The Jesuit priest

Father Harry Miller S.J. left Louisiana in 1948 for Batticaloa. The Jesuit priest talks about the development of the mission, his work in documenting the disappearances during the 1990s, and explains why Batticaloa is the only home he knows. Photography by Kannan Arunasalam and Dominic Sansoni.


Join the discussion: 15 comments

  • Kannan Arunasalam says:

    “We didn’t volunteer for a few weeks, a month or a year. It was for life,” Father Miller said in his Louisiana lilt, as we sat and talked in the attic of St Michael’s College, the alma mater of many Batticaloan Tamil, Muslim and Burgher men. To my annoyance, the ubiquitous crows cawed hoarsely, circling outside the window. Father Miller was unperturbed, taking some pleasure at my efforts to chase them away. “They too are part of the Batticaloan story,” Father Miller said with a chuckle.

    Jesuit missionaries had come in different waves to Sri Lanka before the Americans. The numbers of French missionaries had been depleted by two world wars and after the Belgians and the Italians replaced them, the Vatican in the 1930s called upon Americans from French Louisiana to help out with the Jesuit schools in eastern Sri Lanka. “When the Pope has his back to the wall, he calls upon the Jesuits,” said Father Miller, who had taken the unique vow of obedience to the Holy Father as all Jesuits must do.

    Father Harry Miller left Louisiana as a student priest in 1948. Together with his friend Father Eugene Hebert, the young men travelled by train from New Orleans and then took the ship from New York to Colombo. Their final destination was the Jesuit Mission in Batticaloa.

    What followed was 60 years of service to the people of Batticaloa as educator, priest, protector and witness. Father Miller would increasingly take on roles beyond that of a parish priest, helping to build bridges between communities, initially through his Council of Religions and then through the work of the Batticaloa Peace Committee. Father Miller would help to document over 8,000 cases of disappearances. His friend and colleague Father Hebert, who had coached St Michaels to national heights in basketball, disappeared in 1990.

    “They can only overcome us if they set us against us,” he said of the various fora he helped to establish, knowing that there had been terrible abuses of human rights that he was powerless to prevent.

    In 2009 Father Miller returned to New Orleans unsure whether he would come back. Once there he realised that his true home was in Batticaloa, among the people who still recognised him. “Everyone I knew there had gone,” he recounted. Sadly, when Father Miller did return to Batticaloa, his possessions – his books, photographs and personal items had been given away. The staff at didn’t expect him to return. The photographer Dominic Sansoni was the last to capture Father Miller’s office in all its glory with the assorted paperweights on his desk and tribal masks hanging on the wall. I was fortunate enough to have permission to use them for my portrait on the Jesuit priest.

    I called Father Miller a few days ago to tell him about his portrait for I Am. He was cheerful and happy to hear from me. “I don’t really care what people say about me anymore. Or how I’m quoted,” he said. “But I’ll take a look.” Like the crows outside, Father Miller was indelibly another part of the story of Batticaloa, and I hoped that I had done justice to a life so extraordinarily committed to helping a community.

  • Dominic Sansoni (@DominicSansoni) says:

    Harry Miller SJ of Batticaloa -The Jesuit priest | i am via @iam_project

    • A.X.M. PARANJOTHY says:

      Fr. Miller, christened my original baptism name, a long one with lot of initials to the present name when my parents took me for admission to St Michael’s College in the 1960s. I was fortunate to serve under his leadership and guidance as the head of the teaching staff of St. Michael’s during its inception. His frequent words of assurance, “Paranjothy, don’t care what people think or comment about you, be sincere to yourself and do your duty” moulded me into what I am today. Fr. Miller can be informed, that one individual, he re-christened and moulded, still cherishes his association during his stay in Batticaloa.

  • (@groundviews) (@groundviews) says:

    Father Harry Miller S.J. left Louisiana in 1948 for Batticaloa. The Jesuit priest talks about the development of…

  • Jausa Jaufar (@jausajaufar) says:

    RT @groundviews: Very timely and compelling portrait of Fr. Miller of #Batticaloa |The Jesuit Priest via @iam_project #lka #srilanka

  • Joe Simpson says:

    Wonderful project, having worked for a year in SL almost forty years ago (in Galle) this is quite meaningful for me – Joe Simpson (Canada)

  • Jothy Daniels says:

    Hearing Fr. Miller’s voice, after so many years, is simply amazing! It is difficult to really appreciate the sacrifices made by those noble souls – who left home, family and country – to make their homes in ‘the middle of nowhere’ in order to make a difference to thousands of people in Batticaloa. Well done guys for doing this. My humble congratulations and thanks.

  • Dr. Sri S. Sriskanda says:

    What he said in 2002. I will not forget till the day I die. I fought the forces for them and they did not listen to me.

  • Marty Segari says:

    I had the opportunity to have dinner with him and Fr. Christlin Rajendram in 1982, at the Jesuit residence in Loyola Mary Mount University where I was doing my Masters. What a wonderful leader, priest and most of all a great human being. Marty Segari (aka Mathisegaram)

  • Yasovarman Perinpanayagam says:

    Let me introduce myself first. I am Yasovarman Perinpanayagam (son of ex-mayor of Batticaloa, Mr Chelliyan J. Perinpanayagam), resident of Colombo and now working in Kilinochchi for a private company. I was born in Mandur, a small farming village, and brought up in Batticaloa. I studied at Methodist Central College, Batticaloa.

    When I was just going through the videos on Vimeo I got to know about your project and the Batticaloa related interviews. I listened to the chats and stories of Rev. Father Miller, our ex-principal Mr Prince Casinader etc. It is a stunning project. It brought back many old memories of my Batticaloa life and my father. If you note in Rev Father Miller’s talk he says that more than 8,000 disappearance entries were made during the terror period. I am very proud to say that the entire entries were handwritten by my very father the late Chelliyan J. Perinpanayagam. I can still vividly remember my father sitting in the Rotary Club building from the morning to evening listening to the public with utmost attention and noting down every detail they could provide. The special part of your project that you have not only approached the elite, but ordinary people.

    Wish you all the very best to continue your journalism.


  • John Rajan Yorke says:

    Fr. Miller truly dedicated his life and indeed his life’s work to his beloved Batticaloa. When he went to Batticaloa in 1948 he became a friend to my mother’s family, the Canagaratnas, and by my wife’s family, the Casinaders. He is an icon in Batticaloa and many students who became great leaders in their own field speak very highly of him. A great educationalist who did much to promote interfaith and encourage reconciliation. Congrats and well done to all who undertook this project @iam_project. He deserves the greatest honour Sri Lanka can bestow upon him. From John Rajan Yorke


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