History of St. Henry’s College, Ilavalai, Jaffna, Sri Lanka

The Beginning
The Roman Catholic Mission of the Diocese of Jaffna, Sri Lanka, established a boys’ school at Ilavalai in 1877. It was named as “Roman Catholic Tamil Boys’ School”.

The medium of instruction was Tamil. English was taught in the Boys’ School from 1904. This was not enough for the thirst of knowledge of the residents of Ilavalai and the adjoining villages. With the ardent request by the locals, Rev. Fr. L. Rodrigo, the Parish Priest of Ilavalai, founded an English school in the year 1907. It was named “St. Henry’s School” after the name of former Bishop of Jaffna, Rt. Revd. Dr. Henry Julian.

The First Teachers
Mr. B J Vincent and Mr. L. Paul were the first lay teachers. They supported Fr. L. Rodrigo with their fullest dedication. The school admitted children of all denominations.

The Era of Society of St. Joseph’s Brothers
The Bishop of Jaffna decided to give the responsibility of developing St. Henry’s School to the Brothers of the Society of St. Joseph (SSJ) in 1910. This was a very important landmark in the history of St. Henry’s. Rev. Bro. Felix was made the principal of St. Henry’s. He was an energetic and hard working person who won the wholehearted support of the people. The Order of Brothers of the Society of St. Joseph had been earlier established for the first time in the world in Jaffna and had been engaged in the running of an orphanage, a Tamil Teacher Training School, and a printing press. Later on, they established schools in Kayts, Vathiri, Batticaloa, and Hatton and ventured overseas to establish one in Rangoon.

St. Henry’s English School 
Good progress was made in 1912, when the school got the status of Anglo-Vernacular school and received grant from the government, the amount depended on the number of passes in each class. In 1917, the progress was recognized further, and it became St. Henry’s English School. The next year, the first batch of students took up E.S.L.C. Examination and achieved notable success. In 1920, Mr. M. Vairavapillai passed first in the whole island in the examination and was awarded the Hewawitharane Prize. He later became the Deputy Auditor General.

In 1921, Bro. Felix moved to Mathagal as head of the newly established school by the Brothers of the Society of St. Joseph and Rev. Bro. Philip was his successor, who was equally capable and came to be well respected. He attracted more students of all denominations and in 1923, there were 220 students. Science was introduced into the curriculum. In the same year the school was visited by Mr. L. Macrea, the Director of Education and Rev. Bro Philip was appointed a member of Board of Education by His Excellency the Governor General. These were historic and notable events of St. Henry’s.

St. Henry’s College
In 1926, the school was upgraded by the Department of Education to the status of College. The Houses were named Roses, Shamrocks and Thistles. Inter-House cricket matches were held in 1927. The first College Magazine, “Green and White” with motto “Spes Nostra Deus” was published. Classes were started for the Cambridge Senior Examination and two students passed in 1927.

In 1928, Rev. Bro. Philip moved to Kayts and Rev. Bro Devasagayam became the Principal. He was a highly respected teacher and capable administrator. The students’ number increased to 600. The College excelled in studies and sports. In 1929, four students passed London Matriculation Examination, with one achieving a 1st Division Pass. The prestigious Jaffna Central College Team was defeated in a Cricket encounter.

Rev. Bro. Devasagayam was nominated as Superior of the SSJ order, and Rev. Bro. Philip returned as Principal. After a stint of two years, Rev. Bro. Philip went to Rangoon in 1933 and Rev. Bro. Chrysostom became the Principal. An Arts Graduate of London University, he was a good disciplinarian and greatly encouraged sports. In 1935, he was transferred to Batticaloa and Rev. Bro. Devasagayam returned to the College as Principal.

The College was performing well in studies and sports and attracted students from all over the peninsula as well as the rest of the Island. Then tragedy struck the College. Rev. Bro. Devasagayam suddenly passed away on 23rd June 1938. The SSJ Brothers could not find a suitable person to take over the mantle and Rev. Bro. W. Kannangara, former Principal of Teachers’ Training College Batticaloa, stood in as Principal for few months until the arrival of Rev. Fr. Charles S. Mathews OMI as Rector.

The Transition of Administration
The Bishop of Jaffna decided to handover the administration of the College to the order of Oblates of Mary Immaculate. In 1939 Rev. Fr. Charles S. Mathews OMI, whose Rectorship was the golden era of St. Patrick’s College, Jaffna, arrived as Rector of St. Henry’s College, with an able and energetic young priest, Rev. Fr. P. J. Jeevaratnam OMI. They gave a new impetus to the College, with a new motto – “Labor Omnia Vincit Improbus”.

A Canadian with Irish roots, Rev. Fr. Charles S. Mathews left an indelible impression on every student who went through the College. He had a way of dealing with errant boys as well as teachers who shirked their work. He made regular visits to classes to take notes of the method of teaching adopted by every teacher, and gave his comments to the teacher privately to improve his way of teaching. During the World War II, he had a map of Europe painted in the assembly hall, and every morning the students were given a fifteen-minute talk on what was happening on the war front.

