A BRIEF HISTORY OF THE NATIONAL SEMINARY AND THE RECTORS
1890: Kandy (Ampitiya) Chosen for Papal Seminary:
It was in 1890 that Pope Leo XIII entrusted to Monsignor Ladislaus Zaleski the task of exploring the possibility of a Papal Seminary for India, Burma and Ceylon. Subsequently, Mgr. Zaleski became Apostolic Delegate to the East Indies (India, Burma and Ceylon), took up residence in Kandy, chose, after much travelling about the hilly uplands at Kandy known as Ampitiya, at an elevation of 2000 feet, overlooking a panorama of extraordinary scenic beauty across the Dumbara Valley.
1893: Inauguration of the Papal Seminary:
The Papal Seminary was inaugurated in 1893 and entrusted to the Jesuits with
Fr. Sylvain Grosjean SJ as the first Rector. The main building was completed in 1899. Students selected from dioceses in India and Ceylon came here to be formed, ordained and to become the future leaders of the Church in their own countries. It is interesting to note that this was one of the first major seminaries to be supported by the Pontifical Society of St. Peter the Apostle, thanks to Mesdames Stephania and Jean Bigard of Caen, France.
1926: Faculty to confer Philosophy and Theology Degrees:
In this year the Kandy Papal Seminary was empowered by Rome to confer ecclesiastical degrees in Philosophy and Theology. In 1932 the first student to write for the Doctorate from the Papal Seminary, Ampitiya, was Ignatius Gracias of Bombay who later became the Cardinal of Bombay. From its inception in 1893 until its shift to Poona in 1955, seventy five priests and eighteen Lay Brothers served in as formators, and in maintenance and diverse other functions involved in the running of a Seminary. According to the records, 700 students were ordained to the priesthood of which 51 became Bishops and 3 Cardinals.
1954-1955: The Papal Seminary shifts to Poona:
Ampitiya becomes the National Seminary:
It was a stroke of fortune that the uniquely beautiful setting of the Papal Seminary at Ampitiya chosen so carefully for its realization became the home of the National Seminary of Our Lady of Lanka in 1955. It was furthermore providential that the departure of the Papal Seminary in 1955 coincided with the need to establish a National Seminary for the whole Island comprising all the dioceses of the now independent Ceylon.
The formation of the future priests of the new nation was entrusted to the Oblates of Mary Immaculate who were already forming priests at St. Bernard’s Seminary, Colombo.
The first academic year of the National Seminary of Our Lady of Lanka was inaugurated on 10th September 1955: undoubtedly a day of immense significance in the history of seminary formation and the Church in Sri Lanka. There were then 66 diocesan seminarians resident at the Seminary and 44 Oblates and Sylvestro-Benedictine attending classes from their religious houses.
1955-1964: The First Years of the National Seminary:
The first Rector of the National Seminary was Fr. Fredrick Sackett OMI, an American from Texas. He, it was who designed and firmly set on track the growth and progress of the new Seminary during its first nine years. It was a crucial period where the first Rector very meticulously set on course every aspect of seminary formation ensuring high standards. During his Rectorship, the new building was constructed with 80 rooms for students, the auditorium (later named after him) and the lecture halls.
1964-1972: Continuity and change:
In 1964, Fr. Dalston Forbes OMI (Vice-Rector in Fr. Sackett’s administration) became the second Rector and served for eight years. His Rectorship was marked by the changes and adjustments in Seminary Formation in general and in theological studies, following upon the decisions of the Second Vatican Council which ended in Rome in December 1965. Seminary professors were instrumental in helping seminarians and the Church in Sri Lanka to understand, adapt to and enter into the spirit of the reforms of the council for a more dynamic witness. Prominent among many changes were the liturgy in the vernaculars, more emphasis on cultural and ecumenical adaptation and simplifying the clerical garb of the seminarians.
In 1968, the Department of Theology was affiliated to the Pontifical Urban University in Rome and was granted the faculty to confer the Baccalaureate in Theology.
1972: Transference of Administration to the Catholic Bishops’ Conference:
With the transference of the administration of the National Seminary from the Oblates of Mary Immaculate to the Catholic Bishops’ Conference in Sri Lanka,
Fr. James Cooke OMI (Vice-Rector in the previous administration) was appointed the third Rector in October 1972, ensuring certain continuity in the midst of change. In 1974 Fr. Cooke became Provincial of the Oblates in Sri Lanka and in May of the same year, Fr. Harold Panditharatne (of the Archdiocese of Colombo) assumed duties as the first diocesan and fourth Rector of the National Seminary.
