Nicholas Francis Costa: Being one of the two teachers at Alagollawa RCS was a challenge | Sunday Observer

Nicholas Francis Costa: Being one of the two teachers at Alagollawa RCS was a challenge

“But the best is the Pera-hera, at midnight, under the tropical stars,

With a pale little wisp of a Prince of Wales, diffident, up in a small pagoda on the temple side...

...Pale, dispirited Prince, with his chin on his hands, his nerves

tired out,

Watching and hardly seeing the trunk-curl approach and

clumsy, knee-lifting salaam

Of the hugest, oldest of beasts in the night and the fire-flare”

was what D. H. Lawrence had to say, about the then Prince of Wales, in 1922, when he visited Sri Lanka as part of his tour of the British Empire. However, what the little boys and girls in Wewala Roman Catholic School (Wewala RCS) were taught at the time was quite the opposite.

Lankawata wedama kala Wales kumaru, Sanka kisiwak nathiwama lesata lahiru,Pinwath apa kumaru nisa banda keheli,Dan dan apa semata labe rasa kewili, (The Prince of Wales visiting Sri Lanka shines like the sun, without a care. We will celebrate because of our prince and we’ll all get sweets) sings Nicholas Francis Costa. He remembers the song as if he had learnt it just yesterday.

Nicholas Francis was a Grade 2 student at the school when he was taught this special song to be sung on the visit of the Prince of Wales. “I couldn’t go, so I couldn’t see the Prince. But, there was a huge ceremony at Weligampitiya, Ja-Ela, and we celebrated with sweets and so on,” he reminiscences. Born in 1913, Nicholas Francis celebrated the 104th milestone of his life a few months ago.

Volunteer teacher

Hale and hearty, keeping much to the same active life he had been leading a few years back, Nicholas Francis beams remembering his past. “It was Fr. Leo Fernando, who taught me the alphabet. He was also the parish priest at that time,” he says.

It was also the time that the Church at Wewala was being re-built. “I remember running on the foundation that was just laid and Fr. Leo was understanding enough not to reprimand me for my mischief but called me to him and made me sit on his chair,” an honour little Nicholas Francis cherished. During his early days, school education was not so widespread. The only schools available were managed by the church. His father, Dehiwelage Manuel Costa and mother Pavistina Rowell, devout Catholics from Wewala, who knew the value of education had enrolled him at the Wewala Roman Catholic School (Wewala RCS). “I was fortunate to have a good education right from the start. It was in the village school that I completed my school education.” He had passed the teacher training entrance examination there and had been a volunteer teacher at the same school.

As a young man, his life was full, says a satisfied Nicolas Francis. With his bunch of friends he travelled to many places. “Those days, almost all travelling was on foot. To attend mass at Thewatte (present Basilica) also we travelled on foot. In Kandana Welikurunduwatte the whole area was covered with cinnamon.

There were no boundaries. We could just walk from Kandana to Wewala. We used to pluck cashew and other fruits on the way. Once, when I was about 16 years old, we were yelled at by a watchman for plucking cashew. The land belonged to a person named E.W. Appuhamy, and it was a large estate. However, my friends and I were very upset about what happened. The next day, the same way we uprooted the whole tree and brought it back home with us,” he laughs.

A volunteer teacher, he was encouraged to sit the teacher training entrance exam. He had been the first from Wewala RCS to enter the Teacher Training College. He had entered St. Anthony’s Teacher Training College at Maggona, in 1935.

There were only 16 students in his batch at the Training College, smiles Nicholas Francis. “Sunil Shantha, (the singer and lyricist) was in the previous batch. Victor Cabral, M.D.B. Appuhamy, Reginald Fernando, Paul Fernando and Sirisinghe were a few of my friends.” After two years of training, his first appointment was to Kala-Eliya Roman Catholic School (Kala-Eliya RCS), Ja-Ela.

“My first salary was 42 rupees,” he announces proudly. But, was that enough to cover his expenses? “A gunny bagful of rice (about 100 kgs) was sold at Rs. 8, seven pounds of sugar was 63 cents and the train fare up and down to Colombo from Ja-Ela cost 16 cents,” explains Nicholas Francis.

At Kala-Eliya he taught from primary to senior classes. When the late Bishop of Kurunegala Rt. Rev. Raymond Peris was in Grade 4, Nicholas Francis was his teacher. “He was a very good and obedient student. I remember punishing the class once.

Students were asked to kneel at their places and lift up their hands for 3 minutes.

While many put their hands down within a minute, he was I think, the only one who had his hands up the whole 3 minutes. That day, I thought, he would become a prominent person some day,” he says. Nicholas Francis taught at the Kal-Eliya school from 1938 until he was transferred away from his home town Ja-Ela, in 1954.

