The mere mention of the name, Marie Musaeus Higgins brings to the mind of everyone in this country today the prominent Buddhist school for girls in Colombo 7 that is established in her name with which the fascinating history of this august school is inextricably entwined.
Such was the destiny that lay for a baby girl born on May 18, 1855 in Wismar, in the Duchy of Mecklenburg-Schwerin, Germany. She was to achieve prominence and respect for her dedicated, untiring and admirable long service of 33 years to the cause of Buddhist education in a country located in a different part of the world known as Ceylon and was laid to rest in the Island, 88 years ago on this very date, July the 10th.
It is a day that is remembered with sadness of the loss of a life so worthy, in equal measure the magnitude of this pioneering Musaeus College School Principal’s altruism, the wisdom imparted and the invaluable legacy left behind is reminisced with gratitude by all her privileged intellectually rich group of beneficiaries, to which I humbly belong and to be one among a countless number of students.
Marie Musaeus, the daughter of Mr. Theodor Musaeus, the Chief Justice of Wismar in Macklenberg, Germany graduated and obtained the title of Frau Professor. She had three younger sisters and a brother. In the 1880s she joined her brother Friedrich who had migrated to the USA and was a lecturer in one of the American Colleges. She first served as a teacher and was later appointed as a translator in one of the main post offices. There she met Mr. Anton Higgins, who was an engineer in the US Army and a member of the Theosophical Society at that time. They got married but had no children and Mr. Higgins died after three and a half years of married life.
Mrs. Marie Musaeus Higgins grieving her husband’s untimely death looked around for a method of benefitting humanity through education and theosophy decided to apply for the vacant post of Principal in a newly established Buddhist Girls’ College, namely Sri Sangamitta Buddhist Girls’ College at Tichborne Place, Maradana, advertised by Col. Henry Steel Olcott and Mr. Peter de Abrew in the Magazine, “The Path” published by the Theosophical Society. Having received a prompt reply from Col. H.S. Olcott requesting her to take up the post immediately, Mrs. Higgins travelled 6,000 miles and arrived at 12.00 noon on November 15, 1889 at the Colombo harbour in a ship named “Prussian”, from thereon her life’s journey at age 35, right through to her last breath, was to take an entirely different course on foreign soil.
She assumed duties as the Principal of Sri Sangamitta Buddhist Girls’ College at Maradana. Before long she was to realise her desire to form a school of her own with her own vision with the help of Mr. Peter De Abrew, the eldest son of a successful businessman and philanthropist Mr. William de Abrew, one of the pioneer stalwarts of the Theosophical Society of Ceylon.
The ‘Founder-Father’ of Musaeus ……The saga of the mud hut palace..
Mr. Peter De Abrew got actively interested in the Buddhist revivalist movement started by Colonel Henry Olcott and others towards the regeneration of the Sinhala nation, its religion and culture which had sadly deteriorated during the last decades of the 19th Century together with his father, late Mr. William de Abrew, who was himself a member of this movement contributed to this cause by donating their own land to build a truly Buddhist Girls’ School. He generously donated an eight-acre block of land at Rosmead Place, Cinnamon Gardens and in 1891 her own school, Musaeus Girls’ Boarding School was founded.
Mrs. Marie Musaeus Higgins although childless and Mr. Peter De Abrew who never married and had none of his own either, started the school in 1891, dedicated to children. In a little thatched mud-walled hut the solid foundation was laid with just a dozen students with Mrs. Higgins as both the principal and teacher and De Abrew as the first Manager, a position in which he functioned until his demise in 1940.
As much as to its Founding Principal, Mrs.Higgins, Musaeus and all Musaeites through the ages undoubtedly owe a great deal to the school’s ‘Founder-father’ Mr. Peter de Abrew.
