The Group of the First Missionaries in Jaffna

On the 8th of June 1861, Bishop Semeria received the joyful news that the Sisters belonging to the congregation of the Holy Family of Bordeaux, have been named for the mission in Ceylon. The six missionaries were selected: Three French Sisters: Marie Xavier Marchand, Marie Liguri Rojer, Marie Joseph Maroille,, two Irish:  Marie Stanislaus Quinn, Marie Helen Winter, and one Dutch – Marie Therese Van Meur. These generous and valiant women surrendered themselves totally to God and their superiors.



Arrival of the First Missionary

In August 1862, they set sail from the shores of Marseille in France , the party consisting of the six sisters accompanied by the Bishop and Priests. They arrived in Jaffna on Nov, 2nd 1862-the very first nuns to set foot on this island. They had come to Jaffna in response to the invitation of Mgr.J.S.Semeria O.M.I. Apostolic Vicar of Jaffna, with the aim of fostering the Christian formation of young girls, caring for the orphans and providing education to the youth.

Though they were welcomed with music and garlands their work was by no means easy. During their missionary endeavours these sisters had to encounter many deprivations, difficulties and opposition. In spite of adverse climatic conditions, poor facilities, language difficulties and cultural barriers they carried on with immense courage – all for the Glory of God.

They had one advantage, however as there was already in existence a seminary for girls, founded by Mgr. Bettacchini and managed by an Irish lady named Mrs. Anne O’FIannagan. The nuns took over the responsibility of running this seminary, which was located in a house near the rest house in Main Street. But as the establishment expanded and the nuns began to take in orphans, larger and more spacious premises were needed. So the foundation for the new convent was laid by Bishop Semeria in the present location. It appears that the famous Tamarind Tree’ of the convent was even then in existence, and the land was known as Puliyadi Valavu. ‘

Famous Convent Pillars (built in Dutch style with massive round pillars)

The New Convent was completed in I869, It was an imposing structure built in Dutch style with massive round pillars and thick walls. It housed the nuns and the other inmates. By 1871 the classrooms, bordering on Main Street had been completed. When the nuns took over the seminary, there had been about 100 Jaffna girls, from upper class families and 8 European girls, The school now took boarders and adopted a British system of education. Boys were also admitted as day scholars up to ten years of age. Mother Marie Helen Winter was first principal (1862-1891) She was followed by Mother Du Carmel Flanagan (1891-1916). A Tamil section for underprhileged girls and orphans was maintained in the building bordering on Vembadi Road.

In 1916 the principalship passed on to Mother Sebastian who remained in office till 1926. The number on roll was 300 and classes extended from Kindergarten to London Matriculation. In 1922 the two students from the convent were the only ones who passed the Matriculation in the North. In addition to academic studies, home science, physical education and needlework were also taught, as well as aestheics like art, music, singing and dancing.

First two storey building classrooms and stage room built in 1932

As the classrooms were insufficient to accommodate the increasing number, Mother Sebastian O’Brien who was the then Superior, realised the need for a new building. Though funds were lacking, she boldly ventured out on this project in the early 30’s. In two years, a big two – storey block with 12 spacious classrooms and a stage became a reality. The school moved into the new premises. Students were sent up for Junior and Senior Cambridge Examinations and the results were excellent.

Mother Loyola O’ Donoghue retired in 1937 and was replaced by mother Evangelist Mc. Evoy,  a marvellous teacher and strict disciplinarian. During the 15 years of her principalship, the school progressed by leaps and bounds. She introduced Latin as a subject and her students quickly reached London Inter Art Decree standard. Though her prime concern was academic, athletics and other extra-curricular activities got great encouragement from her. Thanks to her enterprise. The school won many laurels in Inter school competitions.

Up to this period the education imparted to the girls, besides giving them a good moral and religious formation , was chiefly aimed at giving them an all round training, fitting them out to be good home – makers and equipping them with the social graces required in an elite society. But from 1930 onwards a new dimension emerged. There dawned a new era ushering in the age of the career girl. Many of the stalwarts who served on the staff were students of the 30’s.

Hostel Dormitory built in 1940,  (Photo taken in 1970)

It was during Mother Evangelists Mc. Evoy time that the second two-storey block was put up. The ground floor accommodated the middle school and the upper floor served as the hostel dormitory.

Holy Family Convent was the first girls’ school in the island to form the St.John’s Ambulance Cadet Division. It was at the time of the Second World War when air raid precautions and first aid were important.

As the demand for higher education arose there was a pressing need for a science laboratory. The former drill hall was turned into a science lab under the able direction of Mother Claire McCormick and several science teachers were recruited from India. University Entrance classes were started and soon our girls were graduating in science and entering the medical profession.

