Walk with hope

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10 December 2018

Images of primary and secondary principals to celebrate all of their achievements in 2018, welcome new principals and farewell their colleagues.

Primary and secondary principals gathered last week to celebrate all their achievements in 2018, welcome new principals and farewell their colleagues.

Following Mass celebrated by Archbishop Comensoli, principals enjoyed dinner and performances by musicians from Marymede Catholic College, South Morang, Christian Brothers’ College, St Kilda East, and Aquinas College, Ringwood.

Christine Ash, outgoing principal of St Elizabeth’s School, Dandenong North, was invited to share her thoughts on behalf of all leaving principals.

Most, but not all, of the 48 years that I have been teaching have been in Catholic education. Nearly eight of those years were as principal at St Joseph’s School in Chelsea and for the last 11-and-a-half years I have been fortunate to be at St Elizabeth’s School in Dandenong North.

When I shared with my friends that I was about to retire, several of them made comments along the lines that my service to the Catholic school system had been stressful and relentless. People are often shocked by the long hours we put in as principals. It’s not just the hours devoted to teaching and learning for the students, but also the many hours spent in serving our school and parish communities.

These well-meaning friends comment that Catholic education is lucky to have had me as part of the team and they wonder why I spent so long doing it. I delight in explaining to them that they are wrong in thinking that Catholic education owes me; in fact they are very wrong, totally mistaken, because it is actually the reverse: I owe Catholic education more than I could ever measure.

I owe Catholic education for a life full of treasures and blessings. Sometimes the treasures and blessings are obvious: a child makes unexpected progress, a family makes changes to nurture their children, a colleague shares a powerful story. Often though, it is only by the light of reflection that you see the real miracles that transform the people around you. Sometimes you don’t get the full depth and understanding of an experience until long after it has occurred. It often takes a sleepless night to put all the pieces together, but then you see how your school community, the staff, the parents, the parish priest and often the students themselves have worked to make a difference.

When the jigsaw puzzle pieces of an experience fit together, your reflections show you that your experiences bring depth and richness to your life. You have access to a treasure trove and the most priceless gem in that treasure trove is hope.

Catholic education is not simply a system or an organisation; it is so much more than that. It is a unique family of people connected by shared horizons of hope, people united in bringing about God’s Kingdom to this place, in this time, with these communities.

I have been blessed working in Catholic education because I have worked with and for the most amazing people. Our system is not just a financial, legal, political structure. Its foundation is not a data-driven business model. It is a living community built on a shared faith. The strength and core of Catholic education are the people who work in it.

Sure, we need to have all the trappings of any successful bureaucracy, but we are so much more than that. We are missionaries and witnesses and we bring hope to our families as they engage in the battles of life. We are the Church at work in our centres of learning and teaching, and as such we are privileged and also challenged. It is a joy and a challenge to be engaged in the sacred work of making this world a better place.

Let me share with you how I came to be in this fortunate position. It is a story that shows you the importance of people as well as policy. If Catholic education had only been about policy and procedure, I would not be here tonight.

We know that there are angels and demons in this world, and I am not talking about golden curls and cherubic faces when I talk of angels or horns and gnashing teeth when I speak of demons. I see people who do the work of God as angels and those who destroy goodness in themselves or others as demons. I have met both in my time as a principal and I am sure that you have too. Both have left their mark on me and in some way called me to do more with my life. It was a couple of angels who brought me to Catholic Education Melbourne.

But I digress. Let me get back to a significant event that led me to where I am today. I am the eldest of three children who came to Australia as 10-pound migrants. My father was a devout Catholic and a brilliant man, but his personality was sadly flawed by a relentless need to convert people to his very traditional and fundamentalist views of the Catholic faith. He lost countless jobs because he believed it was his mission to convert everyone he came in contact with. Not everyone wants to be bullied into a conversion.

When he had exhausted the stockbroker circle in London, he decided to try converting Australians. Without further ado, he dragged his family across the seas. I was midway through Year 12. We arrived in Bundoora in March 1967 and I had no academic qualifications. My mother promptly had a nervous breakdown which lasted several years.

I stepped straight from a convent life with the Sisters of the Holy Family of Bordeaux into Bundoora High. I thought I had arrived in Bedlam. No-one wore indoor shoes and outdoor gloves and there wasn’t a straw boater in sight. As for time for prayers, you just prayed that no-one picked on you during that class. After a few months of living in what was then the outer fringe of Melbourne, my family moved to Elwood in the hope that a taste of its European culture would revive my mother, but it only led to everyone else eating beautiful cakes.

