Lanka's first Sinhala Catholic Bishop
The 15th death anniversary of Rt. Rev. Dr. Edmund Peiris OMI, the former Bishop of the Diocese of Chilaw fell on September 4th. He died on September 4th 1989. He was a linguist, international scholar, researcher, versatile writer, orator and an able administrator.
Born in Chilaw to a deeply religious Catholic family, his father Diogu Peiris and his mother Clara Peiris, moulded the young Edmund to a truly Christian way of life. His primary education was at St. Mary's English School at Chilaw, and moved over to St. Joseph's College, Colombo for his secondary education where he had a brilliant academic record.
Heeding the call of the God almighty he entered St. Bernard's Seminary to study for his priesthood. Here too he had a brilliant academic and theological record. He was ordained priest on February 25th 1924 by Rt. Rev. Dr. Anthony Coudert, the then Archbishop of Colombo. He thus became the first Catholic priest from Chilaw. He sang his first mass at his native home amid a very large gathering.
The Administrators of the Catholic Church in Sri Lanka soon recognised the talents of this young priest sent him to the United Kingdom for further studies and graduated in Oriental Studies at the University of London.
During his stay in London he did extensive research at the British Museum which housed historical data on former British colonies with special emphasis on the work of the Christian missionaries in Sri Lanka.
On his return, he joined Fr. Peter Pillai in the social service campaign of the Church. He served as the first editor of 'Samaga Samaya', acclaimed a masterpiece in the campaign for social justice. When the Chilaw Diocese was carved out of the large diocese of Jaffna, Bishop Peiris became the first Bishop of Chilaw.
He thus became the first Sinhalese Catholic Bishop in Sri Lanka and that too in his own native coastal town of Chilaw. The young Bishop had an uphill task in organising the new diocese which consisted of the whole Wayamba Province - Puttalam and kurunegala Districts.
The new Bishop set up his residence and administrative office at the portly majestic mansion of the late N. J. Martin, the eminent barrister who represented the Burgher community in the legislature, which was given over to the Church.
Bishop Peiris introduced indigenous Catholic rituals and Sinhala cultural characteristics into Christian worship. This resulted in various indigenous prayer books, hymnals, oriental art, decorations and designs taking their due place among the Catholic community. The Tantum Ego and the Regina Coeu sung in Latin were changed into a Sinhalese version by him.
'Santana Maniyane', the very popular prayer-song in honour of St. Anne was written by him. He was a pioneer in building new churches in remote rural areas, chapels, elders homes, hostels for youth, schools and seminaries.
St. joseph's Home for Elders at Lansigama, Marawila, St. Anne's Nursing Home and outdoor dispensary at Marawila, St. Pauls Seminary at Marawila, St. Peter's Industrial School at Chilaw, are fitting monuments to his credit. He was instrumental in modernising the sacred pilgrimage centre at St. Anne's Talawila.
His contributions to the State were varied. He served as a member of the Education Publications Board, the University Senate, the Sinhala Encyclopedia. Editorial Board and the Government Archives Committee. He was one time president of the prestigious Royal Asiatic Society.
The Chilaw Urban Council headed by its chairman Sweeny Perera paid the biggest tribute to a son of the town by erecting a life-size statue of him at the entrance to Bridge Street, which was named after him as "Radaguru Edmund Peiris Mawatha".
It stands magnificently facing the main Colombo-Puttalam Highway. The unprecedented crowds at Bishop Peiris's funeral at St. Mary's Cathedral, Chilaw, bore testimony to his popularity and the high esteem he was held in by the people of all denominations.
May his soul rest in peace.
- Nevis Fernando