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It is 50 years ago that we experienced the sudden demise of this great Priest and Educationist who saw the light of this world 110 years ago at Wennappuwa. Very Rev. Fr. Peter A. Pillai was born on October 19, 1904 at Wennappuwa. His parents were Jacob and Anna Pillai from Kayts, Jaffna. Having had a career as a great educationist, a brilliant builder of Aquinas College and a social worker, he died on September 27, 1964.

The 50th death anniversary of Rev. Fr. Peter A. Pillai, the founder of Aquinas College, is a very special day in the annals of its calendar. The Rector, Vice Rectors, Registrars, lecturers, students and staff take this opportunity to pay special homage to our founder, with a Thanksgiving Mass.

Let us remind ourselves of some of the achievements of our founder. Fr. Peter’s academic achievements were those of a genius. His spectacular performance of obtaining eight distinctions at the Junior Cambridge Examination and eight distinctions at the Senior Cambridge Examination are well-known.

In both these examinations he achieved the distinction of being first in the world. He obtained his B.Sc. London at the age of 19 and had the distinction of a double first class in Mathematics. He obtained a M.Sc. from London University, a M.A. from Cambridge and Ph.D and D.D. degrees from Rome. Despite all these brilliant achievements, he was truly humble and always thought of his learning as modest in comparison with what was still there to learn.

His education was truly a global and an integral one that permeated many social and economic systems of his day. That led him to analyze critically the socio-political and educational policies of the day which he did with clarity and courage.

During the 28 years of his ministry from 1936-1964 the greater part of his attention was given to education. He was a teacher at St. Peter’s College from 1936-1940, Rector of St. Joseph’s College from 1940-1960, Warden of the University Catholic Hostel from 1937 or so till 1940 and Founder-Rector of Aquinas University College from 1954-1964. He held many important positions in the field of education and also a member of the University Senate.

He saw that many students who were capable of higher education could not enter the university owing to the limited number of students that the one University of Ceylon could accommodate. Further, he was for a plurality of seats of learning for fear that one ideology would prevail in a State-run university, especially in the Arts Faculty.

It is in response to this situation and his concern for the youth that he founded Aquinas University College in 1954 as a fulfillment of his long awaited dream with the blessings and approval of the then Archbishop the late Thomas Cardinal Cooray.

However, he implemented his plan not without opposition from many sides, both educational and religious. As he says “The inspiration was St. Thomas Aquinas”. On more than one occasion Fr. Peter emphasized this.

“The life and work of St. Thomas Aquinas have been and will ever remain for us the source of our inspiration and the guiding light of all our endeavours. We shall never falter in our determination to be faithful to his teaching, his spirit and his harmonious synthesis of truth and love”.

The inflow of hundreds of applications from the first year convinced him that Aquinas was serving a real need at the time by providing alternative facilities for higher education. As Aquinas conducted many of the degree courses in the afternoons and evenings or weekends employed persons could continue their studies without having to give up their jobs.

He also had a vision to establish a teaching hospital and he bought land at Wanathamulla with that in mind. Unfortunately his sudden demise brought an end to this development.

As mentioned in his report at the Convocation of Aquinas University College on 22nd August 1964, he was hopeful that Aquinas would be given university status as at that time the Universities Commission had made a favourable recommendation regarding Aquinas. Let me quote the relevant paragraph from their report.

“These institutions (like Aquinas) are serving a genuine need in the country and are the main centres of instruction for the large numbers who fail to obtain admission to our Universities or who hope to sit for the external examinations. We accordingly recommend that the Grants Commission should, after due investigation, consider recognition of these institutions and associate them in some acceptable manner with the Campus of the area”.

The late Fr. Peter A. Pillai had the vision to realize the need for the harnessing of the private sector for the development of education in our country.

Finally let me wish eternal rest to this great man and may he rest in peace.

Dilu Rodrigo
Hony. Secretary
AQUINAS ALUMNI ASSOCIATION

-Senal

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