiday leave, there were no retirement benefits and labourers on plantations were much worse off than today.

The Social Justice Movement organized by Fr. Pillai, studied social issues and tried to create public opinion through speeches at meetings and articles in the journals. Fr. Tissa Balasuriya, another enthusiastic campaigner for social justice recalls that 'the movement raised a voice for social reform at a time when most of society was silent on social issues."

The movement was known for their opinion forays into subjects like minimum wage, maternal benefits, provident fund benefits, rural landlessness, adequate housing etc. Due to his continued lobbying for workers rights, Fr. Pillai was invited to sit on the Jennings Commission of 1944 which later resulted in the establishment of the National Provident Fund.

But Fr. Pillai, despite his deep belief in equality, steered clear from communism, and in fact was a vociferous critic of that line of political thinking.

It is often said, especially by 'old boys' of the school who were fortunate enough to pass through its portals at this point in history, that St. Josephs College was indeed privileged to have two splendid Rectors in succession. One was Le Goc and then Peter of Alcantara Pillai. Between these two great men, the school flourished as a leading institution for academic achievement and overall excellence.

At a time university education was restricted to Peradeniya, Fr. Pillai lobbied for external examinations with the then Minister of Education, and secured the right to set up an external university college where young people can attend lectures while working or part-time. Thus the famed Aquinas College was born.

The original buildings belonged to a defunct Catholic seminary, and here Fr. Pillai built the country's first external University College, upholding the high academic standards demanded of examiners in Peradeniya as well as London.

Fr. Pillai would certainly be happy to know that his name is immortalized not through a monument, but through a scholarship fund for underprivileged university students. The Fr. Peter Pillai Memorial Scholarship Fund had humble beginnings a few years after the death of the great priest in 1964.

But today the group of loyalists, both lay and clergy, who run the project in the name of their beloved guru, support 10 or more students every year chosen from applicants island wide, irrespective of religion, race or caste.

Through these scholars, Fr. Pillai's name passes on to another generation- to young people who have never seen him at his legendary best, but will give thanks to his name as they steer through the portals of higher education, which he himself priced so dear.

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