52 Weeks of Personal Genealogy and History: Week 44: primary school, church, nuns and migrants

The topic for Week 44 in Amy Coffin’s and Geneablogger’s 52 Weeks of Personal Genealogy and History series is: Elementary (Primary) School. Describe your grammar/elementary/primary school (or schools). Were they big or small? Are any of these schools still in existence today? If so, how have they changed since you went there? This is going to end up as a long post, be warned.(I keep thinking of Cat Stevens and the Days of the Old School Yard, cue the music).

Clydesdale c1900 John Oxley Library Negative number: 146812, copyright expired. This was the convent during my school years.

No school bells ring today, there is no sound of children playing or chanting tables. Those who live in the modern townhouses built on a large block on Clyde Road probably have no idea that there ever were bells or children. After all, it is many decades since the old school and church were there: they only know of the 1960s church and presbytery adjacent to the townhouses, and even those are quiet these days.

Only those who attended the little parish school during the fifty odd years of its life can remember that it wasn’t always a sleepy hollow. In fact much that happened there reflected wider social conditions as well as a very particular experience of Catholicism in the pre-Vatican II era.

The official jubilee site tells how the Herston parish of St Joan of Arc was established mid-1920, while Trove reveals more details of its blessing in December 1920. The parish complex of 2 ¼ acres, included Clydesdale, an impressive house built c1890 which was to become a convent, a building for the priest, and a timber building which had been relocated from elsewhere and raised to a second storey building (apparently a former Salvation Army Hall, something I never knew), which was to be used for the church and a hall. The church was blessed by Brisbane’s “building Bishop”, Archbishop Duhig, who made much of the event by declaring all Brisbane’s Catholic churches to be fully occupied…ironic to read these days. Archbishop Duhig was renowned for buying premium plots of land around Brisbane and establishing many new parishes. He also contributed the organ to the new church.

I was surprised when first reading about the hall in the old timber building. To me, it was both church (upstairs) and school (mostly downstairs). While I don’t think of it forming a hall, on reflection the central area downstairs, immediately under the church’s footprint, could be opened up and with the stage (on the ground floor beneath the altar above), it would form a very satisfactory hall. I suppose this is where we held our concerts, though to be truthful I have no memory of the events themselves, only the preparation. The two central areas were surrounded by enclosed verandahs which mostly served as class rooms though downstairs there was a tuckshop and kitchen.

My first communion class from St Joan of Arc school. I don’t usually include photos of people without their permission but this one is so small and so old, and unidentified that I’m going with it.

The Presentation Sisters commenced the school in mid-1924 and for another 44 years it would have a pivotal role for the Catholics in the area. Of course a parish school is very much centred on the church and our lives were inextricably linked to the church’s liturgical seasons. We prepared for First Communion and I distinctly remember the bishop coming to examine us for our Confirmation – I was scared stiff I’d get the answers wrong.

Over the years this parish became responsible for the ministry to the Royal Brisbane Hospital so it was quite common for those who had been hospitalised there before their death, to be buried from our parish. It was the task of the pupils to sing at the funerals which became quite an intriguing responsibility: it became a “bread and butter” event for we school children. Of course the boys would also have the alternate responsibility of serving as altar boys at the funeral. I’m always bemused by people who have never been to a funeral until they’re adults….I lost count of how many I attended as a child and the richness and ceremony of the priest’s words, the incense and the procession of the coffin remain in my memory.

I started primary school aged 5, in prep class, and progressed round the classrooms for the next 9 years until finishing in Grade 8. My first classroom was on one of the verandahs adjacent to the church and I must say I don’t remember my first teacher with any great affection. While occasional nuns were pleasant (and young!) many were what I’ve heard referred to as “industrial strength” nuns. The convent, Clydesdale, was adjacent to the school so the nuns were definitely part of our lives. This convent was, I think, a sort of retirement home by this stage and many of the older nuns came there to live…at least that’s my memory of things. Apart from those who taught at the school, there were others (more than one?) who taught music. My friend, who was a non-Catholic, also went to the convent for her piano lessons.

Oh so demure Confirmation photo.

The school was always a small one, at least in my time. Most classes would have had fewer than twenty pupils and were usually taught as composite classes: eg Grade 7 taught with Grade 8. We used slates in the early days (that hideous scratchy noise) and ultimately pens dipped in the ink wells on our desks. The cane was never too far away for unruly students, especially the boys. Many of the boys left around Grade 6 and went to one of the larger boys’ schools. Only a handful of boys remained in my small Grade 8 class of about 13 students. If the nuns were sometimes cranky who could blame them, wearing those heavy serge habits in the heat of Queensland’s weather.

