Educating in the Dominican way: preach it we must!

We live in a society in which truth is under threat from ‘alternative facts’ in the ‘post truth world’.

However, if you were to visit the diocesan schools embodying the Dominican tradition and celebrating significant anniversaries this year, I believe your faith in the possibility of truth would be restored.

St Mary’s Campus (formerly St Mary’s High School), All Saints College, Maitland, is celebrating 150 years since its foundation by Irish Dominican Sisters on 10 September, 1867.

St Columban’s Primary and San Clemente High School, both in Mayfield, are celebrating centenaries this year. In all three cases, there’s a distinctly Dominican flavour to the events planned, which echoes the commitment to charism that remains in each school.

Year 9 student at San Clemente, Annabelle Jones, is enthusiastic about her school. “We have the Dominican motto, Veritas − truth − and that’s something we really represent as a school – truth in what we say, what we do, truth in ourselves.”

Teaching and Learning Co-ordinator - Religious Studies at San Clemente, Rose McAllister, suggests that the curriculum, in the broadest sense, provides endless opportunities for students to “find their own truth”. Not only is the Dominican story embedded in the teaching program, but justice initiatives such as Project Compassion, Globally Called and Harmony Day “are all very Dominican…it all fits together” to continue the mission of Spaniard Dominic Guzman, who founded the Order of Preachers around 1206. An annual pilgrimage walk on Stockton sees students having ‘passports’ stamped, stopping to pray and raising funds to help where help is needed.  

As Congregational Archivist, Sr Elizabeth Hellwig op, writes, “Whatever their circumstances, members of the Order of Preachers are committed to studying, exploring and discovering better, ever more effective and new ways to disseminate the Gospel message. The first Dominicans have passed on to us the task of salting the world with the Word of God. As one Dominican put it, ‘How can we Dominicans preach a gospel of reconciliation, love for neighbour and justice for all in the context of war, racism, powerlessness? But preach it we must!’"

The medieval origins of the Dominican Order will be evident as St Mary’s is joined this month by St John’s Primary School, Maitland, to stage “Dominic’s relay”. Ministry Co-ordinator, Helen Kearney, explains, “The students will be dressed in a scapular and rope belt and race barefoot, but they have to change into the ‘habit’ and return to the next runner…staff will be involved too!”

Celebrations will not only cater to those who are fleet of foot. A garden party on 10 September will offer an opportunity for visitors to wander through the cloister and grounds, paying respect to the pioneer Sisters who lie there and delighting in the chapel, marble saints and the revered orange tree, all very much part of the Dominican story. A group of students and staff is working to restore the gardens to their traditional style, since places of beauty promote contemplation.  

St Columban’s Primary (like San Clemente) is a wonderfully diverse community with some 22 nationalities represented in the student body. Here, every day is Harmony Day. Student leader Hannah Osorio says, “You can meet people from different places and with different beliefs” while Logan Aoake insists, “Everyone’s treated the same.”

The school’s centenary celebration will begin with Mass, with Bishop Bill presiding, followed by a picnic with old-fashioned games for all to enjoy. Staff and parents will be pleased to know that Year 6 student Mazvita Takawira feels that “The teachers at St Columban’s are really good at teaching” while Logan says, “They always want us to try our hardest.”

Both San Clemente and St Columban’s are installing artworks to commemorate one hundred years of education in the Dominican way. Artist extraordinaire Rose McAllister is sculpting figures of Dominic – a man who, while educated for the priesthood, left no writings of his own, preferring to emphasise the Word which he preached and which lit his path.

Commemorative plaques will be installed in the foundational Dominican school, St Mary’s, highlighting such features as Rosary Place, “jappy”, St Michael the Archangel with his broken sword and of course, St Dominic, whose statue is crowned with flowers on his August feast day each year. A first time visitor to St Mary’s could well feel that the campus is a peaceful oasis amid a busy city, and indeed the early Sisters were ‘enclosed’.

However, today’s students are well versed in the needs of the people of God, as evidenced by a recent ‘immersion’ on Thursday Island. One of the teachers who accompanied the group of Year 11 students, Deborah Sivyer, said, “The program provided a unique opportunity to experience life in a remote Australian location. Our students gained authentic insights into the rich spirituality and cultural life of the Torres Strait Islanders and were able to develop a genuine appreciation of a culture quite different from their own.”

Student Elizabeth Crawford agrees, saying, “St Mary's has a number of student teams which address issues within and beyond the school community. The teams promote social justice, care for the environment, raise money and awareness, for example, through Project Compassion and ensure that school events and gatherings involve time to reflect upon and acknowledge the rich traditions upheld by the students who preceded us.”

The Dominican colours are black and white, hence San Clemente’s celebrating with a Black and White Gala Ball. You would be mistaken, however, if you thought this indicated a less than nuanced understanding of truth. In the writing of Dominican Catherine of Siena, God says to Catherine: “Reprove yourself if ever…your own short-sightedness should do you the disservice of making you want to force all my servants to walk by the same path…this would be contrary to the teaching given you by my Truth.” (The Dialogue n104).

So Truth, like a diamond, is many-faceted. It’s clear St Columban’s Chloe Griffin has absorbed her school’s motto when she says, “If you tell the truth you will get further in life.” I think St Dominic would be smiling!

The Dominican ideal is characterised by a commitment to truth explored in dialogue, a vibrant preaching of the Gospel, a critical appreciation of culture and cultures, and a love of the beautiful. Our goal in each of our educational ministries is to foster these values, together with a spirit of prayer and contemplation, respect for the dignity and uniqueness of each person, and the pursuit of excellence. Dominican Sisters of Eastern Australia and the Solomon Islands 

For details of celebratory events, contact individual schools.  

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Tracey Edstein Image
Tracey Edstein

Tracey Edstein is the editor of Aurora Magazine, the official magazine of the Catholic Diocese of Maitland-Newcastle.

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