Vale: Appreciating Fr. Don Andrew Leonard Perera Abayasekara of Kandy

Nilantha Perera Palihawadana: “Remembering Rev Fr. Don Andrew Leonard Perera Abayasekara of Kandy (13th March 1903 to 4th March 1987)”

Beginnings: Don Andrew Leonard Perera Abayasekara was born on 13th March 1903 at ‘Kahavita Wallawa’, Cross Street Kandy, to Kahavita Don Jeronimus Perera Abayasekara Tillekeratna Mohandiram of Kandy and Magdalen Eliza Perera Wijesingha Samarasekera Abayasekara Lamaethane. He was baptised on 7th May 1905 by Rev Dr. D.B. Beekmeyer O.S.B, Bishop of Kandy at the family church the St. Anthony’s Cathedral.

   St. Anthony’s Cathedral Kandy

 Andrew was the youngest in the family of seven children consisting of four boys and three girls. He was educated at St. Anthony’s College, Kandy whereas his elder brothers attended Trinity College Kandy and then St. Joseph’s College Colombo at its inception. His father’s intention was to enrol all his children in St. Joseph’s College, but upon the persuasion of Fr. James Caspersz, then rector, both Andrew and Stanley his brother just senior to him were educated at St. Anthony’s.

Coming from a well-connected Catholic family, Christianity was constantly influenced upon him by his mother Magdalen. She, the youngest daughter of Gate Mudaliyar D.C.B. Perera Samarasekera of Udugampola Walauwwa, came from a long standing family of Buddhists. She, a highly learned woman at the time, had converted to Catholicism prior to her marriage and was a devout Catholic throughout her life.

Fr. Andrew’s Brothers: Robert was in the Ceylon Civil Service, retired as the Assistant Government Agent of Badulla, Edmund was a doctor (DMO of Aranayaka-Kandy, Monaragala, Deltota & Kegalla) and Stanley was an advocate of the Supreme Court of Ceylon, Colombo South Magistrate, later the District Judge of Panadura & Batticaloa. His sisters: Agnes married Mohandiram H.D.D Perera Siriwardana of Kotahena, Frances married Don Austin J. Amarasinghe of Kochchikade a landed proprietor and Jane married Cecil Stephen Wettasinghe of Awissawella who was in Civil Service.

The Abayasekara family were benefactors of the Kandy Cathedral and their home was located close to the Cathedral in visible proximity. The Abayasekaras have produced two generations of priests including Fr. Gerry Abayasekara of St. Joseph’s College Colombo who was Fr. Andrew’s nephew. The constant influence of Priests, Sunday mass and family prayers planted the seed and bore fruit leading him to be a man of God.

After passing the Senior Cambridge Examination, young Andrew accepted a temporary appointment as a teacher at his alma-mater St. Anthony’s College. Fr.Bernardo Regno, (later bishop), persuaded him to join the Benedictine Monastery, but he had no intention to do so at the time.

 Rev Dr. D.B. Beekmeyer O.S.B, Bishop of Kandy (1912 – 1935)
 Rt.Rev. Bernard Regno O.S.B,  … Bishop of Kandy (1936 – 1958)

Papal seminary & Priestly life: Upon his mother’s death in 1922, he heard his calling to be a servant of God and joined the Papal Seminary at Ampitiya. It was Fr. Vossen, a Belgian Jesuit whose culture and urbanity made an impression on young Andrew to reinforce his decision to join the seminary. Andrew’s tenure at the seminary helped him to develop both spiritually and intellectually. He learned theology, philosophy and ancient & modern languages. He also had a special interest in Astronomy & Cosmology and had a critical appreciation of English and was well known to be a silver-tongued orator. An artist at heart, he was a great lover of Music, Art and Architecture that eventually lead him in the later years to do many great things.

On 29th September 1929 Andrew Leonard was ordained a priest. His first appointment was to Badulla as the assistant to Fr. James Caspersz. After two years in Badulla he was transferred as the assistant priest to Bandarawela for one year, thereafter he returned to Kandy.

On All Soul’s day, Fr. Galassi then parish priest of the Kandy Cathedral requested young Fr. Andrew to preach the sermon. Unknown to him was that, Bishop Beekmeyer listening to his sermon enclosed behind a curtain in his private oratory. The Bishop was very impressed by his performance and wanted the parish priest to give the young priest every opportunity to preach.

After sometime in Kandy, Fr.Andrew was transferred to Matale and stayed there for two years. The climate in the hills did not agree with him and he faced many ailments. He was next appointed as the parish priest of the sprawling parish of Panwila by Bishop Regno. This was somewhat of a challenging mission for him as the churches of Madulkelle and Rajawella also belonged to the same parish. He managed to buy a second-hand car from an English planter who was leaving Ceylon and travelled from one church to the other for mass and confessions. One of his first missions at Panwila was to complete the unfinished church at Madulkelle.

Travels to Europe and the War

Fr. Andrew Abayasekara was a traveller and an adventurer. He travelled to all corners of the world, but his favourite and constant destinations were England and Europe.

His first trip to Europe was after his two year service at Panwila. He embarked on a thirteen day journey to Europe on the ‘SS Conte Biancomano’ which was the flagship of the Italian shipping company Lloyd Triestingo. He managed to visit many great cities in this Sojourn. While in the French spa city of Vichy, in September 1939 England declared war on Germany and foreigners were asked to leave. On the same day he left for Paris and then caught the train to Boulogne. He then found himself on British soil armed with a British passport which assured him a measure of security. He travelled by train from London to Paris and then to Venice and finally left the continent returning to Ceylon. This was a challenging journey as it was in the midst of WWII.