Mother Josephine Tynan’s Parting Gift (Our School Anthem)

In 1951 Mother Josephine Tynan succeeded Mother Evangelist Mc.Evoy as principal. She had been on the staff since 1946. Holding a First class Honours Degree in English, she had been an excellent teacher of English Literature and History. Young and dynamic, and modern in her outlook she guided the school with initiative, energy and wisdom, so that it was soon on par with the leading schools in the island. Under her the school was upgraded and every sphere of activity revitalised. It was during her time that St.Patrick’s Day was fixed as sports Day. When she left in 1970 she left us the school Anthem as her parting gift.

When the schools were taken over by the government in 1960 the authorities decided that the school should carry on as a non-fee levying private school. Part of the funds for running the school was supplied by Bishop J Emilianuspillai, the then Bishop of Jaffna and the rest was found by the community. This state of affairs continued till 1976.

1962 Centenary celebration (Mother Visitation )

In the same year the Past Pupils’ Association was inaugurated with Mrs. A. Saminather as its first president.

The Centenary of the school was celebrated with much flourish, with fashion shows, fun fair and a formal dinner which was attended by many V.I.P’s.

Mother Josephine Tynan left (Feb. 1971) , Mother Visitation Whelan (left April 1973 ) and Mother Claire McCormick (left 1970)

By the end of the first decade as a non-fee levying school English ceased to be the medium of education in the country and to make matters worse, restrictions were imposed on foreign missionaries continuing their services in Sri Lanka. Mother Josephine Tynan together with Mother Claire McCormick and Mother Visitation Whelan had to leave and were given a tearful farewell.

Despite these adverse conditions, we are proud that the school continued to make considerable progress under the able hands of native administration. Sr. Martina Velupllai the first native who succeeded as the principal, was a gentle and self effacing but capable and efficient nun. Her term of principalship was cut short by her untimely death.

She was followed by Sr.Anthony Joseph Pragasam who took the principal’s chair in 1976. She had an uphill task in maintaining the standard of the school due to the political unrest and the heavy financial strain. Unable to cope the cost of management the authorities decided to hand over the school to the Government. At the time of the takeover the strength of the school was well over 1500, with the staff numbering 48. Even though school was often disrupted owing to political unrest and internal war, and children had to do their examinations under shell fire, we were able to produce good results. In the field of sports our senior netball team were All Island Champions in 1973, and the Junior team the runners-up in 1979. Sports meets were held annually at St.Patrick’s College grounds.

The principal Sr.Yolande  Mathias took up duties in 1988. Her term of principalship has been a period of turbulence due to the war situation. The school sustained some damages, and had to be closed for several months in 1990, 1995 and 2000. When the total population of Jaffna left in a mass exodus to escape the terrors of war, a remnant of the students gathered at Mirusuvil where classes were conducted under primitive conditions. The same thing happened in 2000 when the school functioned for a short time in Manipay. In spite of the devastation, disorder and trauma Sr. Yolonde Mathias  and her faithful band of helpers worked tirelessly and brought back the school to normalcy. With the financial aid provided by the Branch Associations of the P.P.A, several new ventures were made possible. The upper floor of Anthony Joseph Block was re-done to house the library and auditorium, and the ground floor was converted into a computer unit.

An important administrative change took place in 2002. The Convent Maha Vidyalayam which adjoins the school, was amalgamated with Holy Family Convent and now the Primary Department functions on these premises.

This is the eventful history of the first Holy Family convent in Sri Lanka. The lives, services, and ambitions of hundreds have been woven into its tapestry. The school owes its present prestigious position to the labours of our forerunners – the French and Irish missionaries, no less to their native counterparts, to the dedicated service of the staff and the support of loyal past pupils. At least six generations of pupils have passed through it and imbibed its traditions and values.

What does the future hold for us? It is our firm hope that the Divine Providence which brought the pioneer Sisters to our shores, and guided the destinies of this institution for the past years will continue to do so for many more years to come. Holy Family Convent can look forward to a future full of promise.

Written in 2002 by Miss Violet Emmanuel
Secretary (Former Tamil Teacher)
Past Pupils Association
Holy Family Convent,


Rev. Mother Marie Helen Winter

Rev. Mother Marie Helen Winter was one of the first pioneer missionary who came to Sri Lanka in 1862, followed by the dedicated direction of Mrs. Mary Anne O’Flanagan, wife of an Irish Military Officer. She was a refined and a cultured English Sister. Under her leadership the School soon became Jaffna’s leading academy for girls. Besides teaching core subjects such as English, Arithmetic etc. Embroidery, painting and music were also taught at the school. She ably directed the school and her work was highly recommended by the Inspectors of Schools. She was the Principal of the School from 1862 – 1891. Holy Family Convent, Jaffna was the first establishment to send their pupils to the Trinity College Examination for music. Five weeks after her arrival in December 1862, an official Inspection of School took place. The Inspector was well-disposed towards the missionary. The English School made steady progress and became a leading educational Institute in the North under the effective guidance of Rev Mother Marie Helen Winter.