When Dr Margaret O’Donnell—MACS Board member, former principal and current parishioner of St Gregory the Great Parish in Doncaster—was recently awarded an Order of the Medal of Australia (OAM), the citation read, ‘for service to education and to the community’. Behind those eight words lie years of experience and the accrued wisdom of a woman who holds a deep sense of gratitude and love for her Catholic faith, her family and a vocation that, more than 50 years on, continues to enliven her.

Education always mattered

Originally from the north of England, Margaret was the eldest of two daughters born to Mark and Margaret Regan, who worked hard to give their girls the best education possible, in a time when it was not yet the norm for women to pursue higher education.

‘Education was important. And the fact that we were two girls didn’t matter,’ Margaret says, recalling how one of her relatives had two boys and two girls but would only pay for the boys to be educated.

Education was always important, particularly to Mum. She gave up her job when I was born and never went back. We were her life.

Margaret grew up in ‘a loving home’ and in a close-knit family. Her mum was a nurse and her dad a building foreman. ‘There wasn’t much money, but we didn’t know that at the time and it didn’t worry us too much,’ she says. ‘Education was always important, particularly to Mum. She gave up her job when I was born and never went back. We were her life.’

The family always went to Mass together, and from an early age, Margaret and her sister Maureen were given specific jobs to do at home. As the oldest, Margaret was trusted to do the shopping and to get the library books. ‘Each week I had to get [Mum] six books,’ she recalls. ‘She would tell me: one from the travel section, two from the non-fiction section, one from here and so on … She was an avid reader.’ Although her mother had been forced to leave school at 13 because of illness, she was nevertheless ‘a brilliant woman and self-taught. She knew the value of education.’

From a young age, Margaret knew she wanted to become a teacher. She had never liked being bored. ‘I hated not having enough to do … and I knew that I wouldn’t get bored if I was a teacher,’ she recalls.

Margaret attended St Joseph’s Convent Grammar school, ‘and you had to pay for the uniform and all sorts of things. So, Dad got a second job. We didn’t go on big holidays, nothing like that. But it was important that we were educated. It always mattered.’

By the time she was 16, she met Gerard, ‘the love of [her] life’, at the local Catholic Sunday evening dance, ‘the only place I was allowed to go at the time’.

‘We’ve been married over 50 years now. Four children. Glorious story. I’ve never had another boyfriend. That was it!’

At 21, having just completed her teaching degree, Margaret and Gerard married. He was ‘a man of faith as well. We had similar values. So that was a blessing—a match made in heaven,’ Margaret says, smiling.

Fresh out of college, she began teaching in a small village school. ‘There were only six classes,’ she recalls. ‘It was beautiful.’

Nine months later, Margaret gave birth to her eldest son, David. By this time Gerard had joined a global consulting firm (PA Consulting) and the young parents longed for ‘a bit of adventure’. So when Gerard was offered a position in San Francisco, they ‘went to have a look’. But it wasn’t to be. ‘America just didn’t appeal to us,’ she explains.

Not long after that, though, the chance to come to Australia presented itself. ‘Out of the blue’—in hindsight she sees the influence of the Holy Spirit—they were offered the opportunity of coming to Australia for two years and jumped at it.

‘We loved everything about the place,’ says Margaret. Sadly, though, it was around this time that Margaret lost both of her parents, who were only in their fifties when they died, her father suddenly, her mother after a lifetime of illness.

‘That was a tragic year. And because of that … I didn’t want to stay in Australia,’ Margaret remembers.

But life back in England simply wasn’t the same after her parents’ passing. ‘We just needed to make a new life. And my sister was still there, so we said [to her], “We’re going back to Australia. Why don’t you come?”

A huge learning ground

One of Margaret’s earliest teaching stints in Australia was at the now closed St Clare’s Catholic Primary School in Box Hill North. It was here that her former principal, Leonie Young, encouraged Margaret to ‘become a principal’.

