By Dr Srilal Fernando
Joseph Peter (J.P.) de Fonseka was a man of many parts. He was in his day known as an essayist, a teacher in English at St. Joseph’s College in Colombo, who would not only teach but inspire his students, and a great contributor to Catholic belief and social values. He was born into the well know de Fonseka family of Kalutara. The de Fonseka family is descendent from the Varnakula Additye clan. There are three swords in the Colombo Museum along with documents of land grants by the Sinhalese Kings. Michael de Fonseka was the name given on conversion to Christianity and around 1658. He is mentioned in Baldeus’ account of the island. J.P. de Fonseka was a direct descendent of Michael de Fonseka.
He had his education at St Joseph’s College, Colombo where he excelled in studies and cricket. He captained the first IX cricket team in 1917.
It was in Cambridge from about 1927 that J.P. became known as an essayist. He was a great admirer of G.K Chesterton with whom he had a lifelong friendship.
While in England he edited a book called GKC as MC which was a collection of Chesterton’s introductory essays to books by other authors. Many years later, Edmund J. Cooray wrote a review of this book where he described J.P.’s introduction as “running over with wit and wisdom”. He had close contact with other English writers of the day such as E.V. Lucas, Hilaire Belloc, Robert Lynd, Phillip Gibbs and Eric Gale.
Returning to Ceylon in 1931, he continued his literacy pursuits. He joined St Joseph’s, his alma mater, and over time he became a legend. He was not only a teacher but inspired his students to delve into classes of literature. He was a portly figure, immaculately dressed in a three-piece suit wearing his trademark bowler hat which he would throw on the desk upon entering the classroom. His idiosyncrasies, his humour and wit endeared him to his students.
When father Peter Pillai, who had known him from Cambridge returned to Ceylon in 1936, J.P. was one of the first to greet him. As recollected by Father Peter Pillai, in the Blue and White magazine J.P., Fr Hugo Fernando and another great journalist at the time, S.J.K. Crowther decided to act on “social justice” values which were on counter to the communist movement which was active around the world.
J.P. contributed to every issue of the social justice newspaper and in the words of Father Peter Pillai, “J.P. it was who carried the paper on his shoulders”. This paper was read by many people from all around the world and received encomiums from great literary figures.
Some of J.P.’s verses reflected his verses in lighter vein reflected this. These include “Lines to a Mosquito” in the deliriously free verse of the contemporary malarial school) and “The Law is an Ass, is he really?” As most great men do he could laugh at himself. He wrote entertaining articles on anything and sometimes made something out of nothing. He wrote articles on the “Fatman”, “Gastronomer Royal in Ceylon” reflecting his rotund figure. Others were “Hail to the Tax Payer” and the “Real Santa Claus”.
His collected essays and writings were published after his death and reflected his broad range of interests, contributors from Father Peter Pillai, Hilaire Jansz, Quintus Delilkhan, Father Justin Perera and Noel Crusz make fascinating reading.
His contribution to Catholic thought was profound. He was a lay OMI (Oblate of Many Immaculate) the holy order that provided the priests to St Joseph’s College Colombo. He was made a Chamberlain of the Honour of the Sword and Cape in 1946. However, ill-health prevented him from visiting Rome to receive the Papal Honour.
He died in 1948. Father Justin Perera writing in the Blue and White magazine summed it in a few words, “you have expanded your philosophy with a lot of joy and laughter, and if there have been those who have taken the laughter and forgotten the philosophy, the fault is all theirs.