In 2007 the Catholic Bishops of NSW and the ACT released a Pastoral Letter titled Catholic Schools at a Crossroads where they stated, “the Catholic school system is one of “the jewels in the crown” of the Catholic community in our region, with few parallels overseas”.  Twelve years on this Pastoral Letter still defines and guides our Catholic schools today.  

This week our diocese celebrates Catholic Schools Week 2019 with the theme of Learn, Serve and Belong.  As we gather together in our schools, with our parishes and as one diocese we gather to celebrate the gift of Catholic schools.  It is on such occasions we particular remember those pioneering mums and dads, clergy, religious and members of the wider community who are the giants on whose shoulders we proudly display one of the ‘jewels in the crown’ of the Catholic community today.

As one who attended Catholic schools for thirteen years, followed by four years at a Catholic Teachers College and now in my thirty ninth year of teaching in Catholic schools I would like to share with you three ‘giants’, in my eyes, who helped form me as a proud member of this Church who is still involved in Catholic education.

Learn:  From Year 5 to Year 12 I had the pleasure of attending Holy Cross College, Ryde, an all-boys school operated by the Brothers of St Patrick (Patrician Brothers).  One teacher in particular, Jim Eves, inspired me to learn and to embrace the excitement and discovery of learning.  In religion he not only opened the Gospel story and allowed us to meet Jesus as a real person but through his faith, his witness and his gentleness he showed us how to bring Jesus to others.  Whether it be through the kind word, the generous act or the humble pardon he reminded all the boys that we all have the opportunity to make Jesus known in our schools, homes and workplaces each and every day.  Jim was undoubtedly a great religion teacher, but he was also a gifted maths teacher.  To this day I believe he would have been a great teacher whatever the subject.  I remember in Year 9 being in a double Maths class.  I am not sure of the exact numbers but there would have been close to 70 to 80 students in the class.  For these lessons I can’t remember a boy being disciplined, I can’t remember Jim raising his voice, but I can remember all the students loving maths and being engaged in learning because of the passion and inspiration of one person.  The reason why all the boys loved Maths in Year 9 was that we were inspired to discover the magic of numbers, the excitement of manipulating algorithms and the joy of solving challenging problems.  I owe much to Jim Eves as it was his witness and passion in the mid 1970’s that inspired me to become a teacher.

Serve:  When I first became a teacher, I was appointed to teach secondary at Patrician Brothers College, Blacktown in the western suburbs of Sydney.  My first Principal at Patrician Brothers was Br Bernard Bulfin.  Bernie, as he was affectionately known, came to Blacktown at a very young age from the cool climates of Ireland so you could image the transition leaving the chill of Ireland and a few days later landing in sunny Blacktown.  To me Bernie was a master leader.  He had the skills, knowledge and courage to face whatever the challenge, but Bernie also had the gift of patience and humility and approached everyone he met with dignity.  With close to a thousand boys and over a hundred staff, Bernie knew everyone at Patrician Brothers Blacktown personally.  I was in awe of this gift when he wandered through the playground and talk to any student about a range of topics from football to politics or how his grandmother was recovering after illness.  While Bernie was a gifted leader, he was very much the humble, servant of God.  I often heard of stories where Bernie took a food hamper to families who were struggling, or he visited a sick student in hospital or the time he drove a single parent to an appointment.  It was through Bernie’s genuine and personal witness that I came to learn what Christ-centred leadership looks like in a Catholic school.  For each of the five schools I was principal I always tried to model myself on Br Bernard because if I could just follow a little of his example then I knew I could make a difference in the life of a student, staff member or parent.  (Attached is a photo of me with Br Bernard at a reunion in 2016.  Sadly, Bernie died suddenly in August 2018.  His funeral was held at Holy Cross College Delaney Hall as the large congregation could not fit in a church.)

Belong:  In Year 4 at Spiritus Sanctus Primary School, North Ryde I was taught by Sr Mary Mechtilde rsm.  To me Sr Mechtilde was larger than life in every respect.  Each day she would welcome every child to the classroom with a warm hug and would send us home the same way.  Sr Mechtile was one of the most patient, caring and understanding teachers I have ever met.  I can’t remember too much of our Science, English or Social Studies lessons but I can remember she taught all of us to be part of the great family of Christ.  To me Sr Mechtilde was the original John Keating, the teacher Robin Williams portrayed in Dead Poets Society.  Sr Mechtilde ‘opened up’ the Gospel story in a most fascinating way – making the parables and stories real and relevant for a highly distracted, talkative ten-year old.  It was only in my adult years that I finally realised that Sr Mary Mechtilde ‘got Vatican II’ and she knew ‘what it was all about’.  In a simple way she was sharing the vision and hope of Vatican II with a class of rowdy and energetic Year 4 students. 

It was through the welcome of Sr Mechtilde, the leadership of Br Bernard and the inspiration of Jim Eves along with the dedication and commitment of many other teachers, including my devout parents, that I pursued a career in Catholic education.

Before I conclude this article, I would like to share two experiences from the last few days which remind me that Catholic schools will continue to inspire for many more generations the wonder of learning, the humility of serving and the excitement of belonging.   

Last Thursday I had the opportunity to attend a lecture by Jesuit Priest and Lawyer, Fr Frank Brennan for Year 11 students at St Francis Xavier College, Hamilton.  I am never disappointed when I listen to or read one of Fr Frank’s commentaries.  Last Thursday’s session with Year 11 did not disappoint but it was a question from a Year 12 student that reminded me that our young people still want to learn about faith and religion in this contemporary age.  Below is a photo of Ellie Smailes, an impressive young lady from St Francis Xavier’s College, who asked Fr Frank about the difficulty of being a Catholic priest - a witness of Christ, in today’s world.  Fr Frank replied with some excellent advice but in short, he stated - if you act with truth, justice and compassion as your ‘true north’ then you will make a difference.

Finally, after Mass last Sunday one of our young Year 4 students from the local Catholic school said the following to his mum:

Year 4 Student: “Mum is the Plenary Council still going?”

Mum: “Yes, it will be going for a while – why is that?”

Year 4 Student: “Can you ask them to move the Hymn Board near the altar so the altar servers can read what the hymns are?”  

If the first recommendation from the Plenary Council is that all Hymn Boards must be in full view of altar servers then we will know where it has come from.

As a diocesan community we continue to pray that our Catholic schools will be places where our children encounter Christ and are challenged to share His Good News with others.

Brian Lacey

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Brian Lacey

Brian Lacey is a former K-12 Principal, and current Head of RE & Spirituality Services (Catholic Schools Office).