Fr. W. L. A. Don Peter — the great Catholic scholar

By W. T. A. Leslie Fernando
On September 25, 2002 Rt. Rev. Dr. W. L. A. Don Peter, the well known Catholic priest, educationist, writer author, journalist and patriot completes 86 years in the journey of life. He is the foremost Catholic scholar and historian living in Sri Lanka today.

Fr. Welgama Lekam Appuhamilage Don Peter was born on September 25, 1916 in Kondegammulla a hamlet five miles inland from Negombo. After his elementary education at the village school, he had his secondary education at Maris Stella College, Negombo, the cradle of many a Catholic priest. In 1935 Fr. Don Peter entered St. Aloysius Seminary and attended St. Joseph’s College, Colombo.

Fr. W. L. A. Don Peter had his priestly formation at St. Bernard’s Seminary and was ordained a priest on March 25, 1941 by Dr. J. M. Massorn, the then Archbishop of Colombo.

From 1941 to 1946 he served as an assistant parish priest at St. Mary’s Church, Grand Street, Negombo and then at St. Thomas Church, Kotte. In 1946, he was appointed to the staff of St. Joseph’s College Colombo and also served as the prefect of boarders, prefect of discipline and prefect of studies.

In 1940’s around independence there was national awakening in Sri Lanka. This national consciousness had its effect on the Catholic Church as well. Bishop Edmund Pieris and priests like Fr. Marcelline Jayakody, Fr. D. J. Anthony and Fr. Moses Perera made an effort to give a national outlook to the Church. Fr. Don Peter who studied Pali on his own at the Seminary itself and began to lean towards oriental studies evinced and interest in this field. While leading a busy life at St. Joseph’s he spent his leisure hours in studying oriental languages, history and culture.

In 1947, Dr. Thomas Benjamin Cooray became the Archbishop of Colombo. He had been the teacher of Fr. Don Peter both at St. Joseph’s and St. Bernard’s Seminary and knew the talents of Fr. Don Peter. In 1950 Archbishop Thomas Cooray sent him abroad for further studies. Fr. Don Peter studied missiology for one year at the Urbanian University taking up his residence at the College of St. Peter the Apostle in Rome. From there he proceeded to England and joined the School of Oriental and African Studies in the University of London.

The Vatican Council II (1962-65) revolutionised the attitide of the Catholic Church towards other religions. It directed that the Catholics should acknowledge, preserve and promote the spiritual and moral good found in other religions and values in their society and culture. In 1950’s long before the Vatican Council II, Fr. Don Peter made a parallel study of Buddhism and Christianity in Sri Lanka and appreciated their impact on the spiritual, moral and social life in the country.

For his PhD at the University of London, Fr. W. L. A. Don Peter presented the thesis "A Comparative Study of the influence of Buddhism and Christianity in Ceylon Education". Fr. Don Peter in his books like "Buddhist and Benedictine Monastic Education" and research papers like "St. Francis and the Buddha", "Religious Life, Buddhist and Christian" he brings forth the spirituality in the two religions, the austere discipline of some Catholic orders and their similarity to the Vinaya rules of the Buddhist Sangha.

It is as an educationist that Fr. W. L. A. Don Peter shined most. In 1961 he was appointed the Rector of St. Joseph’s College, Colombo — the leading Catholic school in Sri Lanka. He was the first old Josephian, the first Sinhalese and the first Diocesan priest to hold the post.

It was soon after the Schools take over and Fr. Don Peter had to face hard times. However Fr. Don Peter steered St. Joseph’s as non-fee levying private school without resorting to fat donations for admissions. He also gave oriental studies a special place at St. Joseph’s and brought it to the mainstream of national life.

Fr. W. L. A. Don Peter functioned as the Rector of Aquinas College of Higher Studies from 1971 to 1976 and then from 1979 to 1989. When he assumed duties at Aquinas, the discipline there was at such a low ebb once the boys boycotted lectures demanding to share the common room with girls! In 1972 Fr. Don Peter closed down the entire science faculty for the sake of order and discipline. He also expanded the curriculum of Aquinas and erected new buildings.

Fr. Don Peter almost succeeded in raising Aquinas to degree awarding university level. Later awarding university status to Aquinas had to be dropped as a matter of policy. In 1986, the Church authorities in appreciation of his services to Aquinas named its auditorium as "Don Peter Auditorium".

