The 1976 Ramon Magsaysay Award for Public Service
BIOGRAPHY of Hermenegild Joseph Fernandez
JOSEPH began his education at Vendémian county elementary school. There his curiosity and imagination were set ablaze by M. Colar, an unforgettable teacher, who told the youngsters tales of battles, explorers, adventurers and the wonders of the world while teaching history and geography. Toward the end of his primary school days JOSEPH heard the dynamic speaker, Brother Joel of the La Salle Brothers, tell of the need for volunteers to go out into the world to help poor boys; young JOSEPH began to dream of joining the order. Founded by (Saint) John Baptiste de La Salle around 1680 in Rheims, France, as the Brothers of the Christian Schools, and known in some countries as the La Salle Brothers and in others as the Christian Brothers, this Catholic lay order is concerned primarily with the Christian education of poor and working class boys.
At the age of 16 he joined the Brothers and began his novitiate. He was enrolled in the University of Montpellier from 1930 to 1933 where he earned a Diploma in Education, Baccalaureate first part (Brevet D'Enseignement et Baccalaureat, Premiere Partie). During that time he also did a Diploma in Agriculture at the Ecole Superieure d'Agriculture of Montpellier. In 1933 he began teaching basic subjects to beginners at the Institution St. Joseph, a primary school in Lodève, France, remaining there until mid-1934 when he went to teach Spanish literature and history in Figueras, Spain.
Having completed his initial training in the brotherhood, Bro. HERMENEGILD was drafted into the French Foreign Legion in 1935. As a soldier he served in Syria and Lebanon and made fruitful use of his spare time. In 1935 he enrolled at the University of Paris as an external student to study for his Brevet Superieur (Baccalaureate second part) and Licentiat (equivalent to a Bachelor's Degree); in October 1936 he traveled from his post in Beirut to sit for the examination held in Alexandria, Egypt. He left the army in 1937 with the rank of captain. Remaining in the Near East, Bro. HERMENEGILD taught mathematics, science, geography, history and French at the Brothers' secondary school, La Salle, in Beirut for one year. Always concerned with youth, he organized activities, including Scouting, for underprivileged youngsters in the city. His continued participation with Scouts has earned him the rank of Scout-Master General.
Learning that the La Salle Brothers were planning to add China to their list of countries where their members were teaching, Bro. HERMENEGILD quickly volunteered to serve there and was selected as one of eight, all from different countries, for the new mission. But, with the Japanese invasion of China in 1937, plans for the mission were postponed and later abandoned. As an alternative he was asked to go to Sri Lanka (known as Ceylon until May 1972 when the country proclaimed itself a republic). Since he had recently read interesting materials on that country, he was pleased to accept. He went first to England to study English, the official language of Sri Lanka which was still a British colony. Arriving in Sri Lanka in 1939 he found that, contrary to his expectations of a short assignment, this was to become his long-term home.
In Ceylon he immediately determined to improve his English by studying for the London Matriculation (English and English Literature and Mathematics) at Ceylon University in the capital city of Colombo; he passed the examination within six months, in June 1939. He then prepared for the London University Intermediate as an external student and passed the examination conducted by Ceylon University on behalf of London University. Next he started on the Ceylon Teachers Examination Diploma which he completed and passed in 1940. In that year he became the senior teacher, boarding master and prefect of games at St. Mary's College (college in Sri Lanka, as in France, signifying school) in Chilaw, a small coastal fishing town not quite 50 miles away. Remaining at this post throughout World War II Bro. HERMENEGILD left in 1947 to study abroad. Once again he traveled to England where at London University from 1947 to 1950 he read and passed the Bachelor of Arts (Languages). He was made a Fellow of the Royal Society of Arts (Comparative Religions) and of the Institute of Linguistics (Latin, French, Spanish, Italian and English). While reading at the university he taught at St. Joseph's College, Beulah Hill, London. From there he went to Rome where at De Merode University College he studied Italian Literature with specialization on Dante Alighiere, and Religions. Meanwhile he taught Italian poetry and literature at San Guiseppe College. In 1950, upon returning to Sri Lanka, he took up the position of Director and Principal of St. Mary's in Chilaw.