Food shortage

It was during the time he was working as a teacher in Kal-Eliya, the World War II raged. “It was a rather busy time for all of us away from Colombo. Many from Colombo came there (Ja-Ela) in fear of the war. Some stayed with family and friends in the area. However, the numbers increased after the bombing. We had to house them in the church and school buildings.

There was a food shortage, and volunteers supported the Village Headman to distribute food rations sent by the government and to till the fallow land at the time and grow vegetables. I volunteered as well. After the war, some bought surrounding lands and settled here, others went back.”

In 1949, he wed his sweetheart Irene Fernando. They had 5 children, two boys and three girls – Kusum, Sarath, Chandra, Sunil and Sriyani. In 1954, when he was transferred to Alagollewa RCS in Kekirawa, Anuradhapura, it was a reluctant Nicholas Francis who accepted the appointment. “Those days, travelling was very difficult. Going to Kekirawa was like committing suicide.

Besides, I had had a strange dream a few days before that. In my dream someone wearing white told me to get ready to leave my bones in an unknown place in the dry zone, so I was very scared when I got the transfer.

But, the priest at the time convinced me to go there. He asked me to stay there for a short time, and gave me the option of coming back if I didn’t like it. So, I accepted my appointment.” Nevertheless, once he arrived in Alagollewa, he had fallen in love with the school.

Being one of the two teachers of a school with 24 children studying in Grades one to eight had been a challenge. He supported Rev. Fr. Reginald de Silva the founder of the school in its development.

Together, they secured the support of businessmen who owned transport companies. “David Mudalali agreed to provide transport within 2 miles of the school and in a few months the numbers increased to 97,” at which point they had to construct another building to house the students.

“The Bishop of Jaffna (at the time), Rt. Rev. Emelianus Pillai gave Rs. 6,000 and the villagers contributed with labour, and we put up the building quickly. It was kind of in the middle of nowhere, those days, surrounded by thick jungle where elephants and leopards roamed. However, now I’m happy the school had developed and has become a ‘Maha Vidyalaya.”

Though his tenure at Alagollewa was limited to about 2 years his bond with the people continued. As time permitted he had supported Rev. Fr. Reginald de Silva in carrying out the development efforts throughout the Anuradhapura district. The school had been so close to his heart, that he visited it just before his 100th birthday.

His teaching career included a spell at the Nayaka Kanda Roman Catholic School (1955 to 1965) and Maabola St. Mary’s College( 1965 to 1970). He was holding the position of Principal, drawing a salary of Rs. 258 at the time of retirement. “In my career of 42 years, I had taken less than 20 days of leave. I liked teaching, and got many certificates and awards for my contribution. During my time at the Kala-Eliya school I had taught over 700 children.”

His contribution in propagating education through the Anuradhapura district was recognized and rewarded by the Catholic Bishop of Anuradhapura, Rt. Rev. Norbert Andradi in 2005. Many a time his services had been appreciated by the schools where he had served. The villagers of Kala-Eliya, where he and many of his students reside had honoured him for his services as a teacher and a community leader, recently.

Retirement did not stop Nicolas Francis from serving the community. He lead a busy life organizing and mobilizing people, guiding them to help themselves. He served the local church and his parish as a leader for over 50 years.

He was instrumental in establishing the Ja-Ela Government Pensioners’ Association and registering it as a limited liability company and served as its Secretary for many years. He was elected Chairperson of the Gampaha District Pensioners’ Association and held the position for a few years. In the 1990s, his was a strong voice in amending the disparity of the amount of money received by pensioners. “We used to have discussions with the Minister. They had appointed some commissions to look into the issues of the pensioners. However, we didn’t get any solution. Once, the Minister of Public Administration was participating in a radio-show from Galle. I had a friend working at Radio Ceylon. I asked him whether he could give me a few minutes with the Minister. While the Minister was on air, I got the opportunity to present him with the questions, and it was broadcast island wide. Within two months, we got our answer. Over 50,000 pensioners benefitted from that.” At the same time, he was instrumental in securing zero interest loans up to Rs. 5,000 for pensioners of the People’s Bank. His contribution to uplift pensioners’ standard of living was recognized by the then Minister of Public Administration, and the All Ceylon Pensioners’ United Front, in 2005.

Now, at 104, he leads a quiet life. He and his wife celebrated their 71st wedding anniversary last year. They are surrounded by family - children, grandchildren and great grandchildren. Though his sight and hearing are not as good as it was, he still reads the newspapers and socializes with neighbours and relatives. A walking stick helps him move about by himself. Though his family is concerned he still leads more of an independent life.

We wish this strong hearted community leader many more years of satisfied life.