Scholasticate Formation in Jaffna Province: A Bird’s Eye View – written by Rev. Fr. V.A.Jerome OMI

   Any study on the Oblate formation in Jaffna would be traced back to the beginning of the Oblate mission in Sri Lanka. It was on 28 November 1847 four Missionaries of the Oblates of Mary Immaculate (O M I) landed in Sri Lanka, then called Ceylon, under the leadership of Father Stephen Semeria OMI. They were stationed in the Apostolic Vicariate of Jaffna in February 1848.[1] Though Father Stephen Semeria OMI was interested in raising the indigenous clergy from the beginning, he was able to implement his plan only when he became the Vicar Apostolic of Jaffna on 17 August 1856. The Bishop’s House of Jaffna became the first Seminary, and there were few young men who were guided directly by Mgr. Stephen Semeria OMI;[2] Bro. Paul Stephen Poorey OMI became the first Lankan Oblate scholastic when he made his first Oblation on 12 November 1859.[3]


The ascent of Mgr. Christopher Bonjean OMI to the seat of Vicar Apostolic of the Apostolic Vicariate of Jaffna on 5 July 1868 marked a beginning of a new era in the history of formation of the local clergy in Sri Lanka. He, encouraged by the instructions sent by the Congregation of Propaganda Fide in 1869 to Vicars Apostolic, urging them to take steps to promote indigenous clergy, set up a full-fledged seminary in the same year.[4] Initially, both the students for Oblate and diocesan priesthood of various stages, and their formators were accommodated in a section of the Bishop’s House of Jaffna.


In 1874 the seminary was placed under the patronage of Saint Martin of Tours, and in 1878 a large piece of land was purchased in its vicinity and the seminary was shifted there. The first superior was Father Charles Louis Massiet OMI.[5] Thus, Saint Martin’s Seminary of Jaffna became the first Catholic Seminary in Sri Lanka. History records that Father Nicholas Saverimuthu Sandrasagara OMI, from Jaffna, born on 1 October 1842 and ordained on 29 December 1876, was the first Sri Lankan Oblate Priest and the first Sri Lankan student of the Seminary to be ordained Priest of God. He pursued all his priestly studies at Saint Martin’s Seminary, Jaffna, together with the other students, namely Bros. A. Louis Poologasingham, Martin Joseph, D. John Chrysostom and John Pahamunay who became the first batch of the Seminary.[6]

When Mgr. Christopher Bonjean OMI came on transfer from the Apostolic Vicariate of Jaffna to the Apostolic Vicariate of Colombo in 1883, and took charge of it on 28 August 1884, he established Saint Bernard’s Major Seminary in Colombo in the same year. Hence, all the Oblate endeavours in training of indigenous clergy came to be focused on Saint Bernard’s Major Seminary, Colombo. But Saint Martin Seminary, Jaffna, remained a minor seminary for the Tamil speaking Oblate juniors as well as diocesan candidates until 1955. Saint Joseph’s Juniorate at Nugegoda was started for the formation of the Oblate junior candidates of Tamils and Sinhalese in July 1950. Saint Bernard’s Major Seminary, Colombo continued to play a vital role in forming the diocesan and, for some time, the Oblate students for priesthood under the Oblate patronage until it was shifted to Kandy and amalgamated with the National Major Seminary at Ampitiya in 1955.[7]

In response to the emerging needs of the time and for the expansion of qualitative missionary efforts, the Provincial of the Oblate Province of Sri Lanka, with the consent of his extra ordinary council and with the approval of Father Superior General, appointed Father Zacharias Nicholas Croos OMI as the Vicar Provincial for Jaffna[8] in 28 June 1961.[9] This new leadership was free to function, taking new initiatives in the area of mission, within the Sri Lanka Province. In line with this spirit, in order to expand the formation ministry an Oblate Juniorate was established in January 1970 in the name of Saint Joseph’s O.M.I. Seminary at Colombuthurai, Jaffna, whose first rector was Father Adrian Joseph OMI.[10] This establishment was another milestone in the history of the formation of Oblate candidates in Jaffna.