After the retirement of Rev. Fr. Charles S. Mathews, Rev. Fr. P J Jeevaratnam a graduate of the University of London became Rector in 1943. In 1945, Free Education was introduced in Ceylon by Minister of Education Hon. C.W.W. Kannangara. Fr. Jeevaratnam was a great visionary and had the aptitude and determination to put into effect the new reforms, he considered were necessary. He was fearless and forthright, a man of action. As a teacher of English Language and Literature, he had the capacity to make the students to work their way, rather than follow the method of spoon-feeding. Rev. Fr. M. S. Nalliah OMI who was also warden of the Hostel taught Latin. Science was among the subjects taught, but facilities were modest; converted classrooms served as laboratories for Chemistry and Physics. Fr. Jeevaratnam strengthened the Latin Department by appointing new teachers. A Science Block was constructed with laboratories for Chemistry, Physics, and Biology. The Mathematics Department headed by the eminent and ever–popular Mr. S. Vaithianathan was well known for good results.

The fruits of these initiatives by Fr. Jeevaratnam were evident very soon. The number of Henricians admitted to the University of Ceylon and other Universities overseas, for degrees in Science, Engineering, Medicine, Agriculture, and Commerce increased steadily. He was a great sportsman and helped in building a soccer team, which during his stewardship coveted the Northern Province Schools Championship. The “Rising Sun” College Magazine was published regularly and highly acclaimed play “Song of Bernadette” was staged during his time. Reforming errant youngsters and making them useful to the community and the country was one of the tasks that St. Henry’s College achieved with great success.

Rev. Fr. Jerome Emilianuspillai OMI was the Rector in 1949 Jan-March, when the bells of the Church announced his election as the Bishop of Jaffna. Fr. Jeevaratnam continued as the Rector until 1953. Rev. Fr. B. Deogupillai, the dynamic and energetic educationist took up office as Rector of the College in 1953. He brought along with him a youthful and vibrant spirit with excellent academic achievements both in secular and religious realms. He revitalized every dimension of the educational and extra-curricular activities of the students with meticulous planning and foresight. To promote the efficiency of the teaching staff at the College, he founded and supported the Teachers’ Guild and fostered the inter-personal, familial, and social welfare of the teachers. It was during his tenure of office that the carpentry room and the science laboratory were renovated and refurbished. The College Annual, which had the name “Rising Sun”, was renamed as “Henrician” and was published as a voluminous book. With his elegance and eloquence many past students remember Fr. Deogupillai (late Bishop of Jaffna) as a stern disciplinarian at School and as a friend and an affable father out-side the school hours.

Private School
Having taken over the reins of Rectorship in 1956, Rev. Fr. L.A. Singarayar continued to maintain the higher academic standards of this illustrious institution. He had to face the period of the stormy weather of the nationalization of schools (1960-61) and Fr. Singarayar managed to steer through the College administration as a private school. The diocese of Jaffna took up the challenge of finding the resources to run the school without laying heavy burden on the students. Fr. Singarayar took personal efforts to raise the standard of English at the College. It was commendable that during his tenure of office, the College won the Shield for Elocution Contest among senior students.

In 1963, Rev. Fr. J. Stanislaus became Rector. He, with his youthful dynamism added vigour and vitality to the staff-student solidarity at College. He gave creative and commendable importance to extra-curricular activities and encouraged the historic talents of both staff and students. The students staged the entire Passion Play. During his time, the College took part in a number of inter-school drama competitions and elocution contests at Provincial level and won many prizes. He re-introduced the praying of the Rosary everyday as part of the Morning prayers and Marian devotions. Rev. Fr. Benjamin Alfred, who took office in 1967, was quiet, affable, and friendly. He earned great respect and reverence among the staff and students. He infused a deep spiritual atmosphere in the College and earnestly promoted the Devotion to the Sacred Heart and to the Eucharist. He made arrangements for students to have a monthly celebration of the sacrament of penance. Rev. Fr. M. J. Mariampillai became Rector in 1970. He made very significant contributions to the College in the spiritual, academic, and cultural formation of the students. He introduced the proclamation and interpretation of biblical passages as part of the daily devotions at school. With the encouragement of Bishop Deogupillai, he paved the way for the return of St. Joseph’s Brothers to join the teaching staff and invited some sisters from the Holy Family of Bordeaux to teach at the College. (Various pious devotions were introduced from the beginning and were later modified according to the need and trend of the Church.)

All Island Champions
Rev. Fr. John A. Francis took office in 1973, the first past student of the school to adorn the office of Rector of the College. He came to St. Henry’s College with a wealth of experience and expertise in the field of education and worked with a keen interest to elevate the standard of the school in all spheres of academic and extra-curricular activities. He endeavored to build a family spirit among the past pupils, the parents of the students and other well-wishers and benefactors who have been helping the College in various ways. The active and efficient functioning of the Old Boys Associations owes a great deal to the indefatigable efforts of Fr. John Francis. He also sought to instill in the hearts of the students and staff a strong sense of spirituality by inviting them to attend the liturgical functions and prayer services. During his tenure of office, the college took part in several competitions at the provincial and all island levels and won many prizes and trophies to the credit of the College. Remarkable among these was the winning of the Singer Shield at the all Island inter-school Football tournament. Fr. Francis renamed the houses as Roses, Thistles, and Shamrocks and added the name Lily as the fourth. It was during his period as Rector that female students were admitted to the Science section of the G.C.E. Advanced Level.