Most of the research work of Fr. Don Peter is on Christian education in Sri Lanka, the major work being "Education in Sri Lanka under the Portuguese". In 1967 Fr. W. L. A. Don Peter was appointed the domestic prelate to the Papal Throne by Pope Paul VI with the title Rt. Rev. Monsignor in recognition of his services to Catholic education.

Fr. W. L. A. Don Peter has made deep insights to the Church history in Sri Lanka. In 1963, he presented the work "Studies in Ceylon Church History" embodying his historical research. Fr. Don Peter was elected a Fellow of the Royal Historical Society of Great Britain in 1965. Both Prof. George D. Winius of Holland and Prof. C. R. de Silva renowned historians have expressed the view that Fr. Don Peter is the worthy successor to Fr. S. G. Perera the great historian in Sri Lanka.

Fr. W. L. A. Don Peter has rendered his services both to the Church and the State in other spheres as well. He has served as the Vicar General of the Archdiocese of Colombo and a member of Archdiocese Episcopal Council. He has served as a member of the Government Educational Publication Board and President of the Headmasters Conference. He had the honour of serving in the national committee of the Sri Lankan section of the sources for the UNESCO History of Nations.

Fr. W. L. A. Don Peter is well known for his zest for research and zealous application to work with a great capacity to maximise the use of time. He had presented over two scores of books and written more than 400 learned articles both in Sinhala and in English for journals here and abroad. Fr. Don Peter is a respected author whose lucid style of writing provides fascinating reading.

Fr. W. L. A. Don Peter has also written a series of novels for children and some of them have been re-printed several times. His novel "Vana Gatho Lamo" a story of jungle adventure has gone through six editions. His recent novel for children "Tekkawatte Kathawa" won the Presidential Award for the best children’s novel in 1998.

Fr. W. L. A. Don Peter was the Director of Daham Sarana Institute from 1990 to 1995 which he set up produce religious literature for the average. This was a move proposed by Fr. Don Peter as far back as 1978. He managed to get foreign funds for the project and the books released by this institution — most of them written by Fr. Don Peter himself was made available at a nominal price.

The Daham Sarana Institute released about 35 booklets dealing with the Christian doctrine, Catholic discipline, lives of Saints and the Church History in Sri Lanka. Some of them repel the arguments of fundamentalists and some priests who cause confusion within the Church. It is a pity that this project had to be discontinued due to lack of interest on the part of Church authorities.

Fr. Don Peter as a journalist has been a fearless defender of the Catholic doctrine. The renowned writer and author Martin Wickremasinghe had been close friend of Fr. Don Peter because of their common interest on indigenous culture. In a series of articles in "Dinamina" Fr. Don Peter crossed swords with him on the Catholic Church and democracy. Likewise Fr. Don Peter has entered into controversies with many on the role of the Catholic Church.

Fr. W. L. A. Don Peter with his research on Church history is frank to admit that the missionaries made use of political power of the Portuguese to spread the Catholic religion in Sri Lanka. But he refutes the charge that there were conversions by force. He vividly described how the Catholic faith strengthened and deepened down its roots in the country during the Dutch persecution. In his writings Fr. Don Peter shows the impact of Catholic institutions on education, culture and morals of the people. In his comparative studies on Buddhism and Christianity Fr. Don Peter always emphasises the spiritual aspects of religions, their religious orders and monastic life.

The Church in Sri Lanka has survived many trials and tribulations because of its spiritual fervour and disciplined and exemplary lives of the clergy. Fr. W. L. A. Don Peter believes that there is no better way to propagate faith than holy life, exemplary behavior and personal example.

We have had a lively Catholic community in our country devoted to religion in contrast to nominal Christians in many countries in the West. Since of late there are erosions on spirituality, santity and holiness in the Church by over emphasising secular, political and material aspects. There are some clergy who relegates spiritual values, get foreign funds, wear lay clothes and attract scandal by their worldly behavior.

Fr. W. L. A. Don Peter as a man of God always projects a spiritual outlook in religion. His every endeavour as an scholar, educationist, administrator and social reformer is in harmony with his priesthood. He never transgresses on things where angels fear to tread. He practices what he preach and leads a simple, disciplined and exemplary life in accordance with Gospel values.

Fr. W. L. A. Don Peter is a true representative of Christ and a good shepherd who could guide and lead the laity. We need priests like Fr. Don Peter if the Church in Sri Lanka were to maintain its spiritual vigour in the modern world.
Ad Multos Annos.
(The writer is a former High Court Judge)