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That Familian spirit

Sunday Times - Feb 3 2002

As HFC approaches its centenary, Kumudini Hettiarachchi walks down the corridors of her old school 

It all began on Septuagesima
Today, February 3, Holy Family Convent, will step into its centenary year with an inter-religious ceremony, followed by a Mass at 9 a.m. The chief celebrant will be the Bishop of Chilaw, Rt. Rev. Frank Marcus Fernando.

February 3 is significant for HFC, because that was when way back in 1820, on the Sunday known as Septuagesima before Lent, God appeared on the Host during a service, to the Sisters of the Holy Family Order in Bordeaux, France. One nun who had closed her eyes in veneration of this miracle had heard the words, "Honour and esteem of men are but smoke. I am who I am". That is why HFC was founded on February 3, explains present Principal Rev. Sr. Canice.

The Convent school: a view of HFC's gracious exterior: Pic by M.A. Pushpa KumaraThe Convent school: a view of HFC's gracious exterior.  Pic by M.A. Pushpa Kumara

The beginnings were humble and nomadic. The roll had only about 28 students - girls and a handful of boys - and even they had to be collected, more or less by force, by a nun doing the rounds in a buggy cart. The year was 1903.

Without a permanent abode, starting a school was an onerous task - the task as detailed by the then Archbishop of Colombo, Dr. A. Coudert for a handful of nuns who had come south from Jaffna to open a convent school for the education of girls of Colombo South. Undaunted, this little band of pioneering nuns, led by Rev. Mother Celeste Marchall began their mission with zeal. 'Clock House' _ named after the large, quaint dummy clock adorning the wall of the front verandah-down Lauries Road became the first home of 'Holy Family'. Many moves later from one dinghy house to another, Mannix House, Choice Villa in Clifford Place, and Park House near Melbourne Avenue, the story well and truly begins, when the nuns put down roots at the Retreat.

'Refreshing Breezes', as this seaside school's magazine is aptly named, chronicles those early years thus: "The first scholars of varying ages had to be brought to school by the nuns themselves in a buggy cart! And many of the scholars contrived to get seriously ill when they heard the jingle of the bull's bells at their gates. How glad they must have been when one fine morning the nuns woke up to find that 'Baby' the bull had been stolen."

Bull or no bull, the steely will and fervent prayers of the nuns paid off. The early years were those of great hardship and money troubles. But the Sisters never wavered and as they lived in hope and prayer, the numbers grew. They had to seek more permanent quarters. "Legend has it that Mother Ambrose, who had taken over as Assistant and Bursar went out on her daily 'collecting missions' clad all in formal black, bearing a black umbrella, seated in the depths of a rustic rickshaw and never returned empty handed. The rickshaw man was a friend and on 'good days' received more than his fare from the little 'store' she usually obtained," to meet the earthly needs of the small community of nuns and the convent school, according to 'Refreshing Breezes'.

February 1, 1908 saw the straggly wanderings of Holy Family coming to an end. The final 'Retreat' had been reached. It was a five and a half acre block of land, scattered with bungalows and dotted by palm trees in Bambalapitiya, wedged between Galle Road and the beautiful Indian Ocean. 

Leafing through the yellowed pages of the school's history, the first 'girls' provide a wonderful insight on what HFC was then. "HFC in 1911 was one long length of hall. There were no divided classrooms; only the teachers' desks and chairs separated one class from another. Away at the upper end was a raised wooden platform or dais: the dreaded Form, with a few steps leading up to it. The Principal sat at her desk on this dais and kept her sharp eye upon everyone and everything. The worst thing was that when a girl was punished the whole school knew about it. For she had to get on top of the form and stay there for the duration of the punishment; shamed and humiliated in front of all. Few girls disobeyed the rules in those days. 

"It would have been impossible to work in those open classrooms with the noise we have today and so we usually sat with our fingers on our lips and so we learned to keep silent and concentrate."

A boarder had this to say, "Instead of the slice of bread we got for tea on weekdays, there was a bun on Sundays. We preferred the bread, so in derision Sunday was called 'Bunday'! We had hearty appetites of course and a favourite topic of conversation was criticizing the plain, wholesome fare in the refectory."

The early days were days of trial and error. Those were the days when there was no uniform for Familians. Another Old Familian recalls ".........we just wore coloured dresses at 'midi' length, with long sleeves and collars. I sewed up the first uniforms designed like those of English schoolgirls - blue pinafore over white long sleeved blouse. But these were too hot for the climate. Later came the present pleated and belted white dress with collar and little made up tie". 

Ninety-nine years later, what a far cry Holy Family is today. This convent school has stood the test of time and emerged as a colossus not only in academics but in its pursuit of excellence in all fields of sports, drama, dancing etc. 

To me the greatness of HFC lies not only in its builders and moulders including the nuns and teachers, but also in the numerous students who have passed through its portals not only to achieve high positions but to become good women playing their diverse roles in society.