Moving from Chilaw to Colombo in 1953 Bro. HERMENEGILD became the Director General of the Provincial House of the Brothers and the Director and Principal of the attached De La Salle College. In 1958, having finished his six years headmastership at the college, he was sent on a holiday and a year of further study in preparation for his branching out to non-formal education. In 1959 he returned to Sri Lanka as Director and Principal of De Mazenod College in Kandana, 12 miles outside Colombo.
While in charge of De Mazenod school Bro. HERMENEGILD "conceived, nurtured and developed the idea of a Training for Life and Employment for uncared-for Sri Lankan boys." A committee headed by the Ceylonese Archbishop of Colombo, Thomas Cooray, studied the possibility of organizing such a center which would provide training in technology, trades and agriculture. Bro. HERMENEGILD was given the task of formulating the program and plans which would include modern buildings, modern equipment and modern teaching methods.
During the initial stages, to get ideas on housing the boys, grouping them and making a home, Bro. HERMENEGILD studied various programs in other countries and in particular examined the well-known Boys' Town outside Omaha, Nebraska in the United States, which was founded by Father Edward Flanagan in the 1920s. Father Flanagan, who based this successful project for homeless boys on his philosophy that "there is no such thing as a bad boy," emphasized environment as the means for overcoming maladjustments suffered by the youngsters. The system of self government for those who lived at Boys' Town greatly impressed Bro. HERMENEGILD, who incorporated this idea in his own plan. Unemployment rates in Sri Lanka were high and almost 80 percent of the unemployed were under the age of 25. Bro. HERMENEGILD sought to demonstrate that boys, coming from poverty-stricken families, could be taught skills so that they would be able to find employment.
Between 1959 and 1962, under Headmaster Bro. HERMENEGILDs direction, a trial was made of developing a technical center and Boys' Town on the premises of De Mazenod College as an extension of the college. The original motto was "Learn by Doing." As word spread boys from the surrounding area joined and worked beside Bro. HERMENEGILD and a few other Brothers in clearing the initial seven acres and in building workshops.
Not long after these first steps were taken a period of turmoil in the country made the future of the project uncertain. Long standing distrust and resentment of the privileges afforded Christian schools and individuals educated there erupted into strong feelings of nationalism and a Buddhist revival. In 1961 the leftist government under Mrs. Sirimavo Bandaranaike nationalized almost all state-assisted denominational schools; religious workers in hospitals were required to leave their work, foreign missionaries were not allowed into the country, and those already there were required to renew residence permits annually.
In spite of the controversy and feelings of hostility toward Christian religious activities, which eventually subsided, Bro. HERMENEGILD pushed on with his dream. More land was acquired at Orange Hill some two miles from the school, which was cleared, leveled and planted; buildings were constructed. In 1962 Bro. HERMENEGILD went abroad to seek benefactors and donations. When he resumed it was decided that the new institution must be independent, "with more chance to cultivate initiative, involvement and dedication."
On April 30, 1963, after resigning from the Education Department, Bro. HERMENEGILD, a small group of colleagues and 25 poor boys from the area moved into residence at Diyagala, in the southern sector of Orange Hill. The Sri Lanka Technical Institute, "popularly called Diyagala Boys' Town for the name of the spot where it came to be," was officially underway with Bro. HERMENEGILD as its head and guiding force.
Orange Hill was a former rubber plantation of about 110 acres located within the town limits of Ragama, a small town on the railway line between Colombo and Kandy. One part of the hilly, rocky land is bounded by an ancient reservoir. Long abandoned, it was overgrown with shrubs and wild plants. Cobras and vipers infested the area. Much work had to be done to clear the land, but not a thing was wasted during those early days: rocks dynamited from the soil were crushed and used for building material. The Brothers started growing vegetablessuch as chilies and maniocand raising pigs and poultry. Originally a woman helped with the cooking but soon the boys took over that function along with all other duties.
