History & Culture

The Gothic landmark

St. Albert's Higher Secondary School, Ernakulam, in the 1940s

St. Albert's Higher Secondary School, Ernakulam, in the 1940s

Down Banerjee Road, partially hidden behind large trees, loom the deep red buildings of St. Albert’s Higher Secondary School. They’ve stood their ground for over 120 years now. When they were born though, the world around looked quite different. The Ernakulam market canal extended before the school, ran through the narrow road’s side and stretched eastward up to Madhava Pharmacy junction. Small wooden bridges crossed the canal, then called palathodu , populated by busy boats coursing into the market. The staple theatres and furniture shops of Banerjee Road today, took their time coming. In 1892, when the school was established with just 31 students, there was little to foretell its iconic status in modern-day Kochi.

Albert’s was begun by Fr. Candice, a member of the Christian Carmelite Missionaries based in Europe. The history of missionary involvement in the Western education of Cochin State goes back to the early 16th Century during the Portuguese settlement when schools, colleges and seminaries were established by them. The Dutch followed suit from 1663 onward. An early instance of the Carmelites in Kerala dates to the late 1650s, says Luke Kizhakkedom, a former professor of Malayalam at St. Albert’s who later penned the school’s history for its centenary celebrations. The then Pope Alexander VII instructed the Carmelites to journey to Malabar from Rome by sea and resolve the dissent between the native Syrian Christians and the Western Latin clergy.

“Albert’s school was created because at that time there were very few educational institutions run by the Catholics, while there were many owned by Protestant and Jacobite Christians. Also, the Government schools of the time did not admit children of lower castes. So Albert’s was begun by Fr. Candice, under the permission of the Archbishop of Verapoly, to educate boys from all backgrounds,” says Luke.

Towards this mission, the Maharaja of Cochin donated the five-acre plus land locally named thumbaparambu , for a slender weed with white flowers, called thumba , grew rampant across the field. On February 1, 1892, Fr. Candice opened the primary school in a small building with a slanted tiled roof with Joseph Puthully as headmaster. “In the early days, Joseph would go house to house every morning getting the children to school,” reads Luke’s account of Albertian history. This first school building was razed in 1992, and today’s honeycomb structure which houses the High School was constructed in its place.

Between 1892 and 1897, the two Gothic red buildings that are now the face of Albert’s were built by architect Rayyappan, a native from Kottar — a town now in Nagercoil. They run along the front wall of Albert’s with the L-shaped building on the east and a straight one in the west, with a short gated wall between the two, long since broken down. Towering above the landscape with steep tiled roofs, arched windows and doors over wooden floors, the cut-stone buildings remain intact in structure today. “In 1898, the benches, desks, students and teachers of St. Philomena's High School in Koonamavu were transferred to Albert’s and that’s how Albert’s became a high school,” says Luke.

While the school did function out of these Gothic buildings, portions of it were given for St. Albert’s College in 1946 which began with 150 students. The 80s saw the construction of the interconnected ‘Pagoda’ buildings with pyramid roofs, toward which the school shifted entirely on the same campus. The Gothic buildings were used for the high school laboratories, the present Management school, and the retired teacher’s association.

Ahead of Albert’s’ Centenary year was when the Gothic buildings were renovated, says Mathew M.G., who presently teaches political science at the school and manages its historical records online. “By 1992, the limestone plaster was peeling, so it was concreted, and the old wooden staircases inside were replaced with cement ones. Earlier, false roofs had been made above the labs.”

While the buildings were once a light cream colour, they were painted over in the current striking maroon-red sometime before the Centenary, adds Mathew. But as illustrious Albertian alumni would aver, regardless of the surface changes, what has stayed steady across these hundred years has been the institution’s dogged commitment to education.

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Printable version | May 28, 2022 8:18:52 pm | https://www.thehindu.com/features/friday-review/history-and-culture/the-gothic-landmark/article5482157.ece