As Holy Family Convent, Bambalapitiya, marks its 110th anniversary, Kumudini Hettiarachchi recounts the beginnings of a religious order that abides by the values of simplicity and service Simple, elegant and powerful, as always, were the celebrations on Friday to commemorate the ‘five score years and ten’ anniversary of the convent-school by the sea, which falls [...]

The Sundaytimes Sri Lanka

1862: When six nuns came across the seas


As Holy Family Convent, Bambalapitiya, marks its 110th anniversary, Kumudini Hettiarachchi recounts the beginnings of a religious order that abides by the values of simplicity and service

Simple, elegant and powerful, as always, were the celebrations on Friday to commemorate the ‘five score years and ten’ anniversary of the convent-school by the sea, which falls today (February 3).

As Cardinal Malcolm Ranjith celebrated High Mass on the quadrangle of Holy Family Convent, Bambalapitiya, to mark the 110th anniversary, white-clad schoolgirls with the hallmark blue-and-white striped ties and the dedicated staff, both academic and non-academic, parents and friends raised their voices in praise and worship.

Cardinal Malcolm Ranjith lights the candle at Friday’s celebrations as Principal Sr. Chandani Jayasuriya looks on. Pic by Amila Gamage

For them, in all humility, it was, is and always will be: “Glory to God alone”. This is the faith and conviction which has seen this convent-school not only weather and steer through stormy waters but also welcome into its fold all races and religions, making it one of the main “community” schools in the country.

There would, however, be no convent-school at Bambalapitiya, without the stalwart nuns who so long ago, left home and hearth, to travel the weary and long road, from France to Sri Lanka. It was more than 150 years ago that the six pioneers who had taken the ‘Holy Family’ (Joseph, Mary and Jesus) as their model came to this country to begin their ministry here.

Formed firstly as the ‘Sisters of Holy Family of Bordeaux’ with just three young women way back on May 28, 1820, on the eve of Trinity Sunday, by the priest Fr. Pierre Bienvenu Noailles, the order had grown rapidly from its humble beginnings in France to spread across the world. Among the first three was Fr. Noailles’s own sister, Aimee.
“Simplicity, obedience and dedication to a life of service to accomplish the mission of God is what being a Holy Family nun is all about,” explains 79-year-old Sr. Melanie Fernando who took her first vows 59 years ago on December 18, 1954.

Tireless workers, attending to the welfare of children, the elderly, the sick and everyone in the community, the Holy Family order is the model of the universal family, according to her and their vocation is “seeking God’s will alone”.
Conceding that there have been challenges, Sr. Melanie however is quick to point out that God’s grace sustains her.
Going back to the early days, Sr. Emma Perera who has compiled the history of this order of nuns states that the French Revolution in the latter part of the 18th century paved the way for the birth of the religious family in that country. The post-revolutionary era was a critical period for the Church of France. The church was oppressed, impoverished and disorganised. The renewal of the church began in the 19th century, with the return of the priests who had fled into the wilderness to escape persecution.

“Holy Family too came into being during this time,” she says, explaining that the nuns adapted their lives according to the times and needs of the people. “The Eucharistic miracle which took place on February 3, 1822, was a sign for the Founder and the Sisters of God’s blessing on their efforts.”

Fr. Noailles’s religious group was spreading the message in different parts of Europe and it was on February 8, 1861, that the first six missionary Sisters were to leave for Sri Lanka, sadly delayed by the death of their beloved Founder. And so it was that the Catholics of Sri Lanka were able to see a group of Catholic nuns for the first time in their lives on November 2, 1862.

When the Holy Family nuns from France set foot on Sri Lankan soil, the church here did not have any women-religious. The pioneers “chosen” by Fr. Noailles before his death for the mission in Sri Lanka were Sr. Marie Xavier Marchand, Sr. Marie Stanislaus Quinn, Sr. Marie Helene Winter, Sr. Marie Liguori Roger, Sr. Marie Therese Van Meurs and Sr. Marie Joseph Maroille.

The journey which began on the ship ‘Canada’ from Marseilles had been arduous – across seas, along rivers and canals and over the desert, from Bordeaux to Alexandria, onto Cairo then Suez and to Galle in the south on October 19, 1862. Forty-five days and 45 nights they had travelled, with 25 days being spent on the high seas. Those were the days sans the Suez Canal and from Alexandria to Suez was through Cairo – 252 miles covered by boat through the Nile Delta along the Mahamoudiah Canal to Atieh, then by steamer from Atieh to Cairo along the Nile and finally to Suez 84 miles through the desert…… “along the caravan route, with seven halts for rest and refreshment, asses bearing the passengers and camels carrying their luggage,” says the late Dr. Edmund Peiris who as Bishop Emeritus of Chilaw in 1980 traced the history of the Sisters of the Holy Family in Sri Lanka.

“This last part of the journey sometimes proved fatal to northerners who were not hardy enough to stand the fierce heat of the desert sun,” he adds.  Even the last part of their voyage was not without its moments of anxiety, as their vessel, ‘Echo’ was running out of coal. It was on a Sunday that they dropped anchor in the Galle harbour, participating in a thanksgiving mass on the ship itself. A few days in Galle, it was to Colombo they set off where they met the Bishop who in turn introduced them to the Governor, who realising that their ultimate mission was in Jaffna and they would find it difficult to travel there by boat had placed in their service a steam ship. November 1, 1862, tired but happy the Sisters reached Jaffna. Having spent the night on the ship, followed by a thanksgiving mass the next morning they had gone ashore to an enthusiastic welcome, ready to be of service to the people of Sri Lanka.

The very first Christian religious women to set foot in Sri Lanka

The seed for the blossoming of locals as Holy Family Sisters had been sown even before the six French nuns arrived in the country. Receiving a short training under them, the first local to don the habit had been Sr. Marie Louise – the first religious vocation to the Holy Family order in Sri Lanka.

There has been no turning back since then. With another group arriving from France and the numbers of local Sisters swelling, it was time to expand their mission…… Kurunegala ministering the sick who were wracked by pain and anguish, Wennappuwa, Anuradhapura, Bambalapitiya, the list goes on.

The rest is history, while 150 years on 95 Holy Family communities with 550 nuns scattered across Sri Lanka silently without fanfare do what they are meant to do – work for the benefit of the children, women and men in their areas.

Moulding students for the future

Equipping all those who pass through the portals of Holy Family Convent, Bambalapitiya, to face the next century with its rapid technological advancement as holistic human beings, is the vision of Principal Sr. Chandani Jayasuriya.
It is important to be part of the advances that the human race is seeing but it is also equally important not to neglect human values of simplicity, caring for others, nurturing one’s family, on which foundation the Holy Family is built, she says, adding “this is the challenge in the light of massive consumerism”.

We are part of the cosmos, everything is inter-related and inter-dependent. So we must protect nature, for only then will it protect us in return. We should also be conscious of social justice, be aware of the suffering of others which we try to address through the Familian Outreach programme, says Sr. Chandani, reiterating that discipline cannot be compromised as well. “We hope that we are moulding young people to face the world with dignity, cherishing their womanhood while enjoying equal rights.

There is a challenge, she points out, calling for support in the continuation of the Holy Family order. We should not only take what the nuns have to offer but also give back to the order in terms of vocations.

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