Since the early days the place has been completely transformed. Trees planted then have grown 30 to 40 feet, vegetable and other planting areas are well organized and neat. There are playing fields, residence buildings, substantial structures to house the various animals being raised, a chapel and about 10 miles of graveled motorable roads. Over the years the residents have also built a well planned water system including tanks and irrigation canal; they raise all their own food, selling any surplus. There is a hospital and dispensary on the grounds as well as a laundry, barbershop and bakery.
Those who have visited Diyagala Boys' Town have come away with admiration for the work that is being done. Impressed with the smooth organization, visitors have also made favorable comments about the ways in which the boys are taught human dignity and the value of time and labor. Government officials praise the contribution which the project has made towards the important task of nation building.
There is seldom a quiet moment at Diyagala for the inhabitants have a rigorous schedule. They are guided by a new motto, adopted in 1965, "Deeds not Words." Residents rise early: 5:45 a.m. brings the rising bell, although those on bakery and kitchen duty have already been up since 4:30 a.m. At 6 a.m. everyone assembles for a brisk run around the playing field and a cup of tea in the dining room. Farm work is done until 8 a.m. when all assemble in the chapel for morning prayers. At 8:30 a.m. breakfast is served. Vocational instruction is given from 9 until 3:30, with a one hour break for lunch. Farm work, engaged in from 3:30 until 4:30, is followed by tea. From 5 to 6 p.m. the boys may participate in either games or music practice, after which they bathe and rest. Mass in the chapel is held at 6:30 and from 7 until 8 p.m. classes are held in Sinhala, English, mathematics and geometry. At 8:15 dinner is served. Litany is said in the chapel at 9, and the residents return to the dormitories for lights out at 9:15 p.m. Except for Wednesdays, weekends and certain holidays, when the schedule includes farm work but no vocational or academic instruction, this routine is always followed. On Saturdays the boys are given religious instruction. While there is no religious preference shown in admission to Boys' Town, about 80 percent of the boys are Roman Catholicthe country was a Portuguese colony for 150 years and many of the inhabitants were converted to Roman Catholicism at that time. The rest are mostly Buddhistthe largest religious group in Sri Lankawith a few Muslims.
Bro. HERMENEGILD insists that every boy practice his own religion. Catholics attend the chapel on the grounds, while the Buddhists visit a temple and the Muslims attend a mosque whenever possible. Youngsters are not required to perform jobs which would conflict with their religious beliefs: Muslims are not made to care for pigs or other "unclean" animals and Buddhists are not assigned jobs involving killing of animals or handling of meat.
Cultural and social activities are provided for the boys. Music and singing are popular and some of the residents have formed a band which gives frequent performancesoften at weddings of Boys' Town graduates. Films are shown, debates and lectures held and library books are available.
Admissions to Boys' Town are restricted to boys in the age group 16 to 20. No minimum educational qualifications are required. Bro. HERMENEGILD firmly believes that the training provided will give a boy, even with minimal educational background, the skills necessary to secure employment or earn a living. However, one of the objects of teaching academic subjects is to qualify the boys to take the national exams to obtain a high school diploma. "Generally in academic schools," Bro. HERMENEGILD finds, "the teaching is theoretical and not practical. At least for the majority of people who can only get jobs where they will use their hands, with brain guide of course, teaching must be all practical."
Some 960 boys, most taken by the authorities directly from the streets, have been admitted since the beginning. Almost all came originally from working class or peasant families. Quite a few were destitute orphans. The total enrollment in recent years amounts to between 200 and 300; each year about 60 to 70 new boys are admitted. Some of the boys are placed at Diyagala by the Department of Social Services which pays a monthly grant for their support. Others are referred and supported by the Department of Probation and Child Care Services. Their identity, as well as routine visits by probation officers, is kept secret.
Bro. HERMENEGILD is convinced that no boy is inherently a troublemaker. Gently guiding his colleagues to provide more work and more challenges for any boy seen as a problem, he is firm in his conviction that none ought to be sent away as too difficult to handle. If a youngster is really incapable of fitting in, he feels the boy will leave of his own accord. There has been a low rate of dropouts. Those who leave usually do so during the early months of their stay.
Certain procedures are followed for admission. There must be a sponsor such as a parent or person "in loco parentis"; introductions by members of the clergy, preferably of the same religion as the candidate, are also accepted. Physical requirements must be met because unless a boy is sufficiently well built and healthy he will not be able to undertake the strenuous activities.
