Father Vito Perniola S.J. – Awards and Appreciations

PERNIOLA in 2013 --johnny Fr Perniola captured by Johnny in 2013

I: A Note by Carl Fernando:  The Royal Asiatic Society of Sri Lanka commenced their Annual Sessions on 28th March 2013. The prestigious Sir S. C. Obeysekere Medal for 2013 was awarded to Fr. Perniola. This medal is awarded periodically to members of the Society, of which Fr. Perniola is a Life Member, for outstanding achievements. His Pali Grammar which was published by the Pali Text Society of London and the History of the Catholic Church in Sri Lanka, running into 19 Volumes, are some of his great works. An erudite Linguist, Scholar and Historian, Fr. Perniola served at St.Aloysius’ College, Galle  for a period of about 15 years and was Rector from 1949 to 1952. He celebrates his 100th birthday on the 10th of April 2013. A thanksgiving mass will be held on that day at St. Mary’s Church, Bambalapitiya, at 4.30 pm.

PERNIOLA in 1949 Fr Perniola as Rector, St. Aloysius in 1949

II: “The Other Centenarian!” by Johnny de Silva

YES, Reverend Father Vito Perniola SJ celebrates the 100th anniversary of his birth! Ad Multos Annos dear Father.  May God give you more fruitful years.

Fr. Perniola was born at Santeramo (Bari) in Italy. He was the fifth child of nine born to land owing parents who had a house in the town and a house in the country. During his secondary education, which had to be undertaken in the neighbouring town of Altamura, he had to ‘board’ away from home. A regular Sunday and feast day Mass attendee, young Vito was very moved during the feast of St Francis Xavier at the church of the Blessed Trinity and at the tender age of eleven years was convinced that he should become a Missionary by becoming a Jesuit Priest.Young Vito showed scholastic brilliance at a very early stage of his life and in 1925 he joined the Jesuit College Argento of Lecce. He was then just 12 years of age. At the age of 15 he entered the Novitiate at Villa Melecrinis in Naples to commence his religious training as a Jesuit.

During the course of his studies a catalogue pertaining to a training course in Philosophy in Shembaganur, South India ‘fell’ into his hands. He decided that this was where he had to go to study Philosophy, and, pursue his missionary calling in a country close to India called Ceylon. There he wished to join the Jesuit mission that was established in a town called Galle in the south of that country.Easter Sunday of 1930 was a ‘red letter’ day for young Vito as he, at 17 years of age, completed his Novitiate training.  He next launched out into his study of languages and immersed himself in Latin, Italian and Greek.

 The next ‘red letter’ date was 30 December 1932 when, at 19 years of age he left for India from Naples, Italy.  It must have been a very difficult time for the whole family, but, there was some joy in that he was able to attend the first Mass celebrated by his brother. His voyage by boat took him to Bombay, as Mumbai was known then, and via Madras, as Chennai was known then, to the Jesuit Mission station in Shembaganur.

 The commitment was so strong that Vito began reading books on Buddhism while he was in Italy! India was the location to help him get acclimatised to the tropical climate, to learn the English language and to continue his studies in Philosophy. This he did with distinction obtaining his Masters in Philosophy. His thesis was, Buddhist Logic!

In 1936 at the age of 23 the young man, well on his way to becoming a Priest and a scholar, arrived in the land of his choice … Ceylon.  Here he sat his Matriculation exam taking 5 subjects: English, Mathematics, Latin, Greek and Italian with success and while being attached to the missionary Parish Church and school in Elpitiya, in the Galle District, he decided to read for his B.A. Honours London degree. There was no question as to what subjects he would choose. He took his degree in Pali and Buddhism in the main, and Sanskrit and Hinduism as the subsidiary subjects! He was the first Catholic Priest to undertake such a study!  Were there text books and guidance in these languages? Well, there were grammars in Pali and Prakrit but they were in the German language.  You guessed it; he studied German! He gained his B.A. Honours Degree in 1940.

The Second World War years saw Vito pursue the study of theology at the Ampitiya Seminary. The next ‘milestone’ was the biggest one of them all for in 1943 in the Galle Cathedral, at the age of 30, he was ordained a Priest of God, and commenced his life as Rev Fr Vito Perniola SJ. In 1946 he was posted as the Assistant Parish Priest of Deniyaya.

In 1947 Fr Perniola went to India to complete his theological studies and was in that country when it gained its Independence from Great Britain. On his return to the Island in December of that year he was posted to our beloved College as a teacher. SAC did not have Pali or Sanskrit as subjects and Fr Perniola immersed himself in teaching ‘Ceylon History’. His in-depth study of the subject led him to revise, according to the new syllabus, the text book The History of Ceylon for Schools written by the first Ceylonese Jesuit the eminent Fr S G Perera SJ.

In 1949 Fr Perniola was awarded honorary citizenship of Sri Lanka in recognition of his services.

On 16 May 1949 Fr Perniola took on the post of Rector at St Aloysius College, a post he held till 9 October 1952.

