She was the source of Familian perfectionism | Sr. Charles Koelmeyer As the word spreads in whispers that ‘Charlie’ is going walkabout, the incessant chatter of schoolgirls in the convent-by-the-sea at Bambalapitiya would be stilled.  Tall and dignified, walking ramrod straight, the mere sight of Sr. Charles Koelmeyer not only instilled awe in errant Familians but [...]

The Sundaytimes Sri Lanka



She was the source of Familian perfectionism | Sr. Charles Koelmeyer

As the word spreads in whispers that ‘Charlie’ is going walkabout, the incessant chatter of schoolgirls in the convent-by-the-sea at Bambalapitiya would be stilled.  Tall and dignified, walking ramrod straight, the mere sight of Sr. Charles Koelmeyer not only instilled awe in errant Familians but also teachers who may have lagged behind to chat to colleagues in the staff-room or the corridors when they should have been taking a class. No words of censure would be needed, just a steely glance sufficed.

The memories flow, though this thrice Principal of Holy Family Convent, Bambalapitiya, in the 1970s and ’80s is no more. Sr. Charles who was living in Australia died on May 26, this year, at the age of 71 and was laid to rest on June 5. Sr. Charles, the daughter of Mr. and Mrs. Allanson Koelmeyer from Nugegoda had decided to don the robes of a nun at the tender age of 17, taking her first vows in 1962 and her final vows in 1968.

Although not a Familian, having studied elsewhere as a schoolgirl, she held her duties firstly as a teacher and then as Principal, very close to her heart, when she joined the HFC Bambalapitiya Community in 1972 from Hindagala. A few calls to refresh my memories of her bring to the fore her uncompromising attitude towards discipline, her capability as an organizer of any event, her ultra-efficient persona and her community spirit as well as her beautiful smile.

Strict disciplinarian and perfectionist are the words oft used to describe Sr. Charles and also being accessible to any student.“She wanted everything to perfection and she saw to it that Familians rose to that level,” says a former Principal, Sr. Canice Fernando, adding that “Sr. Charles had a dream. She set certain standards for the school and strove to bring the school to that high standard”.

Going down to the minutest of detail was her forte — wanting to match the blue line of the socks of the school’s Western Band contingent to the ribbon in their hair and even simple things such as how a girl should keep her feet when sitting.

It was during the time of Sr. Charles as Principal that the first computer lab and math lab were built and a new building for the Grade 8 classes was constructed. While HFC celebrated its 75th Jubilee under her stewardship in 1978, another unforgettable event was the successful staging of the Sinhala drama, ‘Ranga Dahara’ at the Ramakrishna Mission Hall. The Hewisi Band too came into being during this time. 

Having spoken to some of her students, Sr. Hyacinth Alwines says that as a teacher, Sr. Charles took up the responsibility of teaching English and Life Studies to the Advanced Level classes. While she was “an excellent administrator”, she was also Super Spiritual Director of the Familian Catholic Students’ Society.

She was a generous person, always willing to help the needy, says Sr. Hyacinth. An incident that many would not remember is recalled by a Sports Ministry official whose path crossed that of Sr. Charles in the 1980s. It was 1984 and he had been tasked with organising the National Sports Festival in Kurunegala. There was a problem though. Due to a rift between the ministry and the education authorities, the latter had refused to allow schoolchildren to participate in the sports festival.

Having officiated many times at HFC sports meets, he had hesitantly approached Sr. Charles. Agreeing immediately, she had taken it upon herself to ensure that 250 Familians were trained to perform a Drill Display, before being taken to Kurunegala in buses. Within two days, Sr. Charles had calculated the expenditure, which the ministry had gladly borne without making HFC dip into its funds, for uniforms and travel etc. When some education officials made their displeasure known to Sr. Charles about her decision to send Familians to Kurunegala and wanted the decision rescinded, she had stood firm, insisting that she had given her word.

The memory that will never leave me, however, is an incident during the Big Match season, when not only boys but also girls threw caution to the winds and attempted various pranks, the foremost for boys being breaching the prison-like security of HFC.

With dire warnings that stern action would be taken against any girls who “cut” school to attend the Joe-Pete or Royal-Thomian Big Matches, it was one of those days of despair for giddy-headed teenagers. Truckloads of boys in various costumes were plying up and down Retreat Road shouting and screaming and the teachers were hardly able to keep the girls in their seats, for they were drawn to the up-stair windows overlooking the road.

Suddenly, within the staid walls of the convent-school sounds of a commotion! A bold gang of boys had scaled the high walls, rushed into the office and grabbed the school bell. Out they were in the large quadrangle in the middle of the school, singing at the top of their voices and chanting, “Charlie, Charlie”.

And Charlie, they got, for out walked statuesque Sr. Charles, demeanour chilling. Surrounded by prancing and dancing boys, Sr. Charles, sternly walked them across the grounds and out of the gate, with measured tread. “Out, out,” were her only words, firmly uttered, although I’m sure she may have been having a hearty laugh to herself. Yes, Sr. Charles, though you are no more, this will be an enduring memory for me personally.

For many Familians of that era who were fortunate to be moulded and guided by you, the striving for perfection is also an enduring quality inculcated in us………a quality which has helped us to perform our duties, as mothers, wives, daughters, sisters, friends or professionals, to the best of our ability.

A mass in remembrance of the departed souls of nuns including Sr. Charles, teachers and pupils of Holy Family Convent, Bambalapitiya, will be held on Saturday, November 9 at 7 a.m. at the school chapel. 

Kumudini Hettiarachchi

A man of integrity, he rose to become a great administrator | Benjamin Polwatte

The 30th death anniversary of Benjamin Polwatte fell on June 9. His illustrious life began at “Indipola” in Mirissa, where he grew up attending the village school for his primary education. Later, he moved to Mahinda College Galle for his secondary education.

After leaving school, he joined the Government Clerical Service and from then on, his life was an uphill climb. His commitment to work and service gave him the opportunity of holding a key position in the administrative service.

I knew Benjamin aiya as a man of integrity and honesty. He rose to become a member of the prestigious Ceylon Administrative Service , the Government Press, Director Food Controller, Chief Administrative Officer Sri Lanka Railway and the first General Manager of the Ceylon Fisheries Harbours’ Cooperation, when it was established in the early 1970s.
Though he held such prestigious positions, Benjamin was a simple man. He was selfless in his ways and had a love for mankind.

He married Sumana Irangi de Silva on January 12, 1949. Sumana was a gracious lady and a great strength to her husband whose career made ample demands on his time. She kept house for him and brought up their four children, two boys and two girls. I will never forget their hospitality whenever we went to their home, where friends and relatives often gathered. Their home in Dehiwala was an “open house” to all. Their hospitality was not bounded by class, creed or race.

Benjamin Polwatte was a dedicated father and loving husband. Even with a busy schedule, he found time to spend with his wife and children. He was particular about his children’s education and concerned that they should grow up to be responsible human beings. He together with his wife also took a keen interest in the social, cultural and religious well-being of the neighborhood. His wife continued to support the community in this manner long after his death.

When death came suddenly to snatch away a life well lived, a life so worthy, it was indeed a blow not only to his family but to all in the neighbourhood and all who knew him as a friend and relative.

May he attain the Supreme Bliss of Nibbana

Mettananda Samarawickrema

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