Candidates for admission are given complete tours of the facilities and have the vigorous nature of life at Diyagala explained to them. If, after such an introduction, a boy continues to express an interest he is given a chance to spend seven to ten days at the school for a trial period. At the end of this time if he wants to remain, he must state so in writing, agreeing to follow all rules and to undertake the full course. Since the program is a four year one, candidates over 19 are not normally admitted.
Bro. HERMENEGILD is strongly committed to combining technical education with practical training. He has taken into account the primary sources of employment in setting up the various specialties taught. The curriculum covers three main areas: agriculture, technology and the trades. Agricultural training, which is the one most emphasized, covers general estate work including coconut, rubber and rice cultivation as well as animal husbandry. Machine shop work, welding, carpentry, electricity and plumbing are taught under the technology program. Trade courses include masonry, cooking, baking, tailoring and painting.
The first two years focus upon basic training in bench work and agriculture; on the successful completion of this stage a certificate is awarded. During the second two years the boys may specialize. Farm work, however, continues to be a requirement regardless of specialization. A final certificate is awarded at the end of four years and every year there have been boys who have received certificates in three or four branches of specialization.
There are no fees; the boys earn their own keep. All their work is translated into a point system with 50 points acquired per hour's work. At the end of each day the points are tallied. At the end of the month there is a final tally and the points are converted into rupees and cents (100 cents to a rupee) at the rate of one cent per point. The average amount earned each month is about 80 rupees (US$13.33; in 1976 Rs.6 equalled US$1) of which 40 to 50 rupees is set aside to pay for room and board. Advances drawn by a boy during the monthfor travel or medicine, for exampleare deducted. The remaining portion is put aside as savings and, except for the right to spend a small amount for personal needs once every two months, the savings cannot be touched until the four year period is up. By this time a boy should have accumulated from 400 to 1,500 rupees, depending upon the amount of work he has undertaken. He is not entitled to any of his savings if he leaves before completing his four years. This system is intended to teach the value of saving and to provide each boy with a small amount of capital with which to start a new life. Bro. HERMENEGILD has consistently stressed that he wants the boys to leave with a feeling of independence as well as competency in a work skill.
Self-government characterizes the organization at Diyagala. The boys are divided into two residence houses named after two ancient kings of Sri Lanka: Tissafamed as the first Buddhist king and for his successful system of reservoirsand Duttugemunuremembered for unifying the country. Both dormitories have their own elected leaders: a house master (usually a young staff member), a house captain (usually one of the senior boys) and a house secretary. All the residents of a house meet on Saturdays to discuss their work and other important matters; the leaders meet on Sundays. Each house has its own flag which flies when that house has the responsibility of running Boys' Town; they alternate every other week. When its turn comes the house decides which boys will assume such responsibilities as officer in charge, duty officers, safety officers and night supervisor.
The boys are also divided into corporations which oversee every sphere of activity at Diyagala: technology, agriculture, roads, lights, water, food and farming to name a few. Each of the 30 corporations is made up of five boys and each boy has a specific function. For example, on the food corporation one boy would be in charge of overall operations, one in charge of obtaining food, one for storing it, one for preparing it and one for distributing it.
Bro. HERMENEGILD has set up a system in which there are many positions of responsibility available to the boys, many of whom in the past were responsible only to themselves. Their positions offer challenges and opportunities for them to gain leadership and cooperative experience.
The highest level at which the boys participate in the running of Boys' Town is the Administrative Body; at the top of the organization is the Higher Council which is made up of the director and the staff. The Administrative Body is concerned with the smooth functioning of the corporations and the efficient use of all facilities. It consists of the director, one member of the religious staff, one member of the lay staff, the two house masters, the two house captains, the captains of the corporations and some other boys. This group of about 40 meets at least once a month. Frank discussion about rules, possible changes in routine and matters of current concern typify the meetings. Although as director Bro. HERMENEGILD presides, he assumes a role of counselor in this committee.
