By Agnes Thambynayagam
Professor Vito Perniola, a priest of the Society of Jesus, a Historian and a Linguistic, passed away in Negombo, Sri Lanka on Thursday morning 7 January 2016 at the age of 102 years. He was laid to rest on 9 January 2016 at the Jesuit grounds of the Fatima Retreat House, Lewelle, Kandy where he lived and served for many years.
Fr. Perniola was born in Santeramo (Bari), Italy on 10 April 1913 to Catholic Italian parents and grew up as a God loving studious child. He joined the Jesuit College Argento of Lecce, Italy in 1925. At the age of fifteen, he moved to Naples, Italy to continue his training as a Jesuit. On December 30, 1932, he left Naples to come over to India by boat for further education and service. He arrived in Sri Lanka in 1936 where he spent the rest of his life for 79 years.
Father Perniola has an Honours degree of the University of London in Indo-Aryan languages and a Ph. D degree of the University of Poona in Linguistics. Fr. Perniola served as the Rector of St. Aloysius College, Galle and Professor of Pali at Aquinas University College in Colombo. Sri Lanka gave honorary citizenship to Father Perniola in 1949. The Royal Asiastic Society of Sri Lanka awarded the prestigious Sir S. C. Obeyasekere Medal to Father Perniola on 29 March 2013 for his outstanding achievements.
Fr. Perniola took on the arduous task of documenting the History of the Catholic Church in Sri Lanka in 1980. At the time I met Father Perniola in October 2011, he had already published nineteen volumes and was working on another book. I was amazed by his energy, enthusiasm and commitment to record and archive history that otherwise be lost. His work contained the original writings; mostly hand written letters and reports written on Sri Lanka by kings, governors, missionaries and lay people between the years 1505 and 1925. Father Perniola, a gifted linguist who knew Latin, Portuguese, Dutch, French, English, Italian and Pali, translated many of the writings of various European languages to English language.
I came to know about Father Perniola in 1996 through a Sri Lankan Priest Rev. Fr. Augustine Fernando whom I met in Rome. Father Fernando mailed the first nine volumes of Father Perniola to me from Sri Lanka to Connecticut, USA, where I lived at that time. Father Perniola’s translations and collections of the original writings came to be so useful to me when I did my Research on Sri Lanka at St. Antony’s College, Oxford—the culmination of my research, ‘The Gentiles: A History of Sri Lanka 1498-1833’ was published in 2009. It is only when I had to painstakingly read through the hand written original notes at the Bodleian library at Oxford and the National Archives in London, I appreciated the unending patience and commitment of Father Perniola who read, understood and accurately translated countless number of hand written scribbles. I was able to get help and advice from Fr. Perniola from the time I started my research at Oxford through the kind facilitation of Jesuit Father Angelo Ponniah.
The complete set of Fr. Perniola’s books, ‘The Catholic Church in Sri Lanka’, is available from the publisher, Tisaka Prakasakayo Ltd at 135, Dutugemunu Street in Dehiwela, Colombo, Sri Lanka.
The Holy Jesuit priest Rev. Dr. Vito Perniola who dedicated his life to education will always continue to live in this world through his books. He is in the hearts of many on earth and I am sure that God almighty has given him a very special place in Heaven.
Agnes Padmini Thambynayagam (pictured here with Fr. Perniola in Oct 2011) is the author of The Gentiles, a History of Sri Lanka 1498-1833. She is currently the Liaison officer, St Anthony’s college, Oxford for Antonians in Texas, USA.