In mid 1983 the Country experienced tragic communal disturbances. Island wide unrest caused the Northern Oblate Scholastics to return from the Oblate Scholasticate, Ampitiya to Jaffna along with the diocesan brothers from the National Seminary. The bishop of Jaffna, therefore, organized a seminary curriculum for all the students who returned. Plenary Session of the Oblate General Council, held in Rome in January 1984, advised on the request made by the Sri Lankan Provincial Administration to allow temporarily the Tamil Oblate Scholastics to study in Jaffna.[11] In the meantime there had already been discussions and consultations were going on to have a formation house for pre-novices of both Tamil and Sinhala Oblate candidates in Jaffna. The communal disturbances prevalent in 1983 contributed to the need to have a scholastic formation house in Jaffna; an old building within the premises of Amala Utpavam, was utilized for the purpose at that time. The four scholastic theologians in this small building were initially guided by the superior of Amala Utpavam, Father Adrian Joseph OMI.

The Provincial Congress of the Oblate Province of Sri Lanka held at the National Seminary, Ampitiya on 18-24 July 1982 proposed with majority votes to make the Jaffna Delegation a Vice-Province.[12] The Provincial Council in September unanimously accepted this proposal, and Fr. Provincial referred the matter to Fr. General for further advice regarding implementation.[13] Thus, it was in good spirit and in the wisdom and the experience of the Oblate General Administration under the guidance of then Superior General Very Rev. Fr. Fernand Jette OMI, after having had a written consultation in the entire province and a canonical visitation to Jaffna,[14] made the Provincial Delegation of Jaffna, in northern Sri Lanka, a General Delegation with effect on 8 December 1984 in the Plenary Session of the Oblate General Council, held in Rome in September – October of 1984 for the growth of the Congregation in Jaffna and for more local mission planning to respond to the needs of the church and the people there.[15] Father Louis Ponniah OMI was appointed the Superior of the General Delegation in the same Plenary Session.[16]

The New Delegation Administration due to the prevailing political realities of the time decided to go ahead with the earlier plan of opening a formation house, Pre-Novitiate. Thus the candidates promoted in 1985 from the Oblate Juniorate, Jaffna were temporally housed in a section of the building which the Scholastic Theologians had already occupied within the Amala Utpavam premises. Father Soosai Damian OMI was appointed as their first director. This effort facilitated the Delegation Administration to follow their candidates more closely during their early formation; and to give their candidates a contextual formation helping them to be close to the grassroots realities. The first group of pre-novices continued their philosophical studies at the Diocesan Major Seminary, Jaffna. The new building which was under construction for the preachers in the vicinity of Amala Utpavam premises was converted as the new Oblate Pre-Novitiate, named as ‘Vasanthaham’ and declared opened in 1985. This establishment became the other milestone in the history of formation of Oblate candidates in Jaffna.

The opening of the Oblate Pre-Novitiate, also known as Vasanthaham, iwhich later became Oblate Philosophate, in the Jaffna peninsula was in many ways beneficial for a contextual formation. Though they were physically separated from the Colombo Province for a short time, it was no hindrance to experience and share the Oblate fraternity as members of a Congregation that surpasses all manmade boundaries.

When Most Reverend Father Marcello Zago OMI, the Superior General, was on an official visit to Sri Lanka in 1989, he officially announced that the General Delegation of Jaffna was raised to the status of Vice-Province[17] on 23 August 1989.[18] Father Louis Ponniah OMI, the superior of the General Delegation, became the first Provincial. Father P.P. Philip Fernando OMI succeeded[19] him as Provincial and was installed on 19 June 1991. At this juncture the Oblate candidates of the Vice Province of Jaffna followed their Philosophy course at Saint Francis Xavier’s Major Seminary of the diocese of Jaffna, before their Novitiate at Bandarawella; after the Novitiate in Bandarawella the Jaffna scholastics were sent to the Oblate Scholasticate at Ampitiya to continue their formation and study of Theology at the National Seminary, Ampitiya. This provided the opportunities for the brothers to mingle with all the seminarians, Tamil and Sinhala, of both major seminaries in Sri Lanka.