A violation of rules is taken care of by the Tribunal, made up of a chief justice (a young teacher) and a jury of five (a staff member and two boys elected from each house). There is also a defense lawyer who comes from the house of the offender and a prosecutor who comes from the other house. Depending upon the nature of the violation the Tribunal hears cases in public or behind closed doors. Offenses include tardiness, quarrels and negligence or carelessness resulting in loss or damage. More serious offenses include leaving the grounds without permission and dishonesty. The Tribunal determines the guilt or innocence of the accused and suggests a punishment. This recommendation is passed on to the director for his approval or modification. During the early years corporal punishment was freely resorted to, with the number of strokes matching the gravity of the offense. This type of punishment however has been abolished in favor of such punishments as reduction of vacation days or game time or requiring the performance of additional work.
One case settled by the Tribunal brought praises from a former Chief Justice of Sri Lanka. An argument between two boys in the piggery resulted in one hitting the other with a piglet which subsequently died. In handing down its sentence the Tribunal calculated the worth of the pig had it grown to full size and the loss of revenue because of its death. The offending youth was sentenced to feed the remaining piglets extra food so that their weight increase would offset the loss. The sentence was later reduced by Bro. HERMENEGILD.
The Tribunal has had a tendency to hand down rather severe sentences, especially in cases of dishonesty and disloyalty. In addition, there is a strong sense of peer pressure which encourages discipline and responsibility. These factors, plus a high degree of camaraderie among the students and staff, discourage rule infractions. Bro. HERMENEGILD also encourages rewards for acts of honesty, loyalty and good work; such behavior can bring extra points as well as extra holidays, outings or clothing.
The staff at Diyagala is made up of 10 religious Brothers, who receive no pay, and 16 laymen. The latter, who receive a nominal salary as well as free room and board, are usually Boys' Town graduates or retired persons. There are "Foreign Expert Volunteers" sponsored by Civil Service International, Voluntary Service Organization and others. They complete the requirements of specialized service men workshop, electricity, agriculture and carpentry. All the staff reside on the premises, with some living in the dormitories with the boys. Life for the staff is extremely busy. They teach as well as play an active role in all other work. One of their most important functions is that of helping graduates obtain jobs, for none can leave until employment is found for them. This is done by maintaining contacts with alumni and businesses. By now the training and the boys themselves have gained a high reputation and businesses often initiate requests for graduates. The staff also helps arrange interest-free loans for those who want to start their own businesses. The savings of the trainees are banked. There is also a Self-Employment Project, allowing for financial aid to train graduates of Diyagala who wish to start life on their own as agriculturists, carpenters, welders, etc. They get land and financial help. At the end of the third year of their settling in life they are required to refund their loan at a very low rate of two percent interest per annum.
Those who have passed out of Diyagala are all gainfully employed as, for example, mechanics, drivers, electricians and farmers. About 100 are self-employed, running their own garages, workshops or farms. Some have joined together in such cooperative ventures as buying a tractor which is rented out to farmers.
Since the early 1970s farm work and training has expanded beyond Diyagala. Twenty boys work on mixed farming at the 9-acre Highland Project at Hawa Eliya At the 14-acre Lowland Project at Ekalaeight miles from Boys' Townthe main work is rice cultivation. Sixty-two acres of land at Madampella, near Katana, about 30 miles from Boys' Town, have been planted with coconut. There four boys live and work; they are assisted by groups of boys from Diyagala who visit them for short periods of field work regularly. The latest extension project is near Chilaw where 150 acres are being cultivated for rice production; 12 boys live at that site.
The residents of Diyagala, as well as those living at the extension projects, frequently advise and give short-term training sessions to village youths and young farmers of the surrounding areas. Seminars are given throughout the country on agricultural techniques.
Inspired by the project for boys, two nuns from the Good Shepherd convent at Hendela, about eight miles from Boys' Town and four miles from Colombo, came to Diyagala in 1965 to learn about the program. For two years they worked beside the residents, returning each night to the convent. Since then the nuns have established a model farm for poor girls at Hanwella, 50 miles from Boys' Town, and several other centers for girls, including a farm school, a silk farm, and centers for weaving and toymaking. There is regular contact between these programs and Diyagala: boys are sometimes sent to help with heavy chores, and joint parties are held.
