There was once a second Catholic school opened in Melbourne. The first – which commenced at St Francis’ on Lonsdale Street in 1840 – tends to get all the attention. We know it to have been a day school, sharing facilities with the temporary wooden chapel built on the site. Two years later, in 1842, the oldest Catholic school in continuous use was established at St Mary’s Williamstown – it, too, was a combined church-school building.
But in between 1840 and 1842, city records suggest another Catholic school existed in the small township that is now our great city. We no longer know where it was located – perhaps in a family home, as was not uncommon in the earlier times. The point, though, is that there was once a second Catholic school established in Melbourne, and that second school was the beginning of the history of Catholic schooling that we are celebrating today.
The first of anything tends to attract all the attention. But in the case of Catholic schooling, it is second place that is the more important. Initially, someone saw a need to provide education to the young of our fledgling town, and had an idea to establish a school for them. But someone else had the intention to take that first good idea, and to make it a deliberate purpose of providing schooling to children of Catholic families. The first school was a novel idea; but the second school was a purposeful commitment. Without the second, and the third, and then onwards, there would be no Catholic schooling to celebrate as a foundational pillar of our society here in Melbourne. So I say, thanks be to God for number two!
There were some distinctive features of Catholic schooling in our country, which have endured the test of time. Let me mention just four of them. In the early days, most Catholic education took place in churches, not in dedicated school buildings. The place where you would worship on a Sunday was the place where you would learn during the week. This link between faith and education – between parish and school – is a uniquely Australian thing, which should not be lightly dispensed with. Faith in the Catholic way is always deeply reasoned; and education in a Catholic way is always to be nurtured. A living faith and a life of formation go hand in hand.
Contrary to some impressions, the earliest schools in Australia, including here in Melbourne, were all led by lay teachers. Religious congregations did indeed become a significant feature of Catholic schooling – thanks be to God – but it was the lay faithful who instigated and operated the first Catholic schools here. Out of the need of families for a Catholic education came the provision of Catholic educators. This is a critical task that remains for us today. Formation of our children needs formators willing to step forward as believers and teachers.
It was the funds of parents who got schools up and running from the beginning. Families put their money where they saw the need for their children. This is still the case today, even with the very substantial commitment of State and Federal governments to fund the majority of what is needed to run a modern school. But parents still make sacrifices so that their children might be educated at Catholic schools. That is to be acknowledged and recognised today.
Finally, at least within the Archdiocese of Melbourne, Catholic schooling has been, and remains, predominantly coeducational. In 1842, there were more girls – 88 of them – being educated at St Francis’ School than the 76 boys attending. We should not lose sight of this foresight of our forebears. A Catholic education is essentially equitable; all should have access to an education that pursues intellectual, moral, artistic and practical excellence.
There is much to celebrate in 200 years of Catholic schooling in our country, and the 181 years here in Melbourne. There are also many to acknowledge – Catholic educators; Church leaders; faithful families, and especially growing children. A Catholic education is a pathway to living well and contributing well to society. It offers a way of learning that prioritises the flourishing of all people, made in the remarkable image of God. We thank God for this gift, and we pray that Catholic schooling in Australia and our city will be a bright beacon of light for all.
May our Blessed Mother, Help of Christians, come to our aid in Catholic schooling.