Father P.P.Philip Fernando OMI in 1994 made a structural change in the formation program of the Province; accordingly the candidates from the Oblate Juniorate, Jaffna proceeded to have their common formation of Pre-Novitiate, Novitiate and Philosophy studies together with the brothers of Colombo Province and returned to Jaffna for Theology studies. Therefore, the last batch of philosophers at Vasanthaham with their director Father Francis Daniel OMI, appointed to this post in February 1991, shifted temporarily to Mathew’s Memorial Home of Amala Utpavam in September 1994; and Vasanthaham was made the house for preachers. Unfortunately the people of Valigamam region in Jaffna Peninsula were evacuated on mass displacement in October 1995 during a major military operation; consequently the community of Oblate Pre-Novitiate was also displaced and later settled down at Kilinochchi together with the Diocesan Major Seminarians. Thus, the Oblate Pre-Novitiate was shifted to Kilinochchi for the seminary academic year 1995-1996. In 1996 the philosophy candidates were sent to Ampitiya to continue their studies.

The mass exodus of the people of Valigamam region in Jaffna Peninsula made a big upheaval in the lives of the people; the same with the Oblate province. It was again only in 1998 during the time of the succeeding provincial, Father Philippiah Jesunesan OMI who took over[20] on 15 May 1997, another page on the history of Oblate formation was turned and it marked another milestone; namely the ‘Oblate Scholastic Theologate’ was established at the Mathew’s Memorial Home of Amala Utpavam, Colombuthurai, Jaffna and declared opened ceremonially in September 1997. Father Jeevendra Paul OMI was its first superior. Father Paul Nadchethiram OMI succeeded him when the latter was elected Provincial in January 1999.[21]

The first and the main concern of the new Provincial, Father Jeevendra Paul OMI, was the scholastic brothers. In order to give a better library, recreational and sports facilities to the scholastic brothers and thus to have a healthy and integral formation he laid the foundation stone for an adjoining building to the former Pre-Novitiate, Vasanthaham, on the day when Father Paul Nadchethiram OMI was installed as superior of the Oblate Scholastic Theologate, on 15 August 1999. By April 2000, the construction work of the building was completed and a day for the ceremonial opening was decided as 21 May, but the volatile political situation was not favourable to it. The scholastic community, together with the neighbouring people, moved from their house on displacement in April 2000. The community temporarily was sheltered at Sillalai, a village within Jaffna peninsula, until February 2001. When it was time in God’s Providence the New House was solemnly opened on 8 July 2001 by none other than the Superior General of Our Congregation, Most Reverend Father Wilhelm Steckling OMI. The house was named after the Founder: ‘The De Mazenod Scholasticate’, Jaffna. The Superior General, on this visit, proclaimed ceremonially that the vice-province of Jaffna had been made a Province[22] on 12 July 2001.[23]

When Father Paul Nadchethiram OMI completed his term as superior of De Mazenod Scholasticate, Jaffna, Father S. Mariathas Selvaratnam OMI who became Provincial on 20 June 2005, appointed Father Emmanuel Jesuthasan OMI for this post in 2004. It is remarkable at this juncture that some Sinhala speaking Oblate scholastics from the Oblate Scholasticate, Ampitiya were sent to have their formation at De Mazenod Scholasticate, Jaffna. There were two scholastics in each year in the first year theology for three academic years from September 2003; but the third batch of students had to leave for Kandy because of the outbreak of war in January 2006. At the end of the term of Father Emmanuel Jesuthasan OMI in 2008 Father Philippiah Jesunesan OMI was installed as the new Superior by Father Paul Nadchethiram OMI who became provincial in May 2008, his sudden demise in August 2009 created a vacuum; and now De Mazenod Scholasticate awaits a new leadership (when it was written).