There was a nearby State School and the bus would go past our school on the way to and from it. Pupils of both schools happily shouted rhyming invective that would not be tolerated these days. At the recent Shamrock in the Bush I was much amused to recognise some of these old ditties while the younger attendees look on bemused, or was that appalled? Fortunately it was uncommon for the rivalry to go beyond the odd slanging match….uncommon but not unknown.

One of my endearing memories of primary school was the huge school and church fetes that were held in the grounds. Really they rivalled the Ekka for excitement. I think nearly everything was hand-made and the fete was just an absolute delight: sponge cakes, toffees, coconut ice, fudge, toffee apples, dolls clothes, dresses. What fun! They seemed so grand and important to me that I’m surprised there’s nary a mention of one on Trove.

St Patrick’s Day concerts were a very big focus: I remember that on the day we would wear little green ribbons with a shamrock badge in the middle..our Irish heritage was proudly flaunted in those days. We’d have to stand on the platforms on the stage while we practiced our songs and hymns, presenting all the old favourites both religious and Irish. For a long time it seemed that if you were Catholic you were Irish but that was soon to change. In fact one of my rare experiences of winning a raffle occurred in primary school when I won a lovely tin filled with home-made confectionery. It was a rare enough event that I still have the tin. :-)

My primary school years overlapped with a significant change in Australia’s cultural life with the massive influx of post-war immigrants. I’ve talked before of how important this influence was in my life. Previously we had mainly Irish nuns, and an Irish priest, and many of us had the Celtic colouring of red hair and freckles or the “black Irish”. But our new school mates looked different and were learning English as their second language, negotiating with their parents or grandparents in another language and trying to navigate all the new experiences, no doubt including vegemite sandwiches, sardine and potato crisp sandwiches on Fridays, not to mention warm milk from the tuckshop daily. However one thing that would have provided continuity for them would have been religion, or at least I assume so. Many, if not most, of the rituals would have been familiar to them, although the Catholic Church in Australia at the time was very Irish-influenced. The Mass was still said in Latin in those days so some part of their religious life was a reprieve from the language barrier challenging them in the outside world. We had absolutely no understanding or knowledge of the horrors many of them must have experienced in the war years or immediately afterwards.

Trove again illustrates day-to-day life: to celebrate Queen Elizabeth’s coronation in 1953, 400 “New Australian” children each planted a tree in nearby Ballymore Park (later to become the Rugby Union headquarters)[i]. This again shows how much a part of the local fabric these new immigrants were becoming. Many of the parents, especially the women, worked in nearby factories like the Mynor cordial factory or the cardboard factory, or much further away at the Golden Circle cannery.

Around the middle of my time at school, and to minister to the significant immigrant population, we acquired new priests from Holland (the Netherlands). One in particular was amazing to us because not only was he staggeringly smart and well read, but he spoke about 8 languages: unprecedented in monolingual working-class Australia.

Students from St Joan of Arc convent give a eurythmic display 1924 ( a bit before my time!). From Trove and The Brisbane Courier 15 December 1924.

And so the school and I moved closer to the Vatican II era and much was changing. The nuns remained for a while but I lost my link with them when I went to high school as it was run by a different order of nuns. I laugh when I think of the day my Grade 9 teacher challenged something I’d done by saying “you went to a Presentation convent didn’t you?” Apparently that could explain all vagaries in my behaviour! No doubt the Presentation nuns thought much the same of Mercy-trained children.

The old timber building is long gone replaced by a modern 1960s church with its simple style and open outlook, a promise of a new Vatican II era. The only remnant of its history is the statue of St Joan of Arc which links the old and new churches. The nuns also left and their rather more grand building was also demolished.

School, convent, and church: memories only for those who lived in those days.

( I can find no photographs online or in my own archives of the original church -something to add to my to-do list).

[i] The Courier Mail 20 May 1953 and The Courier Mail 29 May 1953.

A true story of the Irish in Australia aka Not Just Ned

The foyer of The National Museum of Australia.

This week I have been lucky enough to have two visits to the Not Just Ned exhibition in the National Museum of Australia, one on my own and one with Shamrock in the Bush.