State School
Rev. Fr. Anton T. Rajanayagam was appointed Rector in 1976. Before that, he was Vice Rector from 1960 to 62. In the intervening period, he had been Director of St. Martin’s Seminary, a Diocesan Administrator and been a Lecturer and Vice Rector at Propaganda Fide University in Rome. This varied experience, together with his deep intellect, and amiable manner was a perfect combination for success. He had immense capacity to stimulate the enthusiasm of people around him and to get them involved in all sorts of activities. This is a period of profound change too. A decision was made by the Administration of the Diocese of Jaffna to handover the school to the state, due to financial difficulties. The College had changed from a Catholic Private School to State School in 1977. Management of this change could not have been in better hands. Fr. Rajanayagam was also Parish Priest of Ilavalai and adjacent villages. This gave him the opportunity to work with a wider population to the mutual advantage of the College as well as the Parishes. His influence on the hearts and minds of all around him was immense; teachers, students, parents, parishioners, the then OBAs were always ready and willing to do his bidding. With significant successes for St. Henry’s in examination results and many extra curricular fields, the standing and popularity of the College rose rapidly. St. Henry’s College 1st Eleven Soccer Team won the all Island A.N.C.L Trophy in 1976. The under 12 Group won the Singapore Cup in 1978. The strength of the College had risen from 550 to 838 in 1979 and rising. In addition, Fr. Rajanayagam embarked on a much needed and ambitious building programme. A two-story block for twelve classrooms and other facilities were completed. Female students were admitted in G.C.E. A/L Commerce classes. Fr. Rajanayagam brought about a new renaissance at College. Every group in the College, from students’ bodies like the Science Union, Commerce Union and the Advanced Level Union, the Scout Troop, the Drama Society etc. and the newly established Parents-Teachers Association found good support and encouragement.

Revd. Dr. Justin B. Gnanapragasam, who had been the Vice Rector for twelve years, took office as Rector in 1989. Times were different. There were all sorts of difficulties and disruptions caused by the ethnic war. There were calls on his time from parents and parishioners on humanitarian and pastoral matters. Besides these, he had to shoulder the additional responsibility in the form of a Cluster Principal for twelve schools in the area. In spite of all this, the administration of St. Henry’s and its all round performance continued as best as can be expected.

The Displacements
Then in August 1992, due to security operations by SL Armed Forces, the College and the surrounding villages had to be vacated. Fr. Justin B. Gnanapragasam, with his intuition, initiative, courage, and determination regrouped with a few staff and students at Manipay Hindu College and arranged classes for the students in the afternoons. Although everyone at Manipay Hindu College was very friendly and helpful, this was not an ideal arrangement and facilities of our own were considered essential. Fr. Rector hired a piece of land in Manipay and had four large temporary shelters erected on it. These were to serve as classrooms and all facilities for St. Henry’s College in exile for the next few years. In these activities, Fr. Rector received every encouragement and assistance from Fr. Anton Rajanayagam, Former Rector, and Old Boys Associations local and abroad through frequent contacts and visits.

It has to be mentioned here that when almost the entire student and civilian population vacated Ilavalai in August 1992, the Vice Rector, Fr. J. Jesuthas decided to stay behind what come may. He looked after the old and the infirm in the parish who could not run away while conducting classes and running the College with a handful of students who remained with them.

In the meantime, even with meager facilities in Manipay, the College performances in examinations and in sports was impressive. Seven students entered universities in 1995. In soccer, the First Eleven was Northern Province Champions in 1992, 1993, and 1994, and Second Eleven, champions in 1994. Among the extra curricular activities at this time was the publication of “Vanihathendral” by the Commerce Union and acclamations for the Drama Society. However, there was yet another upheaval in October 1995. College was displaced for the second time from Manipay to Mirusuvil. This did not last very long, and the College was able to return to her original home in May 1996. Even with minimum facilities, few staff and students, Fr. Rector stood in determination as a pillar of strength to rebuild the College towards its past glorious days. It was already in glimpse as the College performances were very impressive. In 1998, an Advanced Level student achieved 4As and entered the University Engineering Faculty. It was again repeated in 2003, when another student achieved 3A in all subjects and entered Management. In soccer, PT and drama competitions, students were able to secure divisional and district champions.

In August 2002, the long and glorious service of Fr. Justin, thirteen years as Vice Rector and thirteen years as Rector, came to an end, as he had to take charge of St. Patrick’s College, Jaffna as Rector at the request of the Bishop. Henrician’s loss was Patrician’s gain !

The young and energetic Vice Rector, Rev. Fr. K. James Singarayar, who was attached to the College from 1993 and trained under the shadow of his able predecessor, took over as Rector from January 2003.
Remarks: The history of St. Henry’s College is not a complete history, due to the non availability of facts and records. We welcome your useful suggestions and worthy remarks for further improvements. Kindly send them through our Contact.