A Brief History of the late Rev. Fr. Peter Pillai and the founding of the PPSI

Published : 9:18 am  March 19, 2018 | No comments so far |  | 

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Peter Alcantara Pillai was born in Wennappuwa on 19th October 1904 to Jacob Pillai a schoolmaster, and Anna Pillai. They originally hailed from Kayts, an islet of the Jaffna peninsula.  Four sons of Jacob and Anna Pillai were ordained, priests. 

Their eldest son was Fr. Cajetan Pillai (OMI) who offered his services for ministering to the victims of the Colombo plague in the 1920s. Eventually, he succumbed to the plague himself. The next son, Rev. Br. Luke Pillai was director of St Benedict’s College. Another son, His Lordship Dr Emilianus Pillai was Bishop of Jaffna. The other son Mr J.L. Stanislaus was the only layman in the family and he worked as Acting Secretary 
to the Treasury.   
Rev. Fr. Peter Pillai was the youngest of the five sons of this devout Catholic family. As a young boy, he began schooling in the Tamil medium at the school in Wennapuwa where his father was teaching.   
From an early age, he was an exceptional student. At the age of nine, he started school at St Benedict’s College Colombo 13. In 1918 at the age of 14, he passed the Cambridge Junior with eight distinctions thereby ranking first in the island and in 1920 at the age of 16 he passed the Cambridge Senior with distinctions in all subjects.   
This was the highest number of distinctions obtained by any student in the British Empire. He proceeded to Ceylon University College and graduated with BSc First Class Honours. At the age of 20, he passed his B Sc Hon with a double 1st in Mathematics. In 1925 he gained admission to Fitzwilliam College, Cambridge where he graduated at the age of 23 in 1927 with a B.A. (Cantab) majoring in an MA and MSc.(London)from University College London.   
His decision to enter the priesthood surprised many, who believed that he could have held prestigious positions in the secular world with his brilliant academic achievements. He entered the Oblates of Mary immaculate order in Belgium at the age of 24 and then the Rome Dominican University where he obtained his PhD in Philosophy and Theology.   

 

"Some of the highlights of his campaign included the fair treatment of the working class, enforced payment of living wage, establishment of an eight hour working day, unemployment insurance, inauguration of an Employees Provident Fund, improvement of working conditions of offices and shops, alleviation of poverty in urban, rural, plantation and industrial sectors… "


Two years later at the age of 30, he was ordained to the priesthood in Rome and at the age of 32 he obtained his Doctorate in Divinity (Rome). After his sojourn in Rome, he decided to serve his country and therefore returned to Ceylon in 1936.   
His first job was as a member of staff at St. Peter’s College Bambalapitiya. He was appointed Warden of Aquinas Hall, the University Catholic Students Hostel. He founded the Catholic Social Guild in 1936 and early in the next year the Movement for the Restoration of Social Justice with the journals Social Justice review in English and Samaja Samaya review in Sinhala. Through his articles and discussions, he sought to achieve social justice.   
Some of the highlights of his campaign included the fair treatment of the working class, enforced payment of living wage, establishment of an eight hour working day, unemployment insurance, inauguration of an Employees Provident Fund, improvement of working conditions of offices and shops, alleviation of poverty in urban, rural, plantation and industrial sectors, promotion of religious and communal harmony, economic development geared towards an equitable distribution of resources, retirement benefits, adequate housing, agrarian reforms and a new land policy.   
 He also campaigned for industrialization including assistance for small industries, elimination of bribery and corruption in society and slum clearance.   
The local government appointed him to the Social Services Commission and the Divorce Commission while the Municipality appointed him to the Library Commission.   
In general Fr Peter Pillai’s policies led him to campaign for safeguarding freedom and human rights of all people. Many of the social benefits that we take for granted today are due to the pioneering efforts of one of the most brilliant minds of our country.   

 

"From an early age, he was an exceptional student. At the age of nine, he started school at St Benedict’s College Colombo 13. In 1918 at the age of 14, he passed the Cambridge Junior with eight distinctions thereby ranking first in the island and in 1920 at the age of 16 he passed the Cambridge Senior with distinctions in 
all subjects."


Fr Peter Pillai was appointed rector of St Joseph’s College, Maradana on 8th of December 1940, the first Ceylonese to hold this position, while succeeding another distinguished rector Fr. Maurice James LeGoc who hailed from France. As a longstanding Rector of the school, Fr Peter Pillai on occasion taught Mathematics while standing in for teachers who were absent. He also taught religion to pre University students in both Arts and Science streams.
 Being mentor to several young boys who walked through the portals of St Joseph’s College, he worked tirelessly to develop the school into one of the premier educational institutions in Sri Lanka.   
Aquinas College of Higher Studies was established by him in 1954 and he was its first Rector. The Aquinas College of Higher Studies was the first university in Sri Lanka to offer external degrees, thereby giving undergraduates the opportunity to pursue their higher studies while being employed. In addition to his other duties, he was appointed Vicar General. In 1961 he retired as Rector of St Joseph’s College. He had an illness toward the end his life. Even while he was ill he would hold discussions and courses to guide young priests, as they were one of his primary concerns.   
Rev Fr. Peter Pillai passed away at Aquinas College precincts at the age of sixty on 27th September 1964.   
Peter Pillai Social Institute: The Peter Pillai Social Institute (PPSI) was incorporated under the laws of Sri Lanka in 1979 in recognition of the contribution made by Very Revd. Fr. Peter Pillai to the cause of justice in Sri Lanka. The membership consists of priests and lay people. Annually scholarship awards are made to First and Second Year GCE Advanced Level students who meet the criteria of academic achievement and excellence.   

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