Quoting the Twentieth century Impressions of Ceylon edited by Arnold Wright published by British Publishing Co (1907) testifies to the rapid progress of the school. “This Buddhist boarding school for girls situated in Cinnamon Gardens was founded by Marie Musaeus Higgins in February 1891. The school now consists of one and two-storey buildings with seventy to eighty boarding pupils and also day pupils. It is the only one of its kind in the island of Ceylon. English, Sinhalese and Anglo Vernacular are taught, also Art, Music, Needlework and Home Science including Cooking. In the upper forms pupils were prepared for either Cambridge Local Examinations (Junior and Senior) or the Sinhalese or English Training School for Teachers”.
However, it was due to an Australian Theosophist, artist, traveller, lecturer and utopist Wilton Hack (later President of Dharmaraja College, Kandy) that the school received its first brick building, which was completed in 1895.Two years after its foundation the school received grant-in-aid status and a board of trustees was appointed to oversee the school, including Mrs. Musaeus, Col. Olcott, Dr. William Austin, Peter de Abrew and Wilton Hack. Wilton Hack had predeceased them both in 1923 - he remained a trustee till his death.
Personalities such as Annie Besant, are mentioned in taking Musaeus to unprecedented heights. A school House has been named after Annie Besant for her contribution along with three other houses named after Colonal Olcott, Mrs. Higgins and Mr. Peter De Abrew.
In 1897 for the first time students were sent for the Cambridge Junior and Senior Examinations and the results were encouraging. The results of the ESLC and Royal Academy of Music Examinations were good.
In 1903 for the first time Miss Lucy de Abrew won the Jeejeebhoy Scholarship for Medicine and entered Medical College, the first woman to do so, and became the first Sinhalese woman to enter the Medical College. Another of the first dozen, Jane de Zoysa, became the founder-Principal of the Musaeus. Teacher Training College students were sent to Government Teacher Training Colleges to be trained as Teachers.
The vision of Marie Musaeus Higgins was to impart an all-round education needed for a woman of Sri Lanka to possess the moral values and ethics of a good Buddhist. The fame of Musaeus spread far and wide and Buddhist parents from far off were keen to educate their daughters at Musaeus, to receive the much wanted English education in a milieu of Buddhist, Sinhala culture. Mrs. Higgins insisted that her students wear saree on occasions, and even the dress was changed accordingly.
In March 1903 she opened a Vernacular day school for the very poor in another part of the city and sent the poorest of them there. Two of the resident teachers were sent from 9.00 a.m. to 2.00 p.m., to instruct fifty children consisting of boys and girls in Sinhala.
She realized the need to train good teachers, and Musaeus Training College was established in 1903, which further facilitated the spread of her progressive ideas throughout the length and breadth of the island. This was the first Training College for women teachers and its trainees were some of the best enlightened teachers produced by any training institute in the country. In addition a Practicing School and a school for the lesser fortunate and orphans was also established where the trainees practiced their teaching.
A shrine Room
In 1906 a Shrine Room was built at the entrance to Musaeus College at Rosmead Place to commemorate the fifteenth anniversary of the work of Marie Musaeus Higgins in the cause of female education among the Buddhists of Ceylon, At the entrance above the door are the words, “Enter with a Pure Heart” a monument itself to her vision and dedication to the daughters of Sri Lanka.
A decade later, an Australian Theosophist, suffragette and educationist, Annie Eliza Preston, joined the staff. In 1922 the Musaeus Nursery School was inaugurated, with her as its head. Thus it was not only a super-grade English School that she built up but a whole educational complex, in accordance to the historical and cultural values of the nation.
In 1934 under the patronage of the first Sri Lankan School Principal, Mrs. Sujatha Nimalasuriya Fernando, who was the daughter of one of the first twelve students of Mrs. Higgins, Elsie Flora de Silva, the Past Pupils Association was formed. She was its first President. The efforts and work done since by the PPA to date is no doubt a huge contribution to keep the flag flying for
Keeping to the vision of Marie Musaeus Higgins, after her demise the school has done her proud. It has gone from strength to strength over the years for what it has become today.
