The 28 day tour took in Rome, Pompeii, Assisi, Siena, Florence, Bologna, Padua, Venice, Verona, Milan, Lucerne, Paris, Versailles, Ypres, Bruges, Ghent, Fromelles, Arras, Bullecourt, Albert, Pozieres and Villers-Bretonneux.
There were many highlights, but visiting the battlefields of the Western Front was a stand-out. The opportunity to represent St Joseph’s and St Catherine’s in the wreath laying ceremonies at the Menin Gate in Belgium and Villers- Bretonneux in France were solemn occasions that will forever remain in our hearts.
At the Menin Gate, after the laying of the wreaths, the New Zealand service men and women performed a traditional Hakka facing the names of all those soldiers who never made it home. This demonstrated to us the respect held not only by New Zealand, but the world, in commemorating those who fought for our freedom.
At the dawn service at Villers- Brettoneux the weather, which had held strong for the entire pilgrimage, brought icy cold winds and pouring rain, allowing all of us to truly experience the harsh conditions the soldiers faced, even if just for a few hours.
HSIE Coordinator at St Catherine’s, Mrs Terry Holstein, summed up the feelings of the teachers in the group in these moments.
“For many, exploring some of the battlefields was a particularly poignant and moving experience. The courage displayed by our young men against the enemy in extremely difficult circumstances cannot be underestimated. The rain during the dawn service on Anzac Day only added to the understanding of the hardships experienced by our soldiers, many of whom were as young as some of the students on the trip.
“Senior school leaders in our group were privileged to be members of the official party at both the last post ceremony at the Menin Gate and the dawn service on Anzac Day at Villers- Bretonneux. Wreaths representing both school communities were laid at each venue and took the participation of both schools in Anzac services to a world stage”, Mrs Holstein said.
We travelled by plane, train, coach, gondola and ski lift through Italy, Switzerland, Belgium and France to visit magnificent churches, cathedrals and museums. It is difficult to describe how it feels to stand in the ancient ruins of the Colosseum and Catacombs, see the excavations in Pompeii, wind our way through Venice on the canals and marvel at the Mona Lisa and Champs-Elysees. Not to mention standing in awe at Da Vinci’s Last Supper in Milan, the Statue of David in Florence and Juliet’s house in Verona.
A challenge of the pilgrimage was the language barrier, but in each country we visited, everyone picked up common words to order lunch or ask for directions. Throughout the tour, these challenges became our strengths as we learnt Italian, French and some German, with our Year 8 German classes coming in handy!
The pilgrimage provided us with the opportunity of a lifetime and was an unqualified success. As Mrs Holstein said, “The friendships formed between the two schools, the special moments of reverence and laughter will never be forgotten”.
Louise Young is a Year 12 student at St Joseph’s High School, Aberdeen while Katelin Kelly and Joseph O’Brien are in Year 12 at St Catherine’s College, Singleton. To view a gallery of photos from the tour please visit this article.