  SS Conte Biancomano
 

Fr. Andrew found himself in Kandy where he was greeted by Abbot Weerasinghe, the first Ceylonese Abbot of the Sylvestrine Congregation in Ceylon. Due to his unexpected arrival bishop Regno was unable to place Fr. Andrew in a parish; therefore he briefly stayed at Nuwara Eliya for about two weeks. Thereafter, upon his personal request he was sent to Peradeniya and he served there for ten months.

Abbot Rt.Rev. Dom Anselm Weerasinghe O.S.

Upon Fr. Andrews request he was transferred to Bandarwela as the former parish priest Fr. Basil Hyde wanted a transfer. The church he took charge was a small church made of cabook stone and was in a bad state. Fr Andrew then decided to rebuild the church. After receiving approval from the bishop to proceed with the project, the construction was initiated.

Many of the elements and features of the church were gathered from his journeys abroad.  After his second visit to Europe, he returned with different ideas gathered from the churches that he visited. The chief motif of the Façade of the Bandarawela church was obtained from the famous church of St. martin-in-the-Fields in Trafalgar Square London. The cathedral glass in Bandarawela was specially manufactured for this church and was brought from England. The design for the altar was from a new church in Paris.

The timber for the church was sourced from Koslanda solely by him. Ninety logs of calamander, ebony and satinwood were purchased through a government tender. The Bell of the church was purchased from Gillett and Johnson in Croydon, London and he purchased two Manual Wurlitzer Electronic Organs from America for St Anthony’s.

  Interior of Bandarawela Church Just after Completion
Bandarawela Church Just after Completion

He not only had to collect materials but also had to gather funds to build this dream church of his, due to lack of funding by the diocese. Funds were raised through raffles, fancy fairs and donations received from his family and friends both local and abroad. The foundation stone was laid on Easter Sunday, 21st April 1946. The bishop told the congregation that it would take 25 years to build the church but Fr. Andrew with support from family, friends and the parishioners managed to do it in 4 years and 4 months.

St Anthony’s Church was blessed open in 1950. It was known to be a modern church with great beauty at the time. Bishop Regno had communicated that every time he stepped in to the church he felt an urge to pray. It was Fr. Andrew’s passion and effort that made a beautiful church which still stands to this day with it magnificence and grace. He served in this parish for 23 long years.

  Bandarawela Church view from the right transept
  Bandarawela Church Front Facade

Love for Music: Fr. Andrew had a passion for music. His favourite instrument was the King of all instruments, the Pipe Organ.  He was fortunate to travel around the world and see many old cathedrals and churches and got the rare opportunity listen to the magnificent music produced by these grand organs. Whenever he travelled to Europe he always found time to see few concerts and operas.

During one of his visits to Paris he met the famous French organist and composer, Marcel Dupre at St. Sulpice which housed the largest Pipe organ in France. Fr. Andrew was well acquainted with Mr.Dupre and had met him on several occasions during his visits to Paris. The Original pipe organ at the All Saints Church Borella was donated by him. This was purchased from Italy initially for the Peradeniya Church but was later given to All Saints.

 Pipe Organ at All Saint’s Church Borella
Marcel Dupre – French organist, composer, and pedagogue.

After Bandarawala, his next mission was in Haputale. Impressed by his ingenious work at Bandarawela, Bishop Regno wanted him to take charge over the construction of a church in Haputale. Fr. Andrew had celebrated mass in Haputale for 17 years in an abandoned Mud hut. This church, not as large as St. Anthoney’s Bandarawela was based on Simi-Gotic architectural elements. His plan was to build a large church similar to Bandarawela, but unfortunately due to the lack of support from the diocese that could not be achieved.  But again with the help and support of his Family and friends as benefactors this church was completed.

St. Theresa’s Church, Peradeniya

After Haputale he was transferred to Peradeniya. Here he did improvements to the church by enlarging the transepts, building the sacristy, installing the ceiling in the church and later built the parish hall.

He built a small housing scheme in Peradeniya for poor families and also built a small chapel at Hindagala. The housing scheme was done with the aid from the Catholic Relief Services of America. Eleven houses were built for the lower middle class in the land next to the chapel with each house standing on a plot of seven to twelve perches. The permission to build on this land was granted by then Bishop Nanayakkara. A small rent was charged from the occupiers who would be the owners after 20 years. Later these houses were vested in the Lions Club Kandy.

Rt. Rev.Dr. Leo Nanayakkara O.S.B – Bishop of Kandy (1959 – 1972)

Golden Jubilee and Services: His Golden jubilee was celebrated on 19th September 1979 in the presence of his family, friends and colleagues. Fr.Andrew Abayasekara’s 58 years of inexhaustible service has greatly contributed to the Sri-Lankan Catholic Church. He built 2 churches and presbyteries, completed & renovated 5 other churches, built 11 houses to the low-income groups, established 2 university scholarships in perpetuity and created a perpetual charitable trust for few institutions. After a fruitful life of 84 years he was called home on 4th March 1987. This year marks his 34th  year of remembrance.

Nilantha Perera Palihawadana. – nilantha0007@gmail.com

6 Comments

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6 responses to “Vale: Appreciating Fr. Don Andrew Leonard Perera Abayasekara of Kandy

  1. Absolutely great read of a lesser heard presbyter from the Grand Old Upcountry Dioces. Hope the younger priests emulate fr. Andrew. Well done Nilantha.

  2. Sandra Casper

    Very interesting article. I learnt a lot about my mum’s uncle. Now I know how my mum became so humble and God fearing. Thank you very much putha (Nilantha). Good luck, God bless.

  3. Shyamala Bastianpillai

    Thank you for posting this article Nilantha. I learned so much about my grand uncle that I didn’t even know. My mum says that my sister and I were very young when he used to come to visit us.

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