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Visakha Vidyalaya commemorated Founder's Day recently

Today, "Educate the girl child" is a very popular slogan the world over.

It is important to educate the girl child, to ensure educating the generations to follow, thereby educating all nations and uplifting the whole world. Almost a hundred years ago, Mrs. Jeremias Dias, a lady from Panadura who had schooled only up to the fifth standard at a small Sinhala medium village school, but had inherited great wealth, realised the importance of educating girls. When one of her beloved sons died, she founded a school for girls, Visakha Vidyalaya, in memory of her son. This showed that Mrs. Jeremias Dias envisaged a world of educated women who would cease to be the second class citizens they had been for generations.

Mrs. Jeremias Dias founded the school on January 16 1917 and called it 'Buddhist Girls College'. It was located at a house called 'The Firs' at Turret Road, (today Dharmapala Mawatha) in Kollupitiya. The school's first Principal was Dr. B.T. Banning (M.A., PhD. Twenty girls were enrolled that first day. As the numbers increased, Mrs. Jeremias Dias decided to move the school to its present premises at Vajira Road, Bambalapitiya. She purchased three acres of land on which were erected the two original school buildings consisting of class rooms and a hostel. The school was renamed 'Visakha Vidyalaya' on the 21st November 1927 by Lady Stanley, the wife of the then Governor of Ceylon.

Mrs. Jeremias Dias was born on July 11, 1858 to the Rodrigo family of Panadura. The Rodrigo family had considerable social standing in Panadura due to their immense wealth accumulated through arrack trade. Her father was Pattinihennadige Warnadeepthia Kurukulasuriya Salaman Rodrigo and her mother was Mahawaduge Madalena Perera. She was the third in a family of seven girls and two boys and was given the name "Pattinihennadige Warnadeepthia Kurukulasuriya Selestina Rodrigo".

In 1873, at the age of fifteen, Selestina Rodrigo married Jeremias Dias the well known philanthropist of Panadura. Jeremias Dias, who was Selestina's first cousin, also came from a wealthy family involved in arrack trade. While in his teens he started many different businesses very successfully. Further, he was an ardent supporter of the Buddhist Revival, and was instrumental in organizing the world famous "Panadura Debate". He was a philanthropist who supported Buddhist causes throughout his life.

Selestina and Jeremias were blessed with eight children; Harry, Lilian, Arthur Vincent, Edmund Wilson, Adeline, Ellen, Rosalind and Charles. Some of these children were to become prominent figures in society. Selestina took good care of friends and relatives, visiting and helping scores of less fortunate kinsfolk and managing the magnificient family home "Edmund House" with an army of domestic staff.

Jeremias Dias died in 1902 leaving Selestina as the sole heir to his entire business empire. Being the ambitious businessman he was, Jeremias Dias had invested in the arrack trade, plantation agriculture, plumbago mining, urban property, etc. As a result, Selestina was left with colossal wealth and the Herculean task of managing his diversified business interests.

Selestina who had played a mere domestic role as mother and housewife as Mrs. Jeremias Dias was more than able to cope with the onerous task of managing the businesses with the help of her eldest son, Harry. When a crisis occurred in the business her third son (born in 1888) Edmund Wilson consented to assist her. Edmund Wilson worked untiringly without taking a break to put the things back in order within a short period of time.

Manel Tampoe in her book "The Story of Selestina Rodrigo" says as a gift to Edmund Wilson for his continuous effort Mrs. Jeremias Dias sent him to Bandarawela for a holiday and from the house he stayed in contacted tuberculosis. Sadly, Edmund Wilson died of tuberculosis in 1908 causing much grief to both his mother and sister Ellen who cared for him as a patient.

None of these family tragedies deterred Mrs. Jeremias Dias from building up her husband's business empire with the help of her second son Arthur Vincent. Mrs. Jeremias Dias's contribution to Buddhist education for girls, is thought to have been the greatest such individual contribution in Ceylon, in its day. Her contribution was recognized by the Government of the day. In 1929, she was honoured by the Order of Membership of the British Empire.

In an era when many did not think about girls' education, the vision of Mrs. Jeremias Dias was remarkable. While engaging in many social services to improve the lives of the less fortunate and to uplift Buddhism, she felt the need for a Buddhist girls' school, which gave Buddhist girls a modern English medium education and nurtured social accomplishments associated with elite status while still preserving their Sinhala Buddhist identity.

During this period the trend was to establish Buddhist boys' schools. Mrs. Jeremias Dias also wanted to start a school in memory of her beloved son, Edmund Wilson. Instead of founding a boys' school in memory of a much loved son, Mrs. Jeremias Dias the visionary, decided to start a girls' school. Furthermore, she did not start the school in her native town Panadura but instead in Colombo. A hostel was provided so that a Buddhist girl from any corner of the country could benefit from the school. Her vision was for the entire nation.

Mrs. Kumari Abeyagunawardene (nee Wickramasuriya) a great granddaughter of Mrs. Jeremias Dias whom the writer had the privilege of interviewing for this article said Mrs. Jeremias Dias's vision was extra ordinary. She not only founded the school but ensured it sustainability. She had the foresight to gift an estate 'Good Hope', the income from which was given towards the school's expenses.

From humble beginnings Visakha Vidyalaya has risen to be the premier Buddhist girls' school in the country. The academic excellence of the school has continued and unchallenged for the past several decades. Almost every year Visakha Vidyalaya produces students among the top ten in O/L and A/L results if not the first or the second. Even the success rate at examinations is amazing; more than 99% at O/L! What is most worth mentioning here, is that Visakhians produce academic excellence while engaging in sports and co curricular activities. The school has 24 sports and 26 clubs and societies. Many Visakhians represent national teams in netball, swimming, water polo, badminton, etc. Further, Visakhians engage in many activities like singing, dancing and drama and often lead the scene in those fields also.

This noble lady from Panadura who did a yeoman service to the nation by founding Visakha Vidyalaya in an era when Buddhist girls' education was not given priority breathed her last on the 26th of March 1933. During a function organized to unveil the photograph of Mrs. Jeremias Dias in 1933 Sir Graeme Tyrrell, the acting Governor of Ceylon, said the true memorial to Mrs. Jeremias Dias would be the work that Visakha Vidyalaya would perform during the present and succeeding generations. Without any doubt Visakha Vidyalaya is paying the best tribute to her founder, Mrs. Jeremias Dias, as Visakhians are found leading in each and every field while preserving their identity as Sinhala Buddhist women.

 

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