Chryshane Mendis, reviewing Till the Mountains Disappear: The Story of St. Joseph’s College’ authored by Avishka Mario Senewiratne and late Fr. Dr. Stanley Abeysekera
It was well known back in the day that Fr. Stanley Abeysekera was writing a book on College history and through my Grade 09 exhibition project of 2008, I got to know the great man very closely. From then on till I left school in 2013 I constantly dropped by his room and viewed the rare Blue and White magazines with him and earnestly listened to his stories of College. I was sad that his progress on the manuscript had slowed down due to his failing eyesight and when he was finally called to rest in 2015, I thought the book had died with him.
Being just four years my junior, I remember Avishka well in College but it was only in 2017 that we became close friends. In 2017 I happened to be in the Chapel for an undergraduate assignment on church architecture when Avishka came and spoke to me. Little did I know that that was the start of a life long friendship. It also brought the revelation that he was continuing the research of late Fr. Stanley. Being a young researcher myself, I was delighted to know that another young Josephian, while still being a student, had taken up the mantle to chronicle the history of St. Joseph’s — something which was long overdue.
Till the Mountains Disappear: The Story of St. Joseph’s College is the pioneering monograph chronicling the 124 history of St. Joseph’s College Colombo 10, the initiation of late Fr. Stanley Abeysekera and the tireless researches of the ‘young’ Old Joe Avishka Senewiratne. Age is just a number when you take into account intelligence and skill. Avishka’s investigative approach to chronicling the story of our College is in my opinion the highlight of this endeavour. While most present day writers may just piece together facts from easily available sources, it takes a passionate curiosity, skill and an analytical mind to go a step beyond and search for more. It is this quality of the author that has resulted in this very comprehensive chronicle. Presenting a review on this lengthy book would mount for an equally lengthy article, hence I chose to focus on some aspects that caught my attention the most.
The best part of this research I feel is the story leading up to the founding of St. Joseph’s, which are the first four chapters. This part of the story is not openly found in any other single publication. These four chapters alone show the dexterity of the author in historical research. Most interesting was the origins and background of the Catholic missionary education in Ceylon of which St. Joseph’s was a culminating keystone in the church’s educational programme. Viewing College in this light brings a whole new perspective. Further its early links to St. Benedict’s College, the unheard tales of the people involved in the founding, especially of Fr. Lytton and Fr. Guglielmi and even the unknown second opening of College on November 27, 1896, are some of these interesting highlights. We as Josephians know the first Archbishop of Colombo, the most Rev. Dr. Christopher Bonjean as the founder of St. Joseph’s College. However the most interesting snippet inferred by the author is that Archbishop Bonjean never knew the name of the college he initiated, as he had passed away before its proper establishment.
Fr. Stanley’s and Avishka’s chapter characterization with biographical details on the leading men of our college, the Rectors, is much appreciated. And the numerous quotes of the Rectors captures the essence of the times; its as if they are speaking directly to you and telling what happened. These quotes also echo the state of affairs of the society in those times; some being relevant even at present.
Further the re-publishing of old correspondence can also be highly appreciated, reminiscent of the great historians of the early 20th century. Of these the re-publishing of the Pastoral Letter of Archbishop Bonjean dated January 6, 1892 under Appendix 01 is the most cherished. It is this letter that signaled to the public the founding of College, a sort of ‘call to arms’ for the laity.
While the chapters chronicling the history of College through the lives of the Rectors are profound and important, the ‘second part’ of the book as I see it, is also of importance. This part serves as a documentation which include historical descriptions of the buildings of College, the lists of people, the contributions of Fr. Lanigan, the OBU etc. The part on Fr. Lanigan’s contribution is especially curious as it discusses and weighs in on the disputed authorship of the College anthem. Also much kudos to Avishka for compiling the extensive lists of Prize Giving Chief Guests, Priests who served and Old Boy Priests, list of Head Prefects, Jubilarian Teachers and others. ‘Researching’ and also ‘Documenting’ are two important aspect of a historian, which Avishka has balanced perfectly in this pioneering book on the history of St. Joseph’s College.
We are the inheritors of a grand old heritage that is St. Joseph’s and its high time this legacy was chronicled. As an old boy I know how we just spent our 13 years in college making memories without the faintest idea of the rich legacy left by our ancestors. As students we knew the college is old as the buildings would tell and from the very short description of college in the record book, we just lived through our schooling without much consciousness of the rich legacy of St. Joseph’s. So, now, finally this heritage lies shining before us in book form. I hope this book is made known to all current students -thereby rendering their experience at College more extraordinary.
May this book bring about nostalgia among the current students and alumni so that this great heritage that is St. Joseph’s may be cherished, maintained and carried forward till the mountains disappear.