We live in an era where the word gratitude is eroding from society especially, the young. This book has been carefully curated by young Avishka Mario Senewiratne to felicitate a legend of our time, Francis D’Almeida on his 75th birthday, which fell on February 10. Francis is generally known for his prowess in coaching basketball and training choirs. However, as this book has been rightfully subtitled, Francis has always been “a man for others”.
Avishka Senewiratne is a very rare gem who took upon himself to obtain testimonies and words of appreciation from many people who had experienced or shared the life and works of Francis D’Almeida. Avishka Senewiratne is known to research and write on history and other facets of Sri Lanka. Last year, he had put out his well-received magnum opus, titled Till the Mountains Disappear: The Story of St. Joseph’s College of which Francis had helped him immensely.
This book Laudetur Franciscus: A Man for Others, contains articles written by Sixty-four (64) contributors from around all corners of the globe. They have been family members, friends from school, Seminary and places he worked, Students trained by him in basketball and choral singing.
The diversity of the contributors is extremely vast and comprehensive. Readers are bound to read each of these articles for none seem to be repetitive or mere words of praise. On the contrary, they bring out a perspective which is of historic significance and biographical value to fathom the much less recorded history of basketball in Sri Lanka during the latter 20th Century and the history of local choral music in the latter 20th and early 21st centuries.
Francis was born to a Colombo Bharatha family 75 years ago, into a family of 11 siblings, the eldest boy and the 4th in line. Ever since his small days, he has been known for a man for others. The book reveals that Francis had to leave the Seminary (a place of formation for Priesthood) at an early age due to the untimely passing of his father. It further states that Francis had to act as the breadwinner of his family. Two articles by his sisters i.e., Lucy and Regina illustrate his early days as an avid basketball player and a voracious reader. Those articles prove that he comes from a musical background where music was a common element in the D’Almeida home. The influence of his parents seems to be apparent.
“Laudetur Franciscus: A Man for Others, contains articles written by Sixty-four contributors from around all corners of the globe”
His youngest brother Peter D’Almeida (the brilliant actor of Ira Madiyama, Koombiyo fame) explains how Francis ran the family as a young adult looking into the affairs of his sibling’s education and well-being. Peter brings out how creative Francis was at a young age especially during Christmas time when making the Crib and other handwork. Peter goes on to explain how Francis went on to study Socialism and his involvement in the Ceylon Mercantile Union and its leader the late Bala Thampo. Francis’ involvement in this is much stressed by the articles of his friends Fr. Oswald Firth OMI and Capt. Elmo Jayawardane.
Behind every man’s success there is a woman. Francis was fortunate to have such a loving, kind-hearted wife. Her tribute explains their humble beginnings in Mattakkuliya and 45 years later how they stick to each other making sweet music. The tributes paid by his daughter and son bring out how much of a family man he was despite being much involved in other activities and at times risking his own life. His grandsons, in-laws, nephews and nieces have not failed in paying their tribute, further proving how attached he was to his family affairs.
The book reveals that young Francis was exposed to sports when he was at his alma mater St.Benedict’s College, Kotahena and then at the Minor Seminary in Borella. It was during these days that he discovered a passion to coach basketball. While working for CIC, he coached a number of firms, the seminary and some leading schools in Colombo. One of his early basketball students who is the incumbent Rector of Aquinas College, Fr. Sylvester Ranasinghe has quite meaningfully brought the essence of D’Almeida the coach. His concern for discipline and servant leadership has been well highlighted in this tribute. It is quite evident that D’Almeida welcomed anyone interested in the game and trained regardless of their aptitude. More than success and results, Francis focused on the passion of the players, their spiritedness and team work. His work at Good Shepherd Convent training young girls for two decades has been quite appropriately stated by Sunimal Kurumbalapitiya and Damayanthi Galpotta. Furthermore, his work and service for nearly a decade in Ananda College as its head basketball coach has been well documented by his loyal student, Vajira de Silva. Before D’Almeida joined St. Joseph’s College, Colombo 10, basketball had been neglected for decades and no one had shown much interest.
Josephians such as Rohan Pandithakorralage, Shirantha Peiris, Mario Marcelline, Julian Thurairajah and Majintha Peiris have made an impactful effort in sketching out how D’Almeida resurrected Josephian basketball and made them a champion basketball team in the 1980s. Air Vice Marshal Brendon Sosa, who was the former President of the Basketball Federation has highlighted the yeoman work of this zealous coach in his tribute.
While his success as a basketball coach thrived, he discovered he had a similar potential to train choirs. This has been highlighted by the tribute by yours truly. Fr. Angelo Martyn OMI has explained how the young Francis was able to train young Oblates in Mattakkuliya in the presence of the eminent Bishop Edmund Pieris OMI. His students from the famous Cathedral Chorale of Kotahena have teamed up along with Prof. Onita Vaz and Connie Lord, in illustrating the pioneering work of Francis to the Cathedral Choir, the unforgettable concerts, trainings and memories. Despite all his extra work in basketball and choir the editor reminds the readers that by this time of his life he was seriously involved in the field of advertising. He played some major roles during the 1980s-90s in heading some important projects. The tribute written by his old friend, Fr. Victor Silva, demonstrates how Francis joined St. Cecelia’s Choir at St. Joseph’s College some 25 years ago. Fr. Victor who backed Francis in all his ventures states how the Choir improved by leaps and bounds and reaching international standards in no time. His Josephian choral students have written a number of tributes highlighting how special Francis was to them, his unorthodox teaching, application of physical fitness and other methodologies, to bring out their best. Like for basketball, it is apparent that Francis welcomed anyone who had a passion to sing irrespective of their capabilities.
Some other musicians in Colombo such as Priyanthi Seneviratne Vandort, Ryanthi Kumarasinghe have put forward another interesting perspective in their tributes. Nipuni Siyambalapitiya has very meaningfully portrayed Francis’ work in the Negombo region schools and parishes while Romane Fonseka has written on Francis and the choir of Good Shepherd Convent.
Despite being 75, some of his friends such Fr. Noel Dias and Denzil Perera (of Bosco and Denzil fame), have explained how Francis has been a self-disciplined coach, keeping his fitness in optimum condition and managing time. Shaniya Hulugalle has brought a much under-rated perspective of Francis by mentioning prowess as a writer.
To sum up, the book is a true tribute of high standard literature to a deserving individual. The diverse tributes, navigated by the young editor, have brought an unorthodox mosaic portraying the life and work of Francis D’Almeida. This is perhaps the best tribute Francis can receive. One could now come to the conclusion that his legacy has been safely preserved to posterity.