Remembering the days of the St Kevin’s schoolyard

The strong bond between Julie and Marie Lerch began when Julie married Marie’s son, John, twenty years ago.

That bond was only strengthened as Julie and John’s family grew to seven children.

Marie Lerch (née Donnelly) and her older brother, Jim, attended St Kevin’s (then St Joseph’s) Primary School, Cardiff, in the 1940s. Marie has a remarkably clear memory of those happy times, despite the privations of post-depression days and the impact of the First World War. “All the girls wore shoes, or at least sandshoes; none of the boys had shoes.”

In Marie’s time (when the school was called St Joseph’s), there were four Sisters in four classrooms: Sr Camillus taught kindergarten/first class­­­; ­­­Sr Reginald second and third classes, Sr Christina fourth and fifth and Sr Adrian was headmistress and taught sixth class.

Marie speaks lovingly of her brother who was “a very clever lad. He and other children would have extra classes on Saturday to prepare for bursary exams. He wore his uniform and carried his school bag and people would tease him. The school’s closed today…the teachers have all gone home…the school’s burnt down…” Sadly, one day the jokers were right − St Joseph’s had burnt down overnight! Marie recalls, “We still had lessons on the Monday and school life continued but I did feel sorry for the Sisters – it must have been hard for them.”

This was a turning point in the history of the school, this year celebrating its centenary. As Marie looks back, she sees that the efforts of the parish priest, supported by parishioners, to have the school rebuilt, led to better facilities and a stronger community.

Because the school was close to the railway line, it was a boy’s job (always a boy!) to jump up and close the windows as a train approached so soot wouldn’t blow inside.

Marie married Jimmy at St Kevin’s in 1954 and their first child began school there, but when the family moved not long after it was not possible for them to maintain a close link with the school that meant so much to her.  

Fast forward some 65 years, and Marie was very happy to witness young David Lerch begin kindergarten in 2004. David’s 19 now and studying electrical engineering at the University of Newcastle. His siblings – Stephen (18), Catherine (16), Benjamin (13), Daniel (11) and Joshua (9) − have all graced St Kevin’s doors. Susan is 5 and can’t wait for her turn!

Throughout those years, Julie, with John’s full support, has been ‘hands on’ at the school and in the parish. “I really see school and parish as one, and I’ve always said to the kids, ‘We’re part of this community and we have to do our bit.’ As they become old enough, they’ve each been readers and altar servers, and that carries over into school liturgies.”

Julie’s run the canteen, led the parish playgroup, helped with reading and fundraising – and supervised lots of homework! There are sports days, social events, Masses and other opportunities to support the school and build community.   

The younger children were familiar with and comfortable at St Kevin’s long before they entered kindergarten – it was simply part of their world.

Marie and Jimmy are part of special events and ceremonies as often as possible, and for Marie, visiting the school and listening to her grandchildren’s stories enlivens her own happy memories. 

While St Kevin’s is a relatively small school, it delights in its closeness to the parish community and in the links maintained with the Sisters of St Joseph, Lochinvar, the congregation that founded the school one hundred years ago.

Marie has a curious memory of Sunday Mass, “the boys seated in front of the Sisters on one side, the girls in front of the Sisters on the other side, not with their parents. There was silence, no socialising inside the church.”                

These days, Marie is very aware of, and impressed by, the demeanour of the St Kevin’s students she encounters. “Every child is confident. They will all get up and talk, and they’re encouraged to do so.”

While St Kevin’s is a small school, and Julie admits it doesn’t have every imaginable resource and facility, she maintains, “You don’t need everything”, citing excellent results gained by students, in both primary and secondary school. 

When Susan Lerch begins kindergarten next year, her parents and grandparents will rejoice as the St Kevin’s story continues.                          

Postscript: One proud alumnus of St Kevin’s is retired optometrist, John Miner OAM. John completed his primary schooling at St Kevin’s and says of his Year 6 teacher, Sr Josepha, “She was a superb teacher   who instilled not only a desire to learn but a sense of obligation to help others.  Sister virtually drummed my bursary into me, and others whom she saw had potential. I headed to St Joseph’s College, Hunters Hill.” In 1989, John received an Order of Australia Medal – and credits the great start he received at St Kevin’s.   

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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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