A unique Society Completes 175 Years


The beginnings

In the year 1838, twenty men formed themselves into an association to extend and perpetuate the charitable work they engaged in at their annual family reunions held on Sunday of the Christmas week since 1823 at Nalluruwa, Panadura, a coastal township 18 miles south of Colombo.

What prompted the annual gathering of relatives just eight years after Ceylon became a crown colony of Britain in 1815, its evolution to a formal society 15 years later and its continuity for 175 years since?

It was the vision of Paththinihennadige Warnadeepthiya Kurukulasuriya Johannes Rodrigo Lokumahathmaya, the eldest of a family of six brothers (and four sisters) and a resourceful man with great foresight and immense leadership qualities.

Their association was also propelled by the unity of the larger family of Johannes Rodrigo and their desire to celebrate and strengthen family bonds and their commitment to help the less fortunate members of the family as well as others in Panadura. In their charitable work, the first charter of the Society stated, there shall be no discrimination based on community, race or religion.

Among the 20 founder members were Patabendimahathmayas, Mahavidane Muhandirams, a Notary Public and a Police Vidane. They were all people of means, and standing in society at the time.


Objects of the Society

What made them to formally establish a society was their philosophy of philanthropy. The objectives of the Society were clearly laid out. They were to afford help in times of distress to members of the Rodrigo Family and to others and to foster a spirit of fellowship and a sense of mutual dependence and respect among family members

The founders had the foresight to prioritize the charitable work they did. Education, shelter, health and welfare of the elders were the cornerstones of their programs. Providing assistance to educate children by way of outright grants or loans, providing shelter in the form of grants to repair and build houses and soft loans to redeem property from burdensome mortgages, health care in the form of one off payments for special medical treatment or reimbursement of the cost of medicines prescribed by a physician and monthly payments to those in need of continuous help, monthly pensions to the elders, bearing the cost of funerals and assistance to pay dowries to give daughters in marriage were the more prominent activities in the first 100 years of the Society. Except for granting loans for education and shelter, which were dispensed with due to debt recovery issues, all other philanthropic work is carried out to this day.


Foresight of the Founder and

his successors

Long before laws were enacted in the island to incorporate or register associations or companies, the founding father in his wisdom and foresight executed a notarial instrument bearing No.134 dated 28 December, 1842 to give legal recognition to the Society. It was attested by Carolis Rodrigo, Notary Public. By then the original number of members of the association had grown to 26 and each of them became a signatory to this Deed which had the essential elements of a Memorandum and Articles of Association of a latter day joint stock company.

The foundation of the Society was further strengthened by having it incorporated under the Ordinance No.16 of 1891 soon after this law was passed. It thus became the first such registered society in Ceylon.


The December General Meetings

Each year the members meet at the same venue where it all began, the residence of the founder, Rodrigo Villa on Galle Road, Nalluruwa, Panadura. In keeping with a 190 year tradition, since the meetings began in 1823 15 years before the Society was formally established, this day is devoted to a family reunion with fellowship events and to take part in charitable work.

The annual report in 1928 stated that parcels of rice, coconuts, cloth and cash had been distributed among 1,500 people that year. This practice has been followed without a break for 175 years or more since it all began prior to the formal commencement of the Family Society. At the December General Meeting along with the giving out of alms, children are given school books and stationary and scholarships are awarded to pupils who have been recommended by their school headmasters as good in studies and conduct.

The December meetings are attended by over 200 members and their children who are encouraged to participate as they will be the future membership and leaders of the Society and because some of them are the recipients of books and scholarships awarded that day.

Of late an educationist or other civil society leader has been invited as the chief guest to address the annual meetings. These speeches have extolled the virtues of good values and attitudes and inspired the young people to be disciplined, truthful, courteous, industrious, goal oriented and punctual. Their education, in its broader sense, is one of the foremost objects of the Society.

The annual meeting in December is followed by fellowship and a lunch.

