Friday 13 August 2021

Lessons From The Past

Officers & N.C.Os of the College Cadet Corps, 1943

Over the course of a long and illustrious history, the College has encountered much adversity. The pandemic is but one chapter of a much larger volume, one which we are indelibly part of, and it is teaching us – despite the hardship, the importance of resolve and resilience. A glance through the historical records is instructive, particularly when considering the generations of families who have suffered and triumphed over the years.

From those intrepid days of the 1880s and the first global recession, followed by the crushing drought of the 1890s, to two World Wars in the 20th Century that were punctuated by the Spanish Flu and the Great Depression, challenging times have been synonymous with the College and its past. That is now being re-enacted in a COVID context, one which is pushing us to new frontiers of understanding and response requiring creativity, fortitude and stamina. In many ways, the past is a revealing lens through which to view the present, one which has its own perspective as we navigate the choppy waters of the present.

The earliest years are the most difficult ones for us to contemplate. They were times of doubt, when the colonial experiment of establishing a Jesuit school well down the Lane Cove River was regarded with scepticism, if not ridicule. Just as it was beginning to reap reward, two events came together to bring the College and its community to its knees. The first international recession, when the recently linked interdependent economies of the world experienced severe contraction, saw the prosperity of Sydney collapse. This was the precursor to an economic cycle that was the by-product of a new industrial age, linked by international trade and markets across the developed world. At Riverview, which was exclusively a boarding school (the first day boy enrolled in 1923 – nearly half a century after the school was opened), families were dependent on commodity prices for agriculture that were compounded by the worst drought in Australia’s early history. Many families wrote to the then Rector, Fr John Ryan SJ, indicating that they had to bring their sons home because they could not afford their tuition and board. A fledgling bursary program ensured that those difficult times were weathered, and the school survived a seemingly insurmountable obstacle in the late 19th Century.

The turn of the 20th Century brought with it the conflagrations of two World Wars that shook the very fabric of society and with it, the College community. The deprivations of war on the home front were real for those who lived through it, while the suffering of those who fought and died was beyond comprehension. Over 100 students and Old Boys of the College lost their lives in the service of their country, the grief impossible for us to truly know or appropriate. But there was resolve and resilience, perhaps no better demonstrated by The Memorial Hall [pictured right] in the Arrupe Building: it stands today as a silent but cogent witness to the pain and suffering of the past, one which makes contextual the current difficulties we are dealing with.

There are many accounts in the archives of what it meant for the boys who attended the College during this time. Two will suffice to indicate the challenges that were part of the daily reality of life for those who lived through it:

“The war increasingly began to affect school life. Priests began to disappear into military chaplaincies. The first duty on arriving at school… was to queue up and hand in our food and clothing coupons so that the school could use them to buy food, etc. All the milk produced by the school herd had to be handed in to the government to be made into milk powder for the troops. Food at school became short and of poor quality, despite what the school would do to improve it. There were no complaints about this … The lay staff was made up of old men [who were] totally unemployable for school duties … The basements of the school were all shored up as air-raid shelters and the school was blacked out at night during air-raid alerts. One night … we were all piled into the basement to watch the searchlights and listen to the explosions as the Japanese submarines were hunted and shells landed at Rose Bay.”
– James J Macken (OR 1938-46)

On a more sombre note:

“Many mornings in the chapel the Rector would step up to the altar, and in the hushed silence, announce the death in action of yet another of the Old Boys. Some of the older men were unknown to us, … but when it was a boy who we had known well there was a stunned silence as Death came so much closer.”
– John Gorman (OR 1944-45)

We remain in lockdown with infections still at an alarming level in Sydney. Thankfully, the northern regions of the city from where most families come have remained relatively free from the intensity of the infections. While we lament what has been lost – a GPS season, liturgical celebration, school events and the like, perhaps we may come to appreciate the importance of the words of the Prefect of Studies in 1919 – Fr Patrick McCurtin SJ. The final entry in his diary for the year in which the Spanish Flu ravaged Sydney, expressed relief that there was not one student or staff fatality: “An anxious – hard – broken, but on the whole, successful year ended (Praise be to God forever).” In light of what the previous four years of war had seen, one can fully understand this comment. And if our year finishes ‘anxious, hard and broken’, but all are safe, that may well be regarded as successful despite the adversity that is being encountered along the way.

Dr Paul Hine