On October 4, 1913 Saint Léon Junior Seminary, Kabgayi opened its doors, becoming the first high school in the country.
In its early days, the seminary housed both the junior and major seminary, until the two were separated in 1917.
In the beginning, the school was established in the Kansi area, now in Gisagara District, a few kilometres from Save, one of the oldest Catholic missions in the country.
Later, the seminary shifted to Kabgayi, which was by then the centre for Roman Catholic Church in Rwanda.
The seminary founder, Bishop Hirth, who is also believed to be the founder of the Catholic Church in Rwanda, was at the time the head of the Apostolic Vicariate of Kivu which comprised Rwanda, Burundi and the eastern Belgian Congo (now DR Congo).
The cleric, who had reportedly fallen in love with Rwanda, reflected on the idea to establish a school that would train future local priests well before 1913. Todate, Rwandan Catholic leaders still hold the White Father in high regard. In some circles, he is popularly known as the ‘Father of the Rwandan Church’.
It is now 100 years ever since the school was established. A colourful ceremony, attended by President Paul Kagame, among others, was held on Saturday to mark the centenary.
The school’s alumni gathered to celebrate what they dubbed the ‘100 years of uninterrupted provision of quality education.”
President Kagame said during the ceremony that the school has over the decades groomed students into responsible citizens who have gone on to contribute to the socio-economic and political development of the country.
“We cannot escape our own history,we remember the good and the bad. We build on the good and learn from our mistakes. You must learn from your past mistakes made here at this Seminary. It is by learning that we can build a brighter future.
"God has given us all the strength that we need to achieve our goals and it is up to us to put it to the right use.”
Since the creation of the school by the White Brothers, over 5,200 students have been educated at the school, with 320 of them going on to become priests.
A significant number of the country’s elite have passed through the school. They include former president Gregoire Kayibanda, Monsignor Aloys Bigirumwami, (the first African bishop to be ordained in Belgian Africa), as well as famous historian and writer, Father Alexis Kagame.
Others are current vice president of the Senate Bernard Makuza, Education minister Dr Vincent Biruta, the Secretary General of RPF-Inkotanyi, Francois Ngarambe and the celebrated poet, singer and author, Cyprien Rugamba among others.
In its early years, subjects taught at the Seminary included Greek, Latin, French, Arithmetic, Music, Drama and Sports.
The school was known for instilling discipline.
“You could be kicked out just for having failed Greek or Latin,” reminisces Charles Mporanyi, a former student and current director general of Soras, an insurance company.
He said simple mistakes like not tucking in a shirt could lead to expulsion from the school.
“Certain virtues taught at the school would continue to shape character of many of us including discipline in everything,” Mporanyi says, noting that the ‘iron-fist’ continues to guide most of the school’s graduates in their professional lives.
“The education we received here helped us discover our potential,” the businessman says.
Bernardin Kayumba, who joined the school in 1944, remembers that he was among the ‘lucky’ six people who graduated from his class, after nearly six years of studies.
“When we started out we were 36 students. But some of us were left behind in the course of our studies,” the old man, who was born in the 1920s, recalls. “Some were expelled while others dropped out.”
Kayumba, who has for decades been an accountant, says the educators at the time were very strict when it came to enforcing school rules.
But he remains thankful, saying the level of discipline imposed on them helped nurture many into successful citizens.
“The school helped most of us to grow both intellectually and spiritually,” observes Kayumba, who is only assisted to walk, but had managed to travel for Saturday’s celebrations.
Monsignor André Havugimana, also a former student, says the school has been very instrumental in building brotherhood ties among students.
“From Saint Léon Junior Seminary, Kabgayi , not only did many acquire intellectual and spiritual education, but also interpersonal skills, how to make friends and how to better contribute to building lives.”
Today, Saint Léon Junior Seminary offers secondary level education in Maths-Chemistry-Biology (MCB) and Physics-Chemistry-Maths (PCM) combinations.
The single-boys’ school remains one of the best in the country.
Currently, the school has over 220 students enrolled both at Ordinary and Advanced Level, according to Father Theotime Gatete, the head-teacher.
He says the school always endeavour to provide high quality education to its students so as to offer them a chance to thrive in their future life.
“We shall not relent on our resolve to provide quality education,” Father Gatete says.
“We always strive to remain a united family and to remain on top,” he adds.