Fr. Panditharatne’s period in office is remembered for his determined efforts to find adequate staff from the diocesan clergy as well as for the Department of Philosophy being affiliated to the Pontifical Urban University in Rome, with empowerment to confer the degree of Baccalaureate in Philosophy. Fr. Harold was Rector of the Seminary for seven years.
In May 1981, Fr. Joe de Mel was appointed the fifth Rector. It was during his tenure that, in the midst of many areas of growth and development, academic innovations were made for non-Baccalaureate students to sit for the Diplomas in Theology and Philosophy, after completing four and two years of study respectively, in the relevant departments. Fr. Joe de Mel steered the destinies of the seminary for ten years.
Fr. Emmanuel Fernando was appointed the sixth Rector in May 1991. The continued efforts to streamline and update seminary education courses, the expansion of the library with added facilities and availability of new books, the introduction of the new pastoral and spiritual year (after the second year of Theology) and a full fourth year of Theology are some of the measures which came into effect during his seven year period as Rector of the Seminary.
Fr. Marius Peiris who had served the National Seminary from 1972 to 1989 was appointed the seventh Rectoron the 15th July, 1998. A paradigm shift in Priestly Formation was introduced mainly based on the Report of the Committee of Consultation, appointed by the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of Sri Lanka.
The New Philosophate was constructed and inaugurated during the Rectorship of
Fr. Marius Peiris. In the Academic field a specification of Cursus Academicus and Cursus Seminaristicus was introduced. The preliminary requirements to qualify for the Baccalaureate in Philosophy and Theology were revised. The National Seminary started publishing a bi-annual periodical called “Living Faith” for the Clergy and Religious of Sri Lanka. The old seminary chapel was renovated and a new altar was built. He was appointed the Auxiliary Bishop of Colombo and was ordained as Bishop on the 3rd February 2001.
On the 4th of February 2001, the Feast of Our Lady of Lanka Fr. Valence Mendis was installed as the eighth Rector of the National Seminary. He had served the National Seminary since 1989 in various capacities. He was the Director of the New Philosophate at the time of his appointment. Fr. Valence Mendis in his inaugural address stressed the importance of Spiritual Formation and Discipline which need to be the launching pad for all other aspects of priestly formation as we enter into the third millennium . A scheme called “Intellectual Shepherding” was introduced. Certain steps were taken to deepen the spiritual formation of the candidates. An Year of Discernment was introduced before the commencement of Theological studies. The purpose of this year is to help the candidates to understand and cherish their vocation more deeply which will enable them to respond more generously to God’s call. He was appointed the Co-adjutor Bishop of Chilaw and was ordained as Bishop on the 2nd April 2005.
Fr. Anthony Jayakody, who had served the National Seminary from 1993 to 1995 and from 1998 onwards in various capacities, was appointed the ninth Rector on the 18th March, 2005. He was the Director of the Philosophate at the time of his appointment. Fr. Anthony Jayakody in his inaugural speech stressed the importance of consolidating the formation programmes initiated by his predecessor while undertaking the importance of setting the direction of seminary formation in the context of Asia.
In September 2011, Fr. Elmo Dias was called in as the tenth Rector to lead the formation of future Priests. He presented the parable of the merchant who sold everything in order to buy the land with a precious pearl, as an ideal for the young men who wish to form themselves to the Priesthood of Christ. In 2013 the Department of Philosophy introduced a triennial course for the Baccalaureate in keeping with the guidelines of the Pontifical Urbaniana University, Rome. On the occasion of the 60th Anniversary of the National Seminary Community has become “a prayer power house” for the faithful in various Dioceses.
For the Diamond Jubilee Academic Year 2014 – 2015, there are 174 diocesan and 97 religious students on the academic roll. The majority of religious students are from the Oblate Scholasticate; the rest are from Monte Fano Benedictine Monastery, The Blessed Sacrament House, the Redemptorists, TOR Franciscans, Claretians, the Order of Friars Minor, the Institute of Voluntas Dei, Somascans, Dominicans, OFM Capuchins, Salvatorian Priests, The Rosarian Community and The Cistercian Fathers .
As Sri Lanka is going to be blessed with her first Saint, Joseph Vaz, during our Diamond Jubilee Year we present this “greatest Missionary of Asia” as a model for all those who pass through the portals of this Alma Mater. May the National Seminary march forward, under the care of the maternal hands of the Seminary’s patroness, Our Lady of Lanka, with complete faith and filial affection.