I Could Fill a School Room

In welcoming former students, teachers, parents and visitors to events marking the centenary of St Joseph’s Primary School, Denman, principal Aaron Moon said, “You are here amongst friends.”

As a busy program unfolded, the atmosphere was filled with warmth, thanksgiving, celebration of the past 100 years and anticipation of a bright future.

Small parties of visitors, eagerly guided by senior students, toured the school, remarking on the many changes and sharing recollections.

A highlight of the day was the cutting of a centenary cake by Lily Stevens, the youngest student, and Es Collins, the senior former student at a sprightly 94!

Es was a boarder from the age of seven to 14, since her family lived “on the other side of Scone at Thornthwaite and my parents wanted me to have a good education. Every time they left me I used to cry to go home but once they were out the gate and away, the girls would assemble around me and we’d forget all about it. I learnt piano, theory, book keeping, typewriting − and passed them all thank goodness.”

Es is very much the matriarch, with seven children, 21 grandchildren, 44 great-grandchildren and seven great-great-grandchildren! Most of her descendants have been educated at St Joseph’s at Denman and St Joseph’s Aberdeen – great grandson Kyle Wolfgang is currently at Denman − and as she says, “I could fill a school room!”

Helen Andrews (née Collins) and her husband John attended the celebrations, armed with photos to share. The memories came flooding back as Helen, a boarder from 1954 to 1957, recalled “…morning Mass in the church or the Sisters’ chapel, piano practice in the early morning before Mass, avoiding the aggressive rooster in the back yard, going down the street on Saturday morning to collect bags of broken biscuits from the local shop for the Sisters, collecting the milk from the dairy across the road, being evacuated from the convent in the 1955 flood when the water was up to our knees, never eating raspberry jam sandwiches again after having them for afternoon tea after school….”

The current pupils received the visitors graciously and enjoyed hearing stories of their school. Year 6 students, Ned Chapman and Hamish Collins, led the assembly, the highlight of which was a musical journey through the last 100 years. Teachers Natalie Walters and Cassandra Piggott had prepared a medley of songs to be sung by the choir, accompanied by actions! The enthusiastic students took their audience from “The Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy” and “Rock Around the Clock”, to “Barbara Anne” and a very popular “Shake it Off”!

Despite being well prepared for the workplace, Es Collins remembers, “When I left St Joey’s there was no secretarial work, Denman was only very small, so the Sisters got me a job up at Merriwa as a nanny…”

This serves as just one example of the dedication of the Sisters of St Joseph, who arrived at the school in July 1916 after 15 years at Wybong. As Aaron Moon said, “Our school is steeped in Josephite tradition. We were fortunate to have the Sisters here until 1985. They have seen floods, fires, droughts and adverse living conditions, ministering according to Mary MacKillop’s dictum, ‘Have courage no matter what your crosses are.’”

Josephite Sisters Carol Woodland, Marie Hughes, Catherine Sheedy, Jenny Riley, Carmel Lillis and Margaret Anne Geatches, all of whom had worked at St Joseph’s, enjoyed the celebrations. Sr Carmel (formerly Sr Timothy) recalled cooking for the boarders by lighting kerosene in a tin to start the fire – despite the fact that part of her veil was made of celluloid! After mentioning this to her mother, there was a phone call to say that a package awaited her at the railway station, something bigger than she could carry. A man from the parish collected for her a small electric device which would be a safer and more convenient alternative! She also recalls baking gramma pie – having never encountered gramma before. Afterwards, she was informed of the ingredients she should have included…

Presiding with parish priest Fr John Tobin in St Bernard’s Church, Bishop Bill said, “Here we strive to pass on something solid, the foundation of Jesus Christ,” echoing the scripture which proclaimed, “…no one can lay a foundation other than the one that is there, namely, Jesus Christ.” Bishop Bill continued, “This is a Mass of thanksgiving for all that’s been done and a Mass asking God’s blessing on the community of St Joseph’s today.”

The celebrations concluded with a grand dinner, and an opportunity for individuals associated with different eras of the school to share yet more stories of one hundred years of Catholic education in a supportive rural community.

Perhaps current students will in the future echo Es Collins: “I thought we were badly done by at the time but it hasn’t done me any harm.”

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Tracey Edstein Image
Tracey Edstein

Tracey Edstein is a member of the Raymond Terrace Parish and a freelance writer with a particular interest in church matters.

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