The annual general meeting at which office bearers and the Central Committee are elected and audited accounts are tabled is held in June every year.


Paying homage to deceased members

The December General Meeting is preceded by a visit to the Family Burial Grounds to pay homage to the Founder and other deceased members. Almost every member has the remains of his or her parents or grandparents at the family cemetery and looks forward to the early morning ceremony to pay their respects to their ancestors. Flowers are offered at the foot of the monument erected for the Founder who passed away in 1858. A Buddhist monk delivers a sermon at the end of these proceedings and offers merit to the ancestors. For the past 30 years or more Venerable Professor Kahapola Sugatharathana Thero, the chief incumbent of Rankoth Viharaya has presided at this solemn ceremony. Until recently a service was held at the St. John’s Church across the road from the cemetery and this was attended by both Christians and Buddhists of the Society. To this day the Buddhist Dhamma sermon is also attended by non Buddhists and the membership is not divided on religious or other lines.


Trail blazers

The Society has produced many trail blazers. Foremost in this list of eminent men and women is Mrs.Selestina Rodrigo (Mrs Jeramias Dias) a granddaughter of Anthony Rodrigo and grand niece of the Founding Father Johannes Rodrigo. Among the many philanthropic deeds of hers the founding of Visakha Vidyalaya stands out. She was honoured by the Order of Membership of the British Empire in 1929. Her husband Jeramias Dias who died when she was only 44 years of age was also a Rodrigo descendent and a grand nephew of Johannes Rodrigo. Their son Arthur V Dias who led the temperance movement in the early part of the 20th century and famously known as ‘Kos Mama’, because of the success of his project to distribute Jak seeds and to grow Jak as a food supplement, though not a member of the Society due to the rules that restricted membership to male descendants at that time, was a great grand nephew of the Founder.

Mudaliyar Thomas Rodrigo and his son Cyril who founded the Pagoda Restaurant were notable in their success as entrepreneurs. They gave lavishly and gifted to the Society a valuable piece of land on Galle Road, Panadura. Thomas was Secretary and later President of the Society. He gave lavishly and bequeathed a valuable property on Galle Road, Panadura from which the Society derives the largest portion of its income today.

Sudana Rodrigo, son of Past President John Rodrigo and brother of three past presidents

opened up the Bentota-Beruwela stretch of the southern coast line for tourism with his bold and adventurous foray into that industry in the mid 1960s. He also pioneered Ayurvedic medicine as a product to the tourists at Barberyn Reef at Beruwela and lived to see the business flourish and planned the second hotel project of his at Weligama, Barberyn Beach. His son Manik supported by his three sisters has taken Sudana’s vision forward by completing Barberyn Beach and embarking into construction and boutique hotels. They have perpetuated their father’s philosophy of giving by establishing the Sudana Roodrigo Sahana Foundation.

Mudaliyar Peter Samuel Rodrigo who served as a Regional Inspector of Schools in the Colonial Government was a philanthropist and President of the Society from 1919 to 1929.

Dr. Wilson Osmond Rodrigo who served as President from 1934 to 1936 earned much respect as a physician in private practice who visited patients at his own expense and treated them free of charge if they were in need. Patients who could not afford private medical care who called over at his dispensary were not only examined but also given medicines free of charge. He was married to a daughter of P C H Dias, one of the wealthiest men in Ceylon whose house, Kethumathi was gifted to the government to be used as a hospital for women and children. It is now the largest such facility in the whole of the Kalutara district. He also served as Chairman of the Urban Development Council, Panadura.

Professor J L C Rodrigo and his brother J B C Rodrigo were educationists of repute in the pre independence era. The former was a Ryde Gold Medal winner at Trinity College, Kandy, a contemporary of S W R D Bandaranaike at Oxford University and the Professor of Western Classics at the University of Ceylon. His son Dr. Nalin Rodrigo excelled as a gynecologist and obstetrician. J B C Rodrigo was the legendary Principal of Prince of Wales College, Moratuwa during its heydays as one of the leading schools in Ceylon.