It wasn’t something that Margaret initially wanted as she couldn’t see herself leaving the classroom. It took a few more years of convincing but eventually Margaret was appointed to her first principalship at St Pius X Catholic Primary School in Heidelberg West in 1996.

By this time, her two eldest children were in high school. ‘So Gerard said, “You’ve done your bit. You go off and be principal and I’ll support you.” And he did, bless him. He was always in the car, taking the kids here and there.’

Her years at St Pius X were a baptism by fire. ‘It was underprivileged children and I thought, well if I’m going to start somewhere, that would be a good place to start. I might learn a bit,’ says Margaret. ‘Well, did I learn a bit!’

She remembers an unpleasant confrontation with a parent during drop-off time in the early days of her principalship. ‘The other parents came to me straight after and a couple of them said, “Come and have a cup of tea with us because we need to talk to you.” I was sensible enough to stop and listen … I was an outsider and so I needed their help. And things became easier after that.’

Margaret readily admits that she made mistakes with both parents and teachers, particularly in those early days. ‘With the teachers … it was expecting them to know too much. Not being able to go at their pace … I probably lost people because of that.

‘But it was a huge learning ground for me,’ she reflects.

Margaret spent four and a half years at St Pius X and would have stayed longer had the principalship at her own parish school—St Gregory the Great Catholic Primary School in Doncaster—not come up in 2000.

She applied for the position, got it and went on to serve as principal of St Gregory’s for 17 years. ‘I wanted to be there because it was my parish … I just thought I could do so much more in the school, if it’s in my own parish.’ She particularly enjoyed working with parish priest Fr Michael Sheehy, ‘an old Irishman’.

‘Of all the people who have inspired me, Fr Sheehy would be number one. He was a wonderful pastor who always had a smile for people,’ she says.

One of the first things Margaret set out to do was improve the school’s infrastructure. ‘The school was in a poor condition physically, and I remember going to the [diocesan] principal consultants and saying, “Look, I can deal with the education here—I can manage that—but I can’t deal with the buildings. I’ve got no money. I need some help.” And we ended up getting a supplementary grant.

‘They called me “the building principal” because from then on—and this would have been about my third year at St Gregory’s—with the support of the parish priest we followed a building and maintenance program to improve the school.’

After some initially challenging years, enrolments began to grow rapidly, to the point they ‘literally couldn’t fit children in,’ she recalls. ‘It wasn’t just a matter of building bigger buildings. We just didn’t have the ground space.’

‘I was an instructional leader because I was a teacher at heart,’ she says. Margaret’s diary was set up so that on Mondays and Tuesdays, she taught the preps, ones and twos. And then in week two, she would teach the threes, fours, fives and sixes.

‘I taught mainly religious education. I didn’t want to interrupt what the teachers were doing, but I wanted to support it … My love was religious education, faith education and the stories of saints,’ Margaret recalls with a smile.

I was an instructional leader because I was a teacher at heart.
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Dr Margaret O’Donnell OAM.

The ambition of Catholic schooling

Through the years, Margaret has seen many changes in the way that education—particularly a Catholic education—is offered.

‘Certainly, at St Gregory’s, I did take for granted the fact that we were all people of faith. We were teachers in a Catholic school … there was an expectation,’ she says. ‘Fr Sheehy said to me when I first went there (and many times thereafter), “Margaret, please always keep the Masses going in the school.” So, every Thursday and every Friday, we took the children to Mass … and it still happens, thanks to the support of Monsignor (now Bishop) Tony Ireland.

We have a whole generation of teachers who haven’t grown up with the faith. We need to put real time and effort into faith formation. We can’t expect people just to know; we have to do that work.

‘Under the leadership of Monsignor Tony, St Gregory’s school and parish continued to be closely connected and this connection remains strong today with Fr Charles Balnaves as our parish priest.’

The parish–school relationship is something that Margaret sees as benefitting the whole community but acknowledges the challenges in nurturing this connection. ‘We have a whole generation of teachers who haven’t grown up with the faith’, she points out. ‘We need to put real time and effort into faith formation. We can’t expect people just to know; we have to do that work,’ Margaret says.

