Let me say at the outset that I am aware that people’s recollections of Catholic high schools vary—but the following are some of the memories I have of the 1960s, at the cusp of the Conciliar era and my reflections may resonate with some readers. I attended Brigidine Convent school in Randwick in Sydney, Australia, which exuded a distinctly Irish flavor, as many parochial schools did in America and Australia then. The day/boarding school had Irish origins for the Brigidine order of nuns, founded by Bishop Daniel Delany in Ireland in 1807, was the post Reformation re-establishment of an earlier order of nuns led by the Irish Saint Brigid in the fifth century. The new intrepid Brigidine missionaries sailed to the Antipodes in 1883 and established several schools in Australia and New Zealand.
When I walked through the schools’ doors, as a child of East-European refugees in 1964, I had no idea I would inherit a precious spiritual legacy transmitted by many such religious orders. And that I was living through an era, a borderlands, soon to vanish. Strange to say, during the first four years of high school, we students had no idea what Vatican II was, that French barricades and Humanae Vitae were looming. Vatican II may as well have not existed as the high school existed in a spiritual ambience where: God exists; there is a cosmic spiritual war on; we are involved; we have been redeemed by Jesus; Communism is godless and evil.
While there were many subjects, there was a strong emphasis on music, languages and a commercial school within the larger school. Baby boomer era classes had 40 students in them—I recall a class of 45 one year. We started each lesson with a prayer, wore uniforms, helped nuns and thought the whole world was like this.
At general assemblies in the courtyard, we looked up at the nun/principal standing on a raised balcony, as if to God’s messenger who had descended to give a report of earthly doings and what Heaven wanted done henceforth.
We attended Mass in Latin, sang hymns in Latin and studied Latin. Our quietly spoken, yet determined teacher Mother Conleth, managed to convey to us that conjugating verbs in Latin and translation, was essential to any kind of semi-decent life on earth. She would begin each class with Salvete puellae (“Hello girls”) and then get down to business. Not to do one’s Latin homework was simply human perfidy and would produce abject horror on her face. I am amazed my school retained large Latin classes despite the anti-Latin forces beyond but Mother Conleth, of blessed memory, was a supernatural tour de force.
Our English teacher, Mother Loyola, led us to believe that life without literature was not worth living either. We memorized poetry and Shakespearean passages and pondered Hamlet’s problems as if they were our own. Strangely, there was no critique of the French revolution as we sang the Marseillaise, to practice our French. The inimitable lay teacher, Mrs Mollie Watts, inducted me into the world of music, the verities of Celtic thought, of Tara’s Halls and Erin’s Isle and so I acquired an Irish musical layer to my reffo roots.
This was the era of confident banners at feast day marches, the Children of Mary and their Aspirants, Sodalities and St Vincent de Paul. We sang the school song to St Brigid, Far away enthroned in glory, sweetest saint of Erin’s Isle and of course to St Patrick. We sang Soul of My Savior, Hail Queen of Heaven, the Pange Lingua and that triumphalist Catholic hymn which would make feminists blanche—Faith of Our Fathers Living Still with its words: “Our fathers chained in prisons dark, Were still in heart and conscience free, How Sweet would be their children’s fate, if they like them could die for Thee.”
It was totally fitting for a child with family in the gulags, to sing this rousing hymn to defeat the forces arraigned against Catholicism. But at the time we sang it, Vatican II was proceeding with its various aims and we knew nothing of it.
Meantime, what threaded the days of lessons, exams, sport, and assemblies was the notion that there was order in the universe. On leaving Brigidine Convent, we were all to help St Vincent de Paul as that is what responsible adults did. We were to shun the false allures of “fame, power, wealth and beauty” which would never bring happiness. Last but not least, we were to further the Kingdom of God by helping the missions overseas. My toffee making efforts for the Papuan Hohola Mission school were doomed to failure as I burned several pots. But local residents dutifully bought and ate them and the school duly sent money to our sister school in Port Moresby.
It was only in my senior year that a general sense of something strange, new, even “revolutionary” began wafting through the corridors. We sang Spirit of God in the Clear Running Water in the local church as this is “what the Bishops want now.” Mother Conleth, however, loathed such changes and showed it in her “non verbals.”
It seemed the heady years of “the first man on the moon” era, opened doors of boundless confidence in social progress. Students asked questions about what contraception and abortion were and we were told they were unambiguous evils. We now knew there was an event called “Vatican II” but had no idea of what Aidan Nichols called the over-optimistic cultural expectations of many Council attendees: “…a sense of optimism that world culture and the values cherished by the Church were on an increasingly convergent course.”
I did not know what Semi-Pelagian meant but I soon saw peers naively drawn into movements of political salvation, with leftist/Marxist views, seeing sin as “social/political” and no longer “personal.” This post-Conciliar focus on earthly justice alone was the mask of Marxist notions, disguised as evangelical zeal in the west, without doubt astutely manipulated by Soviet purse strings. The liberation of the Proletariat was translated into liberation of the laity and invasion of the sanctuary by the downtrodden Catholic citizens in the pews. We did not understand, as Tracey Rowland explains, the “theological significance of culture,” and that secularism’s spiritually toxic values could be twisted into “virtues” of “marriage equality,” “limitless freedom” and “choice.”
Without critical analyses of the times we had no practice in what many in oppressive cultures knew by then, guerrilla resistance to anti-spiritual forces. And how could we translate the notion of cultural/spiritual war to happy, trusting believers, when the weapons used were invisible? In decades to come, we had to see through the post-modern “virtue” of “tolerance” (of abortion, gay “marriage,” euthanasia) and learn, through extraordinary encyclicals of post-Conciliar popes, to re-articulate what human dignity, religious freedom, and divine Mercy are for an anti-Christian, wounded age.
At Brigidine, however, in 1969, little did we know that we were nearing the end of an era, that the social order was being rent asunder by critics of authority and moral norms, whose fruits would be evident within a few short years. In that last filament of twilight, as I stood on the border of a new era, enough of the Catholic vision had nonetheless seeped through to my soul, but importantly, it was tied to a good dose of East European skepticism of post-Conciliar, quasi-Marxist, social justice enterprises. For many of my peers the skepticism of the new era’s attitudes was not there, and how could it be, if they had no idea of how brainwashing works? The inherited sense of obedience to authority often meant obedience to post-Conciliar liturgical and other experimenters.
And my school did not forewarn us about an era that was socially destabilizing, liturgically confusing, and morally turbulent. How could it—who could have predicted that things would fall apart? From those who went to schools similar to mine in the 1960s some survived, some didn’t and many ended up in the field hospital. And yet, whatever their fates, there remained some lingering, anchoring vision of that original Catholic legacy. But when the schools that transmitted a coherent Catholic vision of the world disappeared, as they soon did, their legacy vanished with them, replaced by other conflicting visions and worldviews.
Wanda Skowronska is a Catholic psychologist and author living and working mainly in Sydney. She is a regular contributor to the Australian Catholic journal Annals Australasia. Her most recent book is Catholic Converts from Down Under … And All Over (2016). She earned her PhD at the John Paul II Institute in Melbourne in 2011 where she does some sessional lecturing.