In 1954 the Catholic University College of Aquinas was founded in Colombo and in that year Fr Perniola left St Aloysius College Galle having been invited to lecture on Pali to graduands reading for their B.A. and B.A. Honours degrees of the University of London. Was there a good Pali grammar?  Well not really; so in typical Perniola style he wrote one himself.  The first edition was printed in 1957. After some revisions in 1997 this grammar has been accepted as the standard grammar by the Pali Text Society of Oxford. Fr Perniola has the rare distinction of seeing all his students achieve success at their exams.

When the University College of Aquinas was compelled to cease examinations of the University of London, Fr Perniola taught Catholic Theology to Nuns from 1962 to 1972 and then again from 1976 to 1979.

While he was still teaching, this indefatigable priest registered to read for a PhD in Philology – a branch of knowledge that deals with the structure, historical development and relationships of language/s – at the University of Pune. He commuted between Aquinas and Pune in his ‘spare time’ and completed his Doctorate in Linguistics in 1963 working on compound words in Pali.

Fr S G Perera SJ, that eminent historian, had begun the task of compiling the history of the Catholic Church in Ceylon/Sri Lanka. Unfortunately ill health laid him low and he was not able to make headway in the project. The impending beatification of Fr Joseph Vaz loomed on the horizon.  Many felt that the work of Fr Perera should be continued.  Who should step in and take on the challenge – Fr Perniola! This was a formidable task. There were documents in several languages that needed reading. The polyglot Fr Perniola took to it with a vengeance as he was proficient in Latin, Italian, Spanish, Portuguese, German, French, Dutch, English, Pali, Sanskrit, Sinhalese – any more?  Visits to the archives of Lisbon, Goa, Amsterdam, Rome, Paris, Brussels, Colombo and Kandy resulted in the securing and translation of several documents.

Fr Perniola’s ‘Magnum Opus’ which has been titled “Catholic Church in Sri Lanka” comes in 19 volumes! The makeup of the work is:

  1. Three volumes on the Portuguese Period 1505 to 1658
  2. Three volumes on the Dutch Period 1658 to 1795
  3. 13 volumes on the British Period 1795 to 1922

 The first editions of the work was published in 1983 and the last volume published in 2010 when Fr Perniola was 97 years old!

 The 19 volumes of material gathered, translated and published could now be used as source material.  Fr Perniola is now in the process of writing his own History of the Catholic Church in Sri Lanka based on this material.It would be naïve to think that the writings listed in this article are the only works by   Fr Perniola.  His output has been phenomenal to say the least. He has written several booklets, some of which have been translated into Sinhala and Tamil. He has contributed articles and reviews, and written to the Newspapers on religious subjects, historical events, linguistics and literature. There seems to be no end to the literary output of this very special Priest.

 One would get the impression from all that I have written that Fr Perniola was steeped in his academic work and that was all that he did. One could conclude that having to do so much in the literary field he would have no time for other priestly and missionary duties. Wrong!

While researching Fr Perniola’s pursuits in Sri Lanka I find that while he was busy writing he also pursued his missionary work.

perniola and pals F   r Perniola and friends

For close to 14 years he helped in the formation of novices of the Apostolic Carmel Congregation. For several years he was chaplain to St Luke’s Guild, the Catholic Doctors Association, and as a result he became proficient in Medical Ethics. From 1982-89 he helped in the Parish of Dehiwala and in 1989 he went to the Retreat House in Lewella where he was the Bursar, and, for several years acted as the Superior of the community. In addition to this Fr Perniola was always available to those who sought his advice and guidance which he meted out with love, care and understanding.

In conclusion I quote from an article written by Hemal Pieris titled “Father Vito Perniola S.J. – A 99th Birthday Appreciation” and published on April 21 last year: “His mind remains clear, though he says he is becoming a bit forgetful, and despite a bit of a stoop, and failing eyesight, remains physically active – moving nimbly and speedily, on his feet. Although he is in good health, he has had his medical setbacks. An accident while traveling in a 3-wheeler a few years ago, and again when he was very seriously ill, about an year ago, – and had to be kept on saline for weeks by his doctor, a GP, [on whom he places great confidence]; – he recovered on both occasions by the grace of God, and the love and care of those who looked after him. He declined to enter hospital. Before his recent serious illness, while living in Kandy, – he traveled regularly to Colombo by bus – to visit the Archives and to get about his essential work. Fr Perniola is a man of great faith in his Creator, and a man of simple needs, and a simple life-style.”

In compiling this article on Fr Perniola I worked on a computer, accessing emails and browsing the Internet. At 100 years of age what does Fr Perniola use? A computer!He not only taught himself so many languages but also mastered the computer world to carry on his work. I know of people far younger than him who are still scared of computers!!  What a man, what a Priest, what a Jesuit, what a Sri Lankan!!

Fr Perniola, we the past pupils of St Aloysius College, Galle, salute you. We are privileged to have you in our midst.  God bless you Father.

perniola in 2009-AlAN PANAMBALANA Fr Perniola in 2009 – Pic by Alan Panambalana


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