‘The Archbishop talks about Catholic schooling as a compound noun and that is so right, because our schooling is Catholic schooling.

‘We start from that inspiration of Jesus. Every teacher—whether you know much about Jesus or not—is a teacher. The Holy Spirit will guide them, as long as they are willing. But we must form them. It’s a big ask … It’s much bigger than the education side of things, because it’s not something you can just learn from a book. You need to encounter Jesus.

It’s a privilege, a responsibility—but it’s also a joy. And so I would say to teachers: be joyful, be hopeful, and trust in God. Know what a privilege this is—what a wonderful opportunity this is. You have these children’s lives in your hands. You’re forming their lives.’

As a member of the MACS Board, Margaret has been one of the architects of the MACS2030 strategic plan, Forming lives to enrich the world. Central to this plan is helping each school to understand that they are part of a wider system of education—the Catholic system. ‘The system is there for every teacher, for every principal, for every school—to direct and to guide and support.’

A system of 295 schools and 113,000 students, she points out, can do ‘so much more than one school can’.

We want to encourage principals to work with the system, to take responsibility for getting this strong, scientifically evidence-based pedagogy into our classrooms.’

Margaret believes that for schools to be truly effective, the faith tradition must go hand in hand with academic excellence.

‘I used to say as a principal [that] our school must be “a school of first choice”. And if we can’t be, then we have to work towards it … we have to raise our academic standards’, she says.

Why do we want our children to come to Catholic schools? Because we will form their lives, as we say, in the light of Jesus and faith, hope and love … to be people who will be wonderful human beings, who will go out and enrich the world.

‘We have a responsibility to ensure that our children reach the highest possible literacy and numeracy standards they’re capable of … Then, they’ll be free to go on and choose science, the arts, whatever, and grow in wisdom and believe in themselves and others. And become … people who change the world.’

As chair of the education strategy and policy committee of the MACS Board, Margaret is working with other committee members to ‘clarify the message’ and develop a system-wide approach of ‘everyone taking responsibility’. ‘Previously, each school looked after their own little area,’ she says, ‘but now we are working with principals to help our schools become schools of first choice for parents.

‘We are challenging principals … we are saying that we want better results. Why? Because we want our children to come to Catholic schools. And why do we want our children to come to Catholic schools? So that we can work to form lives of faith, hope and love … to be people who will be wonderful human beings, who will go out and enrich the world,’ Margaret says emphatically.

‘We should not expect parents to send their children to our Catholic schools unless we can claim that they are schools of excellence.’

‘I do believe we’re headed in the right direction,’ she says of the MACS2030 strategic plan. ‘I said that teachers need to trust in God. Well, we [the MACS Board] need to as well. He’ll lead us the right way, yes, but we have to do our bit too. We need to keep challenging every assumption.’

A teacher second, but a parent first

Reflecting on what sustains her in this important work, Margaret says it’s ‘pretty simple: my family—four beautiful children—and my husband. I love him to bits,’ she says. ‘And I have very supportive friends, and my parish family. My parish is very important to me and I’m very involved.’

I certainly understood where parents were coming from, and I always put myself in the place of a parent first—a teacher second, but a parent first.

Of all her parish-related ministries and volunteer work—she’s a member of the parish council at St Gregory’s, the Order of Malta, the management committee for Eastern Palliative Care and St Vincent de Paul (of which she previously served as Eastern Central Council president)—Margaret says her favourite is teaching catechesis to the children in her local parish. It keeps her ‘in touch with the parents, the children and the parish, so I love that,’ she says.

As a mother of four (and now a grandparent of eight), Margaret says she understands that parents simply want the best for their children. ‘I certainly understood where parents were coming from,’ she says, ‘and I always put myself in the place of a parent first—a teacher second, but a parent first.’

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Behind Margaret’s desk hangs a collection of photos from her years as principal of St Pius X West, Heidelberg and St Gregory the Great, Doncaster.