As I trudge the familiar corridors and grounds of this stately school, no longer as a giggly teenager, but as a mother holding my little girl's hand, the nostalgia overwhelms me. Memories flood in from the recesses of my brain. The poring over books, the whispered secrets, the debates, the annual sportsmeets held at St. Peter's College grounds, with the nuns keeping a wary eye on us and the Peterites being confined to their classrooms by the priests, the pranks played on unsuspecting teachers, the sadness and laughter, the trials and triumphs. The solitude and tranquillity of the austere but beautiful chapel with its white marble and green stained glass........all these treasures of a wonderful girlhood gone by.

But most poignant of all are memories of a fine mix and blend within the walls of this community school where there were no barriers of race, religion or status. No child was identified as a Sinhalese, Tamil, Muslim or Burgher. Christian or non-Christian, rich or poor. No one knew who paid the fees and who did not. Everyone was equal in the true spirit of Holy Family.

As my little girl speaks of the Green Hall or how she saw the sun-dappled sea in all its splendour from her classroom, or trooped to the chapel with her friends, I know the Familian spirit lives on for the 3,000-odd children for whom HFC is a second home. 

And though for me the "College days are over and the deep clear bell call rings its summons never more" the values of Holy Family remain, the same values that will continue to shape the destinies of thousands of young ones.

School days at HFC

by Dilhani Corea Anthony - Daily News Wed Feb 27 2002

'We travelled to and from school in a Volkswagen driven by my mother who used to come well ahead of school times, park herself and wait patiently until school was over. Equally she made sure that we were always in time every morning. My mother and the Volkswagen were a familiar sight at HFC and my friends used to say that she and the car were a part of the HFC decor!'

As Holy Family Convent, Bambalapitiya reaches a milestone in its history and celebrates its centenary it is a proud moment for me to look back at the wonderful years I spent from nursery to A Levels spanning a period of 15 years.

When my parents, Sri Sangabo and Flor a Corea had to select which school my elder sister, Ramani had to go to, despite the opportunity they had of entering her to schools in Colombo Seven opted to send her to Holy Family Convent, Bambalapitiya for reasons best known to them. Later on I heard them say that they were keen on a convent education for their daughter and in the sixties HFC was right on top in discipline, studies and sports.

My sister's performance proved beyond all doubt that I and my younger sister would also attend the same school. HFC's Principal was then the incomparable and charismatic, Sister Charles later followed by the dynamic, Sister Josephine. Although all three of us were brought up at home learning what discipline was we found it easy and comfortable to conform to the HFC way of live as we were already moulded on those lines.

We travelled to and from school in a Volkswagen driven by my mother who used to come well ahead of school times, park herself and wait patiently until school was over.

Equally she made sure that we were always in time every morning. My mother and the Volkswagen were a familiar sight at HFC and my friends used to say that she and the car were a part of the HFC decor!

I used to hear my parents say that school days were the best years of any human being's life and accordingly I tried to make the best of my stay at HFC. I took to sports like a duck takes to water and I enjoyed my school days to the fullest, having a great time.

I found the answer why my parents were so particular on a convent education for us. The nuns were strict in enforcing discipline whilst at the same time being kind and understanding. There was never a doubt about their sincerity and their commitment to their vocation. It is a lesson in life how they managed to win the hearts of those who came to learn from them.

Such human kindness and understanding I have never known outside HFC and that undoubtedly contributed in no small way towards the phenomenal achievements of this great school of learning. The love, loyalty and pride that every Familian had for the school was incredible and what is amazing is that this feeling was displayed by every parent with unblemished sincerity.

I remember very vividly how my father, with all the work that he had gave his fullest support in organizing the Carnival to celebrate the school's 75th Anniversary. I joined the teaching staff of HFC and continued my association with the school for a short time, and it was an enjoyable experience for me to renew my ties with HFC and discover that most of my teachers were still on the staff, doing a fantastic job!

HFC occupied the box seat when it came to sports and athletics in particular. Miss Trixie Jayasuriya was an institution and on quite a few occasions, she has given me a shot on my arm for breaking my speed on the track. Sr. Cleophus, Sr. Cannice (the present principal), Sr. Josephine, Sr. Euphrasia, Sr. Noeline, Sr. Helen Marie, Sr. Imelda to name a few, were all nuns, one better than the other, who gave of their best to make HFC what it is today.

Their names are engraved in the record books of HFC and certainly in the hearts of all those who had the good fortune of learning under them. I was in the 84 batch and my click of friends, though mischievous, took part in sports and did well in our exams. We had prefects, Captains and even a head Girl in our click and today, everyone of us is doing well in life, putting into practice all the exemplary lessons that we learnt at HFC.

My two daughters, Shemara and Maneesha are second generation Familians, immensely proud of their school. My visit to HFC, now as a parent is all the more enjoyable since the children of my class mates are now in school and continuing the friendship that has come down from the parents.

Sometimes I wonder when we can ever finish paying our debt to the school that moulded our characters and implanted values such as honesty, integrity and efficiency in most of us. Whenever my parents, and my colleagues in office, including my boss say 'well done' to me for a task meticulously executed, I would silently say 'Three Cheers for HFC'.

Whilst my sisters Ramani and Sharmini join me in saluting the school we love so much, wish Sr. Cannice, the teachers and students of HFC God's blessings and nothing short of the best now and always. May they all, individually and collectively keep the HFC flag flying high!