Opening of Catholic Education Week
Statement Released: Wednesday, July 20, 2005
I commenced school at St Joseph’s Convent School, Stanthorpe in February 1941. The school was a large, high, wooden building, an amalgam of the old Church and the old school, situated next to the comparatively new St Joseph’s Church. It was air-conditioned by its antiquity as many of the buildings were in those days, with large cracks in the floor and ceiling through which the winds whistled uncomfortably in the winter. Underneath the building there was sufficient space for wet weather playtime activity. Prep 1, Prep 2 and grade 1 were in the part of the building that was the old Church, with grades 3, 4 and 5 in the old parish hall, one class situated on the stage, while grades 6 and 7 were in the convent boarder’s recreation area about 100 metres away. We commenced school with blackboards and slates, graduated then to exercise books and pencils, until to our great delight we were allowed to use steel tipped pens and sat in desks with ink wells inserted along the top. We also discovered the joy of ink fights. It was open classroom education before its time, with a noise level on overcast days that was quite challenging. The whole enterprise was funded by school money collected from the children on Mondays, topped up with income gleaned from frequent fetes and dances. In those wartime years air raid drills were a regular feature of school life as with sirens wailing and hands clamped tightly over ears we raced for the nearby trenches at the bottom of the schoolyard, often to discover them filled with water and frogs. Contact with the State school was minimal but the boys were allowed to go there once a week each year to learn woodwork, metalwork and leatherwork. Although not programmed, it was also where we learned what in those days was called amusingly the ‘facts of life’ neglected by our Catholic parents, and certainly beyond the scope of our beloved Irish Principal, Sister Mary Columba who confessed innocently to our grade 2 religion class that she was still trying to work out what the circumcision of Christ was about. At least in that one area of knowledge we were ahead of our 65 year old teacher. Study at scholarship level was intense under the direction of Sister Mary Columbiere with added classes on Saturday morning, and intense homework demanded for the two weeks of the mid-winter holidays. Nevertheless it must all have paid off because a good scholarship pass enabled me to move on to an even more challenging experience at Nudgee College with its unofficial motto of “play hard, work hard, and pray hard”, I’m not sure in what order of importance. At Nudgee I shared a locker with David Carrigan, present Chairman of the Queensland Catholic Education Commission, and shared friendships with a host of other students, including Dennis Murphy, of later academic and Labour Party fame, who bet me £20 I would never become a priest, paid me in books about Karl Marx, but tragically died before his remarkable potential was ever realised.
In reflecting on all this today at the beginning of Catholic Education Week I am enormously grateful for the many educational opportunities provided despite the inadequate facilities of those years. I will never forget the integration of faith and life made possible by the generosity of parents and teachers and the unqualified leadership of bishops and priests. Although the facilities of those days were what Shakespeare might have described as “of the earth earthy”, nevertheless in those humble Stanthorpe surroundings we were encouraged by our teachers and by our parents to “reach for the stars”, and we responded to the best of our ability. Perhaps such ambition owed much to our largely Irish subculture seeking to make its mark on society, but it owed as much also to the faith passed on to us by parents, religious sisters, and priests who suggested there was more to life than individual accomplishments. Education even in those days was about changing the world, a fact given remarkable impetus with the coming of the Second Vatican Council in the 1960s that broadened our vision of Christianity. At its best I have said on many occasions that Catholic education is about quality education within a faith context but such integration is not always easy. Its dependence upon the teachers makes teaching absolutely one of the most-noble professions imaginable, and I remember the teachers of those days with the greatest admiration and affection.
Today the desire of the Catholic community to be acknowledged as a valuable part of society no longer needs to be pursued. Many factors contributed to that change, not the least of which was, as a formally antagonistic Presbyterian told me years ago in Stanthorpe, the Second World War. It taught Australians to share adversity together and forged a bond that has remained ever since. At the same time a new theology enabled Catholics to escape from their ghettos of the past and a false sense of superiority to reach out to others as they had never done before. Finally, the federal and state governments lifted the financial burden from the shoulders of the Catholic community and freed it to mix more easily with the rest of the Community. Funding provided an opportunity for integration not present earlier. I am delighted therefore with what Catholic education has achieved over the years, particularly here in Queensland, and today I ask God’s continued blessing upon it as it shapes generations of Queenslanders and asks them to reach for the stars as their grandparents and parents have done before them, so that they can play their own unique roles in promoting the common good of our Society. I am therefore excited, proud, and honoured to now launch Queensland Catholic Education Week 2005.
Released by the Catholic Communications Office