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Catholic education: triumph over adversity

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 Contents - Aug 2004AD2000 August 2004 - Buy a copy now
Editorial: New challenges for Catholic education - Peter Westmore
Pope's representative reminds Australian religious leaders on liturgy abuses - Archbishop Francesco Canalini
News: The Church Around the World
Getting serious about orthodoxy: an American bishop shows how - Michael Gilchrist
Catholic politicians and informed conscience - Bishop Michael Sheridan
Bioethics: Embryo stem-cell research: time for a moral benchmark - Christopher Pyne MP
The morning after pill - Bishop Anthony Fisher
History: Catholic education: triumph over adversity - Cardinal George Pell
Carnivale Christi: Whatever happened to beauty in art? - Paul Fitzgerald
The Catholic Church and the Greens: why? - Tony Kearney
Letters: Missal translation - Pastor David Buck
Letters: Hymn parody - Peter Hannigan
Letters: Casual trend - Gina Voskulen
Letters: Parish revitalised - Br Con Moloney CFC
Letters: Threats to family - Gordon Southern
Letters: Abortion - Anne Boyce
Letters: Relearning needed - Anne Lastman
Letters: Gospel dates - Jack R. Nyman
Books: DANIEL MANNIX: Wit and Wisdom, by Michael Gilchrist - Hermann Kelly (reviewer)
Books: A Guide To The Passion Of The Christ : 100 Questions - Fr Scot Armstrong STL (reviewer)
Books: Interview with the author of 'The Da Vinci Hoax' - Carl E. Olsen
Books: More new titles for 2004 from AD Books
Reflection: Why teaching in a Catholic school is far more than a profession - Fr Dennis Byrnes

This article is adapted from Cardinal Pell's comments made at the launch of 'From the Murray to the Sea: The History of Catholic Education in the Ballarat Diocese' by Dr Jill Blee at St Patrick's Cathedral Hall, 18 May 2004. While the focus is on the Ballarat Diocese, developments there reflect to a large extent the story across Australia in microcosm.

The building up of Catholic education across Australia and in the Ballarat Diocese in particular is a marvellous story. The fact that we often take its religious and social achievements for granted does not make them any less marvellous.

Perhaps 20 years ago I met Stan White, an old boy of St Patrick's College, Ballarat, on the Oxford railway station in the UK. At that stage he was an academic at London University, a geologist, one of the world experts on volcanoes. He has been a "busboy" who came into St Patrick's from around Bungaree or Gordon. He mentioned to me that no system of schools anywhere had produced social mobility to equal what was done by the Catholic schools in Australia. We were both examples of the system at work. This mobility is one of the reasons for social peace in Australia after the sectarianism of the 19th century.


Early education in the colony of New South Wales, and that portion which became Victoria in 1851, was chaotic. Many children did not get to school regularly and the teachers were often poorly paid, and equally poorly educated. There were only a few slates and crayons to share around the pupils, often in dilapidated shacks of classrooms. In 1851 teachers were paid 40 a year, the same wage as shepherds received!

The discovery of gold in July 1851 turned the colony of Victoria upside down. Portland and Buninyong were no longer the major provincial centres and Ballarat came into being.

In 1853 the Denominational Schools Board, which oversaw the schools run by the Churches, thought that music and harmonising would have a refining influence on the children. The results were not uniformly successful. At St Alipius the "natural deficiencies" of the children in music were astonishing: an inspector remarked that "there is not one-third of the whole school that can distinguish one sound from another." The situation at Buninyong was equally "lamentable".

The next big crisis came in 1872 when the limited money available was withdrawn from the Church schools and state education was made "free, compulsory and secular". Before that Catholic schools had been educating 21,200 out of the 46,000 Catholic children in the colony.

Great bitterness was provoked and neither side was given to understatement. Archbishop Goold of Melbourne came out fighting:

"They boldly and defiantly tell you it is their determination to do away with your schools, and substitute for them Godless schools, to which they will compel you, under penalty (or imprisonment) to send your children. In a word, they threaten the Catholics of the Colony, a fourth part of the entire Christian population, with religious persecution in the shape of a Godless and compulsory system of education.

"Will you tolerate in this free country, where all are equal, where your electoral power, when well directed, is of the greatest weight, a return to that hateful oppression and tyranny which for centuries stamped out Catholic education in the old country ... ? The Catholics of Victoria ... will not be slaves to their new rulers. Godless education you have always rejected as an impious outrage on God and virtue".

J. W. Stephen, the Attorney General told The Argus that Catholicism was "a fungus on the country". He believed compulsory secular education was "the thin edge of the wedge for Catholics" which would be "driven home" and it would "render the Catholics asunder".

In fact the struggle united the Catholic community. In 1875 Bishop O'Connor, the first Bishop of Ballarat, held a monster meeting of protest at St Patrick's Cathedral attended by 3,000 people, part of a series imitating the monster meetings of Daniel O'Connell, "the Emancipator", in Ireland more than 30 years earlier in the Irish Catholic struggle there for religious freedom and civil rights.

Grim situation

The situation was grim. Lay Catholic school teachers drifted to the state schools because of higher salaries. It was the advent of the religious teaching congregations, nuns and brothers, but especially the nuns, all working for a pittance which enabled the Catholic schools to survive for 92 years before some government money, "state aid", started to flow again in 1964.

