An Icon is no more.

I was surprised to find myself humming tunes like ‘Candle in the Wind’ and ‘Don’t cry for me Argentina’  whilst getting ready to return to my old school.

OK … so I was going to the funeral of the lady who was Principal the entire time I was in ‘College’ – Grade 6 to O’ Level;   the funeral of one whose personal signature is stamped – alongside her comments – on every page of my report card,  and indelibly stamped  in my memory.

But Norma Jean, Princess Diana, Evita … heroines of these songs buzzing in my head,  were super-star icons on the world stage.  Sr Helen Marguerite was well …  just Sr HM, our former Principal.  So why were these tunes surfacing from my subconscious?

Don’t cry for me ….?   I was not crying?!  She was our Principal maybe 30-40 years ago.  We had moved on … she had moved on.  The candle had in many ways been dimmed a long time ago.

It was only as I sat in the subdued quiet of a familiar chapel … with students of each class filing past in wonderful orchestrated synchronicity to recite a decade of the rosary and move on;  it was as the soft music of hymns like Amazing Grace played in the background between the visits of each class that I realised why my subconscious had thrown out these songs.

Sr Helen Marguerite may not have been a player on the world stage, but for us who passed through the hallowed portals of HFC Bambalapitiya in the late sixties/early seventies, she was indeed an iconic figure who loomed larger than life.

For me – Holy Family was “Puggy” and  “Puggy” was Holy Family – such was her influence in our lives.

Why  Puggy?  Am not really sure.  I think I first heard it on the lips of batch mate Faye.  I do know that Sr HM had a pug nose. Beyond that, was she ‘pugnacious’?  I was about to use that word and thankfully checked it.   Nope she was not belligerent, combative, aggressive, bellicose, argumentative, contentious etc.  No need to be.  She was the Principal.  Her word was law and we were not about to argue with her. We respected our Principal,  teachers and elders.


Rev. Sr. Helen Marguerite, First Sri Lankan Principal

Puggy was Puggy well because she looked Puggy. She strode around the school in a shorter than usual nuns habit, with a higher than normal heel in her shoe, and a stronger than normal walk.  I already mentioned she strode.  She never walked, minced, glided or moved like other nuns you knew.  In fact Puggy was not your normal nun.  You knew when she was around – both by the sound of her walk and by her PRESENCE.  And she did have a presence.  A huge presence that was way way disproportionate to her little diminutive figure.

However back then we did not see a little figure. We just saw a nun who was not very orthodox, who chatted ‘quite friendly like’ but was still able to command the utmost respect; one who maintained the highest standards of discipline; who would not accept falling grades even if you engaged in extracurricular activities, and one who maintained and insisted  on the highest morals of catholic education.

But most Principals are expected to do this … so what was so special about Puggy – or to be more formal –Rev. Sr. HM?  I believe she will be remembered and defined by her role in bringing the ‘Up with People’ songs to HFC and creating an indelible memory of  stage performances that took Colombo by storm.  It seemed the whole school was there in that choir except yours truly who cannot sing if my life depended on it.  Can you imagine the resounding echoes of songs whose words (I realise only today in Googling it ) defined a generation …

Up Up with people, you meet them wherever you go … Up Up with people they’re the best kind of folks you know.

And …

What color is God’s skin? What color is God’s skin? I said its black brown yellow it is red, it is white,  every man’s the same in the good Lords sight.

Plus the resounding echo  of Freedom isn’t Free. Freedom isn’t Free … You’ve got to pay a price, you’ve got to sacrifice, Freedom isn’t Free.

This was 60’s music:  psychedelic revolutionary pop culture, and the words were ringing out from the hallowed precincts of a convent with  Reverend Sister HM at the helm.

Sitting in the chapel,  I realised that ‘Puggy’ was in many ways ahead of her time.  She would be making waves on the international stage if she was Principal in these times … when nuns in habit are performing on the world stage, winning Voice Italia titles whilst carrying a new message of evangelisation .

Alas, we were entrenched in the pre-Vatican II era.  We thought Sr. HM was unorthodox and this was confirmed when we heard she had ‘left the robes’.  Sadly only that bit of ‘shocking news’ was passed on.  Not the fact that she continued in her mission till the end, working amongst children – street children.

She had a special vocation with these children, just as she had with her charges at HFC.  I remember once we had forgotten our text books and my Dad had brought them into the office to be given  to us.  The receptionist had inquired ‘What class?’  “Class?  Errr … Don’t you know ?  … maybe Grade 7? “ stuttered my Dad.

Sr. Helen Marguerite who was passing had stopped by to interject : “Mr. Rasquinho, your girls are in Grade 9. They are preparing for their O Levels.  I have 2000 children and I know which class they are in and you have 3 and can’t keep track!”  We laughed so much when Dad told us.  He had muttered something about their Mum looks after that side and squirmed out of the office.

This was the lady I had come to pay my respects to: the Principal who took a personal interest and followed each child’s progress.  The nun who ‘left her robes’ but not her faith or her commitment to love and serve children; the lady I had once met in a doctor’s waiting room decades after I had left school who recognised me and spoke to me when I could not recognise her in her new garb  – grey skirt and blouse.

Don’t cry for me Argentina … the truth is I never left you … all through my wild days my mad existence  …

I served the Lord in the best way I could.

I was surprised that I had to fight to hold back the tears.  She was so much ahead of her time.  She had the courage to follow her heart, to pursue Truth wherever it leads you.

I went up to the bier to place a rose for a life that touched hundreds – nay thousands – of students in ways we did not realise.