I had always wanted to be a priest or a teacher. At an early age, I realised one of these callings was not going to be as possible as the other, so I set my heart on teaching.

Picture me in my very English orange fur coat and white plastic boots, bewildered by the wild and strange ways of teaching and learning in this dusty land. You can imagine that becoming a teacher seemed to be a faraway dream. Unsure of what to do with my life, I went straight out and got a position as a titles clerk with a solicitor in Hampton. Yes, I was determined to become a teacher but I didn’t have a clue about how this could happen and I knew even less about the Catholic education system.

After a year in the job, I got tired of reading legal files in my lunchbreak as a source of excitement and decided to apply for a job in the city. I answered an advert for a position with a large insurance company and set off for an interview with my mother in tow. That was what you did back then.

After the interview with a kind middle-aged man on the 16th floor of the city building, the man sat back in his chair and said, ‘What do you really want to do with your life?’ ‘Ah’, I said, ‘I am going to be a teacher one day’. At this point the man, who I now know to have been an angel, said he wanted to talk to my mother.

He called her in and asked if she knew what her daughter really wanted to do with her life and then he said he wanted to call someone in Catholic education because he believed this was where I needed to go. Picking up a black telephone on his desk, he rang Mother Eymard, head of the Presentation Sisters, and said he had someone with him that she ought to meet.

Mother Eymard duly arranged to meet me and all I can remember of the meeting was that the windows behind her were leadlight, the sun streamed in and it felt like I was on the set of The Sound of Music.

A few days later I was summoned to the city to meet someone from the Catholic Education Office. I don’t remember much of that interview, but I do know my mother made me take white gloves in my handbag in case I wasn’t dressed well enough!

Then nothing happened.

I waited for several months without any communication, until one day a very unassuming envelope arrived with a short note that said I had been granted a place at Christ College due to extraordinary circumstances. Too right, they were extraordinary circumstances. A miracle had taken place and it was the work of angels. This was the first time that I experienced the power of angels and I have seen angels working alongside me in so many ways since then. Miracles happen because people in our Catholic system walk the extra mile; they do the unexpected and transform people’s lives with radical acts of kindness on a daily basis.

Of course, there are demons too. I have met a few in my time, as we all have. They are the people who challenge you to go on making a difference even in the face of adversity and hostility. In a business system, these demons are outed and removed. In our communities, they are given many chances and opportunities to see a better way to act; they are shown a possibility for change and renewal, and they are forgiven and blessed.

I want to make a very special mention of the principals that I have worked alongside. Each and every one of you has shown yourselves to be people of great integrity, people of sincere and real faith, and people of nourishment and hope.

As a young principal, I came to the position thinking that I had much to give, but every day working alongside you, I have come to know that what I can offer is limited, yet together we have so much to give. Every principal who stays the course is inspirational, every one of you has ‘angel’ written on your hearts.

Now, I don’t want to leave you thinking that life in Catholic education has been easy. Far from it. I have received my share of death threats. One little person who I taught in Prep at Holy Eucharist in Chadstone was a fairly stocky lad with a big character and little legs. I sent him up the steep fire escape one day to get some yellow paint and he came back down the iron staircase clutching the wrong colour paint. I could see him climbing slowly up and even more slowly down. ‘Hmm’, I said when he finally appeared at my side, ‘I think you have brought the wrong paint. I asked for yellow and you have brought me orange. Please go back and get the right one.’ He looked at me with a gaze that was both incredulous and full of fury. ‘Sorry’, I said, ‘but you made the mistake so you have to fix it’. As I watched him set off up the staircase again, I could clearly hear on every step: ‘I am going to kill her’. I hope if he becomes Prime Minister next year with an army at his disposal, Bill Shorten will forget that threat.

So to sum it up: go on being angels, walk with hope, keep bananas in your cupboard for energy and stay true to your faith. You may have moments of doubt, but you are not alone in that – the disciples had many. Make sure you build relationships with your colleagues in the priesthood and in the principal networks. This is too tough a job to do alone if you are going to achieve your God-given mission. That is one of the reasons we have worked so hard to develop the Victorian Association of Catholic Primary School Principals (you didn’t think I would leave that out, did you?).

Foster opportunities to find treasure, recognise when angels cross your path and look out for the demons. God bless you all! Thank you for inviting me to be part of Catholic Education Melbourne. I will be forever grateful.