Bishop Moore, an Irishman, the second Bishop of Ballarat, had been an indifferent student, but he was a first rate entrepreneur, builder and organiser. A rough Kerry man, he rescued the building of St Patrick's Cathedral in Melbourne before coming to Ballarat to complete the nave of what became its Cathedral.

The Ballarat Diocese was then rich with money from gold. Bishop Moore was able to present Pope Leo XIII with 1,000 sovereigns made from Ballarat gold. He eventually spent all-up 200,000 ($400,000) in the Ballarat Diocese on building projects, including the churches of Buninyong, Clarendon, Learmonth and St Alipius.

Equally remarkable was the fact that in 1888, on the return from this same ad limina visit to the Pope, he brought back with him on the RMS Ormuz 40 nuns, brothers and priests. Cardinal Moran, Archbishop of Sydney, who saw him off from Naples, joked that he should have chartered his own steamer for his recruits.

Fierce discipline was used by Church authorities to keep Catholic children away from State schools. It was not a time for ecumenism, but Frank Tate's reforms to State education in Victoria brought many worthwhile improvements e.g., compulsory education, mandatory qualifications for the teachers and consolidation into decent sized schools and facilities.

Some of the early nuns in the diocese were outstanding leaders. Mother Gonzaga Barry of the Loretos was one, Mother Xavier Blood of the Ballarat East Mercies was another and in that congregation this tradition was continued by the "heads" Mothers Bonaventure and Alocoque and then by women such as Mother Marie Therese Morganti, and Sisters Clare Forbes and Valda Ward. Brothers Purton and J. D. Healy were two such figures among the Christian Brothers.

Teacher training

No other community or institution in Australia had as many women leaders, school principals, hospital administrators or orphanage superiors as the Catholic community then. In fact we had more women as principals in those days than we do today.

The first Catholic teacher training institution in Victoria was at Mary's Mount and in the 1890s at one stage it was the only teacher training institute of any kind in the Colony. Interestingly, the Ballarat East nuns' training college obtained its registration in 1909, nine days before Melbourne Mercies obtained their registration for Ascot Vale. Also of interest is that the Mercies had teacher training in Colac with some teacher training also conducted at Loreto, Dawson Street. Suffice to say that the academic campus of Australian Catholic University in Mair Street has long and distinguished antecedents in Ballarat.

St Patrick's College deserves mention for its important role in Catholic education as do the parish clergy for their leadership in the early years along with the first inspectors of schools.

Cardinal James Knox, Archbishop of Melbourne from 1967 to 1974, deserves particular mention, especially in the light of CEO Director Father Crudden's suggestion that Catholic schools be abandoned and catechists trained for the State schools. His successor, Father Frank Martin, proposed that the Church concentrate on Catholic primary schools and later that it move out of Catholic teacher education.

These were bad policy options and Cardinal Knox, above all, was the man who ensured they did not prevail. He also refused to abandon Aquinas College when its membership of the Institute of Catholic Education was threatened (together with its membership of State College of Victoria) and when it was refused the full funding given to the Melbourne campuses of ICE, Christ College and Mercy College. This was eventually received later in the seventies. Catholic education in Ballarat and in Victoria is much in the debt of Cardinal James Knox.

A final word on the vexed question of the interplay of politics and the obtaining of state aid. There were supporters and opponents of funds for Catholic schools on both sides of the parliament in Melbourne and Canberra. Some partisans advance their thesis by denying influence to others. I think this a mistake. Many can justly claim some credit.

There was nothing inevitable about gaining government money for our schools. This still does not happen in the United States.

We owe a lot to the Whitlam Government for implementing the Karmel Report and sending very large amounts of money into the Catholic school system for the first time; and for vanquishing the ferocious left wing opposition in the Labor Party to state aid.

But the first break through came from Menzies' Liberal Party, grants for science blocks announced late in 1963. Archbishop Mannix heard that news after a lifetime of struggle not long before he died.

The Goulburn strike, when Catholic children went to the state schools, organised by Bishop Cullinane in 1962 was important, as was Bishop James Carroll's persistent lobbying of ALP politicians in Sydney.

Bob Santamaria also made an important contribution with Menzies, Bolte and Fraser, and by demonstrating that Catholic votes especially in Victoria and Queensland were necessary for Labor to govern.

Second preferences

One such incident is illuminating. Before the 1967 state election Premier Henry Bolte, educated at Ballarat Grammar and no intellectual, relied on Democratic Labor Party preferences to hold some seats and was very keen to continue in government without the need for Country Party support. Bob Santamaria, who was not a member of the DLP, arranged a meeting with the Premier, whose first line was, "Mr. Santamaria. Are you trying to blackmail me?" "Yes", replied Bob Santamaria. "OK", said Bolte in turn "let us talk about it" and Bob Santamaria spelt out the Liberal vulnerability to preferences.

From our point of view there were goodies and baddies on both sides. On the Liberal side Malcolm Fraser was a long term supporter of Catholic schools as member, Minister for Education and Prime Minister. He granted full funding to Aquinas through his Education Minister Senator John Carrick. We owe him a lot. Without him there would be no Aquinas ACU.

Prime Minister Billy McMahon was no such ally, while in the ALP the non-Catholic Whitlam was a long-term champion of funds for Catholic Education, especially for poor and middle range schools. But Whitlam's predecessor, the Catholic Labor leader Arthur Calwell, could not be cast in that role.

Credit for victory in this struggle should therefore be shared.

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Reprinted from AD2000 Vol 17 No 7 (August 2004), p. 10

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