Today the school in its’ 122nd year, has risen not only in numbers but the facilities available to students, unrivalled elsewhere in the country and has many achievements to showcase the excellence in the quality of education, for it has earned a reputation as one of the most sought after schools in the island. There are more than six thousand students today ranging from two and a half to 18 years of age within the sprawling eight acres of the college and the surrounding high rises therein that houses the best facilities conducive for good teaching and learning, under the guidance and tutoring of a well-qualified teacher staff of 300.
Musaeus has always demonstrated high levels of academic standard. Thus the achievements are many but have space to mention only a few -- at the 2012 GCE O/L examination results, Musaeus was placed 4th in the all island commerce stream and 66 students secured three “A” grades. In the 2013 Island rankings of the A/ Level results, Musaeus students secured the 1st and 4th places in ICT and 2nd and 5th places in Arts and 4th in commerce. The College also maintains a German Language Training Centre affiliated to the Goethe Institute, Colombo to help widen the educational scope of its students. Musaeus fully supports various co-curricular activities. Over 40 active clubs and societies dedicated to different art forms, science wild life and conservation and more, help children to pursue their interests beyond
Since 2001, the oriental dance troupe has had the rare opportunity in representing Sri Lanka at many International platforms in Malaysia, Taiwan, Hungary and Switzerland most recently at the 40th international GANNAT festival 2013 held in France.
Girl Guiding at Musaeus College has a history of more than six decades and has produced nearly 100 President’s and Prime Minister’s Guides. To date four guide captains of 23rd Colombo have served the Sri Lanka Girl Guides Association as Chief Commissioners.
Over the years Musaeus has nurtured sporting excellence and many are the names that illuminate the roll call of Musaeus sportswomen who have brought honour and credit to their alma mater and the nation. Musaeites have secured international titles in sports such as Chess FIDE Master, GRAND Master, etc.
After the demise of the founding Principal in 1926, up to the present day, fifteen principals inclusive that of the present have by their devoted and dedicated service moulded and fashioned the destinies of the school steering the development not only in infrastructure but the quality of education to the prestigious position the school holds today as one of the finest and leading Buddhist schools in Sri Lanka. There’s no doubt this was possible largely because of the good working relationship the trustees, managers and chairpersons together had with the principals of the day who dedicated themselves to uphold and continue the principals and the shining example set forth by the pioneering Manager
The present Principal, Mrs. Stella Dandeniya has an amazing continuous record of service to the school. Having joined on May 10, 1966, Mrs. Dandeniya has served in different capacities, as Teacher, Sectional Head, Vice Principal, Deputy Principal and was appointed Principal of the school in 2009. In short she was in school right throughout my schooling of 18 years at Musaeus and as I remember then and now she has an exemplary and exceptional personality, apart from her excellence in teaching and administration.
Mrs. Marie Musaeus Higgins was a treasure to Sri Lanka and there’s no doubt that from beyond she’s made sure that her spirit sparkles on. It is our bounden duty to uphold those wishes, the ultimate honour one can bestow on a remarkable and extraordinary lady whose selfless service is adorned in all corners not only of the College but in the country and overseas thousands of “Sudu Ammas” children being of service to their country.
From the “mud hut palace”, almost a century and a quarter later Musaeus College stands today with high rises expanded both horizontally and vertically with its approach from Rosmead Place and extending up to Barnes Place, from which thousands of daughters of Lanka have excelled.
Mrs. Higgins from where ever she is will smile upon the service par excellence that’s being continued for the Buddhist women of this country to serve one another devoid of race, creed and religion in keeping with the motto, to “follow the light”. Surely we all can, as its yet shining so bright.
In her own words, the pius, remarkable, extraordinary lady’s last message to the thousands of her pupils was, “ My daughters, go forward to your great destiny, go forward with courage; love your nation; love your native land; love your religion; honour your ancient costumes and culture; wear your national costume; do not falter by the way in your life’s mission; educate yourselves”. May her glorious name and Musaeus shine for many more centuries in the firmament of Education in