I would not have recognised her if I passed her on the street with her children.  She looked so very tiny and frail … so ‘non existent’.  This my Principal who had filled the College corridors, who had left all that pomp and pageantry behind to live a new and anonymous life among the poor.

That is how I will recollect her memory in future.

Farewell ‘Puggy’.  Rest in Eternal Peace with your maker, courageous and indomitable Rev. Sr. Helen Marguerite.

Your students will sing  the College Anthem  in  your honour and listen also to the song that defines you.

Photo and School Anthem

Holy Family Convent Colombo 4

Proud product of Holy Family Convent, Colombo 4

20 thoughts on “An Icon is no more.

  1. Wow! The scripture does say to, “Give honor where honor is due.” Indeed, she was worthy of such honor. Count yourself among the blessed ones who were given this grand opportunity throughout your academic years. One thing for sure, her labor was not in vain, your blog is truly inspiring!
    By the way “Evita” is one of my favorite musical. I saw the play and the movie. Love it!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Thank you for posting this.I was in HFC from 1965 to 1973 and she was the principal then. Yes I remember her, especially ‘Up Up With People’ I thought she was a ‘cool’ nun with her high heels. Who’d forget her nose!!! May she Rest in Peace.


    • Hi Linda …

      yes … who can forget her nose. Thank you for commenting. Approx same years I was in college. Linda rings a bell . but not the surname. Which batch? or should I ask who was the most notorious in your class. Radha was I think best known from ours cause she moved from Sinhalese to English medium. In fact she and few others have sent beautiful email stories! Sr. Puggy has been really kind and wise!!


  3. Thanks for sharing, Rosy. I specially remember her kindness to one of the girls who was in a very difficult situation and when everyone else had distanced themselves, Sr. Helen Marguerite went out of her way to assist. Thank goodness HFC held a service for her in the chapel, I wondered, since she had left the nunnery whether they would have disowned her.


    • Amala ..? you are the only school friend to call me Rosy!! yes, that sounds like here – working anonymously. I too am glad HFC honoured her. God bless her soul. Thanks for sharing Amala … hope all’s well.


  4. Roseanne, Lovely memorial! Sad to hear the news of Sr Helen Marguerite’s passing! Marie forwarded your email. Thanks. When I think of ‘Puggy’ all I still see in my mind’s eye, is her striding along the corridors of HFC with that very purposeful walk! She was one smart lady! May she gently rest in peace! Would U mind if I shared this on FB?
    Sithy Wazeer (Izadeen)


  5. I remember during one of the rehearsals of “Up with People” we were heartily fed up of singing from morning and our gang whispered amongst ourselves and decided to quietly slip out and scoot to the Majestic theatre to watch the 3.30pm screening. So when she noticed the first girl walking out, Sr. asked her “Where are you going?” And she meekly replied, “To the toilet, sister.” Sr. replied,”Hurry back, don’t dawdle! ” After a few minutes, the next girl sidled out. “Where are YOU off to?” Asked Helen Mag. ” Toilet.” Was the reply. After the third girl walked out of the Green Hall, she said no one else was leaving until the 1st girl came back, probably sensing something was up. We decided to just make a dash for it. On the count of 3, we raced out in a mad rush. “Come back at once! No one leaves the hall!” But we just fled and ran all the way to the Majestic. Once we reached there, the only seats available were the “gallery” seats right in front. So there we were amidst all the “row” characters, who whistled and shouted comments when we took our seats. I don’t remember the name of the show. We knew we were in big trouble the next day. We thought we would probably be flung out of the show. True enough, our names were announced after morning prayers and we were asked to report to the Principal’s office immediately. We went quaking and were summoned one by one into her office. We thought maybe we would even be expelled! I don’t know what she told the others, but she wasn’t angry at all, she just asked why we went and where. So I said we got tired of practising from morning and since it was the weekend, we thought we would take a break. She said she was very disappointed in my behaviour, and I had the potential to be a prefect but with this type of behaviour…..? She also said the band members were present and they would think badly of the school discipline. I felt really ashamed and said it would never happen again and we just acted on impulse, that it wasn’t a planned thing. Years later, some of us were actually made prefects, games and house captains. But we still remember this incident vividly.


  6. There was something about sitting in the chapel, silently in prayer, where once I used to enter to reflect, either alone or on those First Fridays etc, where we all gathered for Holy Mass. The memories seem to flood in, evoking sentiments that had seemed to have laid dormant for so many years. It took a while to wipe the tears for its very presence was a way of honouring someone who was instrumental in shaping the destiny of so many of us. Your tribute Rosanne is a tribute that those who knew ” Puggy” would understand. I always remember the day the list of Prefects were read over the sound system and there was a name I never expected to be there… mine! To this day, I never know why she chose me but I am grateful she did. I was not exceptional in anything in school, but I guess she saw some potential in me that I never did. In retrospect, I think this very surprise selection led me to discover abilities that I never thought I possessed! I also had the honour of being ” connected” to her, because her niece is married to my cousin. May the gates of heaven be opened wide to welcome you, dear ” Aunty Miriam” . Till we meet again.


    • Hi Mari … you are right … beautiful memories I too thought dormant flooded back in the chapel, and I realised we were so ‘free’ with her. You guys stayed on for Al’s so would have got even closer to her.
      So ‘thankful’ for your added ‘connection’ which gave us the news in time.


  7. You have made Rev. Sr. Helen Marguerite live again through your words. I wonder how many such “Helens” have lived and died in service to their Savior and remained unappreciated and unremembered. How much the poorer we to fail to pass their inspiration on! Your doing so keeps the fruit of Sr. Helen’s labor ever sweet in your life. She cannot help but smile at that.


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