Mahesa (Mahes) Rodrigo who captained All Ceylon Rugby and played for Ceylon First XI cricket excelled in sports. His younger brother Devaka, represented All Ceylon at rugby and played for CR&FC and for Royal College. The former had the distinction of captaining Royal College at both Rugby and Cricket. Lasantha Rodrigo who played for Prince of Wales College represented All Ceylon at cricket.

In more recent times Aravinda De Silva, whose mother is Indrani (Rani to her friends) Rodrigo, excelled as a world class batsman and scored a match winning century against Australia in the 1996 World Cup Final. He captained the Sri Lanka test and ODI teams and was vice captain for many years during Sri Lanka’s ascendency to supremacy in world cricket.


Dynamism of the Society

From its inception the Society and the men who led it were dynamic. Barely four years after the association was formally established and 49 years before legislation to register and incorporate societies was enacted the Founder Johannes Rodrigo executed a deed attested by a Notary Public to set out the charter of the association.

When the Societies Ordinance was introduced in 1891 it was the first society to be incorporated under that statute. To this day the Registrar of Companies and Societies uses the file number S. 1 in all correspondence with this association.

The Society upheld traditions but did not shun change. The constitution which was static in the first 100 years underwent several changes during the next 75 years to liberalize the tight rules on eligibility for membership. Initially, as a patriarchal society, membership was open only to male descendents of the 26 signatories of the original deed no. 134 of 1842.

In 1935 it relaxed this rule to permit female descendents of members to be members of the Society till they married. Upon marriage the female members lost their membership.

Thereafter in 1941 two classes of members were created to permit such females to continue as ‘external members’ after marriage and for spouses of male members to be admitted into that category of membership.

The next liberalization was more profound. In 1977 it opened membership to all male and female descendents of members and wives of members (but not husbands). There were no two classes of membership from that year and all had equal rights including the right to hold office. This amendment to the rules was the most farsighted as it enabled the society to tap the talent of a vast reservoir of female Rodrigo descendents with other surnames. Election of females as office bearers was swift.

Rukmal Rodrigo (later De Silva) was elected Assistant Treasurer in 1979. In 1996 Sepalika Rodrigo De Silva became the first lady to hold the office of Secretary. In 2006 for the first time a lady Swarnamali Rodrigo was elected President. She has continued to lead the association with distinction to its 175th Jubilee Anniversary. One of the three Vice Presidents for the past 20 years is also a lady member.


Jubliee Celebrations

The 175th anniversary which falls on 24 December 2013 will be celebrated in a fitting manner on Saturday 29 March, 2014 at the Panadura Town Hall with His Lordship the Chief Justice, Mohan Pieris P.C., presiding.

The milestone anniversaries the 50th, 60th, 70th, 90th, 100th and 150th have been traditionally marked by Public Meetings held at the same venue. These have been presided over by leading personalities of the land; including Sir James Peiris, the Colonial Treasurer L F Lee, His Lordship the Chief Justice Sir Joseph Hutchinson, Governor General Sir Herbert Stanley, Governor General Sir Andrew Caldecott and the Hon. Minister of Finance, Ronnie De Mel.

The December General Meeting will be held in the traditional manner for the 175th time on Sunday 15 December, 2013 at Rodrigo Villa, Nalluruwa, Panadura.

The Archives of the Society

This society has among its valuable accumulation of historical records the list of funds collected on the day the Society was inaugurated in 1838, minutes of that and subsequent meetings, collections at the meeting in 1842 after registering deed No 134, the original of that deed and reports of Jublilee Year Celebrations and of Society activities.

Some of the most precious of these were recently restored to their original and preserved by experts due to the efforts of Salinda Rodrigo, brother of former President, Late Dr. Mohandas Rodrigo.

The future

The Rodrigo Family Friend in Need Society Limited has to go on for another 175 years and beyond. Its unique place in the history of Sri Lanka is already assured.

Mallika Rodrigo

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