Diyagala has enjoyed financial support from a wide variety of sources. Among international agencies which have donated funds and equipment have been MISEREOR (German Bishops Fund) of West Germany, the Newfoundland Foundation of the United States, the Australian Catholic Relief Agency, the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization and AMATSAthe Amis du Development Technique du Sud-Est Asiatique (Paris) founded by Bro. HERMENEGILD in 1966. OXFAM, U.K. gave aid which was used for the dairy building, the milk chilling unit and part of the poultry project. Donations from Canada, Germany, Holland and France are used to sponsor a number of boys. Individuals have also been important benefactorsArchbishop, now Cardinal, Cooray donated 20 acres of land and Msgr. James Knox, from Ireland, who is Apostolic Nuncio for India, Pakistan and Ceylon, helped in getting donations and "keeping Boys' Town in the good books of Propaganda Fide (an organization in Vatican City which gives aid to social welfare efforts around the world)."
There is, however, a constant search by Bro. HERMENEGILD for new sources of income. His fervent desire is that the project can be expanded to include a larger number of boys. In pursuit of such sources he travels abroad and maintains numerous foreign contacts. He often spends time with visitors and official representatives of various countries and international organizations who come to visit Diyagala. Frequently called upon to speak, he has appeared before such groups as the Rotary Club, the Lion's Club and religious organizationsboth Buddhist and Christian. He began negotiations and work toward setting up a Boys' TownPius Xin Nagamalai (Madurai), India in 1962, and in 1959, in cooperation with two Ceylonese engineers, founded the Association of French-Ceylonese Technologists based in Colombo. He was treasurer of the Association for 17 years and is now a life member. Under his guidance a printing school for underprivileged and handicapped boys was set up in 1975 at Kotahena, Colombo. When the government of Sri Lanka appointed a body to study educational reforms Bro. HERMENEGILD was one of 20 selected to serve on it. In 1967 the French government bestowed upon him the Chevalier de l'Ordre des Palmes Academique for services rendered in education.
Also ever searching for knowledge relevant to his work Bro. HERMENEGILD in 1976 went to the State Agricultural University in Wageningen, Holland. At this university, which is well-known for its agricultural curriculum, he completed the course in Rural Development.
A highly talented administrator and organizer, Bro. HERMENEGILD has been likened to a Renaissance man for his breadth of learningfrom agriculture to architecture, his wide range of interests from comparative religion to rugby, and his mastery of languagesfrom English to Sinhalese. His all encompassing love and concern for the welfare of the young and the poor mark him as a true Christian and a man of the Church.
Ceylon Observer. May 29,1973.
Corea, G. "Opportunities for Youth on Land,"Lectures on Opportunities for Youth on Land. Colombo: Marga Institute. November 1972. 4 p. (Mimeographed.)
Joseph, H. Diyagala Boys' Town. Ibid.______. Presentation made to Group Discussion. Transcript. Ramon Magsaysay Award Foundation, Manila. September 1975. (Mimeographed.)
Non-Formal Education in Sri Lanka. Chap. IX "The Diyagala Boys' Town." Colombo: Marga Institute. 1974.
Ong, Jaime. Bro. Hermenegild Joseph: The Art of Survival. No publisher and date. 6 p. (Typewritten.)
Scholarship Program for Diyagala Boys' Town. No publisher and date. 7 p. (Typewritten.)
Senanayake, C. U. "The Sarvodaya Experience," Seminar on Case Studies in Youth Enterprises. Colombo: Marga Institute. August 1973.12 p. (Mimeographed.)
The Sri Lanka Technical Institute and Diyagala Boys' Town Come to Maturity as a Working City Turning Out Responsible Skilled Workmen. No publisher and date. 4 p. Leaflet.
Welikala, C. H. F. The Diyagala Boys' Town Project. Colombo: Marga Institute. 1972. 9 p. (Typewritten.)
Letters from and discussions with those knowledgeable about the work of Bro. Hermenegild Joseph and Diyagala Boys' Town and visits to Diyagala Boys' Town.
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