In the meantime, when all means of transportation were made impossible to the Jaffna peninsula, a house for junior Oblate candidates was temporarily started with four candidates of the district of Mannar in Eugene Illam at Keeri, Mannar on 1 September 1997; Father Francis Loshington OMI became its director and Father Francis Kulas OMI its spiritual director. But it was closed down in August 1998 when the students were sent to Jaffna Juniorate by ship. In February 2003 a new house was built adjacent to Eugene Illam and named ‘Gnanothayam’, as an Oblate Centre for Religious Studies and an Oblate Pre-Novitiate. Father Emmanuel Jesuthasan OMI was its first director of the house and the Master of pre-novices. The first batch of twenty three pre-novices were from the Oblate Provinces of Jaffna and Colombo and from the Oblate Delegations of Pakistan and Bangladesh. Father Marius Fernando OMI of the Colombo Province was socius.

Now in the Oblate Province of Jaffna the candidates who are promoted from Saint Joseph’s O.M.I. Seminary at Colombuthurai, proceed to the Oblate Pre-Novitiate at ‘Gnanothayam’ Keeri, Mannar, then to the Sacred Heart Novitiate, Bandarawella; after their first profession they proceed to the Oblate Scholasticate, Ampitiya for Philosophy studies and then return to De Mazenod Scholasticate, Colombuthurai, Jaffna for their Theology studies and for their final years of their First Formation.

Such developments could be viewed as quite healthy and beneficial to the Province of Jaffna while maintaining a harmonious blend and unity with the Province of Colombo for a common formation.

The community of De Mazenod Scholasticate, Jaffna extends its prayerful felicitations to its counterpart at Ampitiya as it celebrates the Significant Era of its Golden Jubilee on 8 December 2009 with the coming of the Oblate Superior General Most Reverend Father Wilhelm Steckling OMI.

[1] Emmanuel L. Alles, Gleanings from the Oblate Mission Field in Ceylon, ed. Emmanuel Jesuthasan, (Mannar, Sri Lanka, Oblate Institute of Religious Studies, 2003), s.v. Article 3, 17.

[2] Blessed de Mazenod, Letters to Ceylon and Africa 1847-1860: Collection of Oblate Writings IV, (Rome, General Postulation OMI, 1980), s.v. 18 February 1860, 151.

[3] Emmanuel L. Alles, Op. cit., s.v. Articles 8-9, pp.39-48.

[4] Don Peter, Oblates Serve in Lanka, (Colombo, Sri Lanka, 2000), 15.

[5] Ibid, 16.

[6] Philips Jesuthasan, Our Tribute, Vol. II, Part I, (Ampitiya, Sri Lanka, The Oblate Study Club, 2001), 57-59.

[7] Don Peter, Op. cit., 31.

[8] The News Letter of the Sri Lanka Province, August 1961, No.25.

[9] The Official Catholic Directory of the CMRS, 2002, 17.

[10] Codex Historicus of the Juniorate.

[11] Communiqué (English), No. 35/84, January 1984, 2.

[12] OMI News Letter Sri Lanka, September 1982, Vol.6, No.4, 4.

[13] Ibid.

[14] Communiqué (English), No. 36/84, July 1984, 3.

[15] Communiqué (English), No. 37/84, November 1984, 3.

[16] Communiqué (English), No. 37/84, November 1984, 6.

[17] Communiqué (English), No. 51/89, October 1989, 5.

[18] The Official Catholic Directory of the CMRS, 2002, 17.

[19] Communiqué (English), No. 55, March 1991, 7.

[20] Communiqué (English), No. 71, February 1997, 10.

[21] Communiqué (English), No. 76, January 1999, 10.

[22] Communiqué (English), No. 83, April 30 – May 26 2001, 5.

[23] The Official Catholic Directory of the CMRS, 2002, 17.