Journalist with immeasurable courage, immortal greatness
By Miriam Sathyavi Welgampola
[Editor’s Note: Hector Welgampola, a Catholic layman from Sri Lanka, was a colossus that strode the Asian Catholic media scene for decades. As the first Asian Executive Editor of Union of Catholic Asian News (UCAN), he led the Church news agency from the front to live up to its name and mission: to tell the stories of Asian peoples to themselves and those interested in them. The agency was set up in 1979 after the Church leaders in the region realized that they knew little about the Churches in their neighborhood. They know more about what happened among Catholics in Europe and America. Welgampola was among the few journalists who knew the pulses of the Churches in each and every nation in the region. He also helped many young Asian Catholic journalists to find fulfillment in serving the Church through media.
Welgampola was an erudite theologian who helped link the pre and post Vatican II eras. While rooted deeply in Catholic faith, he kept himself abreast with the modern changes in the Church and adjusted accordingly. He was one of the most progressive Catholics in Asia. In this article, Welgampola’s daughter Miriam Sathyavi Welgampola remembers him as a role model father.]
On January 5, this year, at the stroke of midnight, Hector Welgampola quietly breathed his last. He had battled with his disabling illness for two years and six months.
Born in 1932 in of Periyamulla, in ‘Little Rome’, Negombo, Hector was the second son of the village playwright Malachius and his gentle bride Veronica, whose life abruptly ended when Hector was only four.
At that time, it was customary for Catholic families to offer a cherished child to serve God. Thus Hector entered the minor seminary to train for the priesthood. Hector was asked if he could “eat well, sleep well and study well.” All three being in the affirmative, he was deemed a suitable candidate for the priesthood.
Hector remained in the seminary until the larger than life presence of Malachius was also extinguished, leaving behind him a young family. Hector gladly embraced the role of their protector and surrogate-father at the age of nineteen and took up position as a schoolteacher. His fellow seminarian, now Archbishop Emeritus His Grace Most Rev. Dr. Oswald Gomis, remained a close colleague, confidant and counsel for life.
On August 1, 1952 Hector met and was smitten by a proud and patriotic young woman Rita Warnakulasuriya. Her speech (on the importance of returning their mother tongue Sinhalese to its rightful place) was interrupted several times by the startling vision of a rather make eye contact with her. She had temporarily moved to the country to attend high school in Colombo. Their courtship lasted ten years. In 1962 they were married and eight years later, armed with two ferocious toddlers, moved into their own house in Ragama, which they named “Sadasarana” or “eternal refuge.”
In 1972, Hector assumed Editorship of the oldest newspaper in Sri Lanka ‘Gnanartha Pradeepaya’. The paper blossomed into the powerful voice of rural Sri Lankan Catholics. In 1980, he added the editorship of ‘Catholic Messenger’ to his portfolio. He would work late into the night, churning out news stories and stinging editorials that spared no bureaucrat. With great zest he organized workshops to train young writers in the craft of journalism.
Being the father of two children, he proudly reported, was the highest office he had ever held. He was a natural, a master and an expert in the art of fatherhood. Making the perfect sandwich, ironing a school uniform without a crease, spinning a sidesplittingbed time story and singing a restless child to sleepwith a self-composed lullaby was his special gift.
His confidence as the proud father of two teenagers knew no bounds; he had an argument with which he could rebut every new-fangled philosophy, a trick with which he could outsmart every adolescent plot. In the 1990’s, when television was the dreaded distraction and preparation for competitive examinations was of paramount importance, Hector mysteriously developed the family room, thus barring the children from late night TV. Rather than admonishing them to read, he scattered the house with exciting books, waiting to be discovered.
He once unwittingly admitted that he would like to be “on the first name basis with kids” and from then he became “Hickie” to the children. When the closure of universities threatened their education, he and Rita joined forces to support and educate both children overseas.
In 1988, Hector left the challenges of Sri Lankan journalism to join UCA News, a Hong Kong based news service directed by his longstanding friend and colleague Robert Astorino. He and Rita set up home in Bangkok in 1994 and were to remain there until 2004.
Here they found many like-minded friends, surrogate children and grandchildren who were to remain close to them for life. With the birth of two grand-children, Hector’s life took a new, exciting turn. His time was divided between Sydney, London and Brisbane, helping raise two energetic toddlers.
In 2007, Rita and he finally settled down in Brisbane, to lead a life of retirement. The astute and authoritative father figure made a complete volte face to become a benevolent carefree grandfather. In between grand parenting he found time for freelance writing and also wrote Ugapurushayano, the biography of His Eminence Thomas Cardinal Cooray, OMI.
In the early hours of the morning, he found time to tutor his daughter in Latin, via skype. As the day drew to its close, he and Rita enjoyed sitting quietly listening to Visharada Amaradeva or the Gregorian Chant and being briefed by their young grandson on batting averages and trends in social media.
The Sinhala language was his great passion. Born in 1930s, he had first hand experience of the indignity of colonial rule and the excitement and promise of Independence. Although educated in English, he spoke and wrote Sinhala with the love and distinction of a grammarian. His most profound and profane sentiments could only be voiced in Sinhalese. Even as his life was ebbing he observed with amusement Samya prayogayak! (It is an illusion –a trick of the mind!).
Christianity was the tradition in which he was raised, the foundation upon which he built his family, the philosophy that guided his career and the force that enveloped his being as illness assailed him and the provinces of his body began to revolt. Hours before he breathed his last, he gathered enough strength to recite with his son Sampath, the Chaplet of Divine Mercy and quietly place himself, for the final time, a sign of the cross.
On February 4, on Sri Lanka National Heroes’ Day, Rita Welgampola and her children placed the ashes of their beloved hero in its final resting place. His legacy, like the Trojan warrior’s, was not triumph but immeasurable courage and immortal greatness.