The supplementary title of the exhibition is A true story of the Irish in Australia and it is a reasonable claim: a wide diversity of objects and images are included which represent much about Irish life and culture in Australia as well as the influence of the Irish on Australia’s development and culture across all the states and territories.

While each of us will have our own favourites, the items which form my Top 10 (no, my Top 11) were varied:

  1. The sea chest belonging to orphan girl Mary Hurley who arrived on the Thomas Arbuthnot from Gort Workhouse in Galway in 1849.
  2. The chest plate given to the Yandruwandha people “for the humanity shown to the explorers Burke, Wills and King in 1861”. Lost in the desert (rather like the explorers), this wonderful cross-cultural item was only found by chance as recently as 2001. Quite an amazing story!
  3. The St Vincent de Paul Poor Registers for St Patrick’s parish in The Rocks with its sad reference that owing to her destitute circumstances “3/- (was) to go Mrs Whalan so she could go to the Newington Asylum”. Or that the members could not (would not?) visit Mrs Little at 95 Gloucester St “as it (the street or area?) appears to be of bad repute”.
  4. The tragedy of Australia’s only Irish-born Victoria Cross winner, Martin O’Meara, who was awarded the medal for his valour in the battle of Mouquet Farm, only to return to Australia in 1918 and spend the rest of his life in a mental asylum.
  5. Listening to extracts of letters read from the wonderful book Oceans of Consolation in the sound chairs on iPads in the story circle. This is one of my favourite books so I thought this was wonderful: technology combined with research literature to bring the immigrants’ experience to life.
  6. The amazing depth of knowledge, skill and commitment shown by the different orders of nuns who contributed to the education, health and welfare of many Australians, not only those of Irish descent or those of the Catholic faith.
  7. The South Australian “equal voting rights” petition with 11,600 signatures instituted by Mary Lee from County Monaghan.
  8. The beautiful “Currachs” art work by Kiera O’Toole.
  9. The astonishing survival of the jaunting car which escaped the Victorian bushfires.
  10. The laundry table found on Murndal station: a mundane household object but on closer inspection the underside of the boards retained the address for Pratt Winter, care of Portland Bay. It had been made from his shipping containers/packing boxes.
  11. How, oh how, did I forget the wonderful Rajah quilt done by the women on the voyage to Australia in 1841…so much more interesting and inspiring than those annoying Kellys!

An example of an Hibernian sash.

At a personal level there were a number of items with direct relevance to my own life experience and personal history:

  1. The mannequin with the Children of Mary cloak and veil reminded me of my teenage years when I was a member of this society and would go up to the church in full regalia. What the non-Catholics in the neighbourhood thought of our strange customs remains a mystery. It also brought back memories of Corpus Christi processions at the Brisbane Exhibition grounds when the Catholics of Brisbane would fill the oval in an overt and semi-defiant declaration of their faith.
  2. At the Corpus Christi processions there were also large contingents of men from the Hibernian Australianasian Catholic Benefit Society (HACBS) wearing their sashes and my grandfather was always among them, as he had held many positions within the North Qld regional executive. A similar sash, for the society’s National President, is presented in the exhibition alongside the leadlight doors from the Queensland Irish Association.
  3. In the same area of the exhibition is a display on Archbishop Duhig with a focus on the proposed Holy Name Cathedral in Fortitude Valley in Brisbane, an ultimately doomed plan with the site now taken over by inner city apartments. Duhig’s centenary ring is on display and my husband and I reminisced on how, after the Archbishop’s death, we both went with our respective schools to pay our respects during his public lying-in-state in the Cathedral prior to the funeral. We had to process past the open coffin and kiss his ring, a rather freaky experience I must say but perhaps not as much as for me as for my husband whose school went in the evening with all the candles flickering. The photo of the Archbishop visiting my high school in 1959 also brought back memories of his regular visits during my time there.

At Shamrock in the Bush. Dr Val Noone challenged us to reflect on the exhibition, its significance to an understanding of the Irish impact on Australia and what might be included in future displays of this sort.  As with regular family history research, those of us with working class Irish ancestors need to seek the traces of their history in the objects and stories but their contribution lies overtly or covertly in so many of the stories. The National Museum is to be commended for its contribution to our social history through this exhibition which has been of such great interest to so many of us. Richard Reid, senior curator, the team of other curators and conservators, and many other collaborating researchers, are to be congratulated and thanked for their assiduous work in tracking down the diverse array of objects and presenting them so effectively for our enjoyment and learning.