The Irish Christian Brothers At St.Kilda

By Peter Lalor Philp


The author and his grandchildren at a CBC St.Kilda ANZAC service

On 26 July, Christian Brothers College St Kilda celebrated its 140thAnniversary. Over that period the college in Westbury Street has become one of the most famous schools established by the Irish Christian Brothers in Australia. It has a proud list of alumni: Scholars, sportsmen, war heroes, clergy and most of all, exceptional human beings.

Like all colleges it developed its own culture predominately set by the Irish Christian Brothers but also by its students, both in their classroom days but particularly in their chosen professions. It was that strong culture that has established a respected and impressive CBC St Kilda history, a recognition achieved without the elite status of being a private public school.

In the current environment, where the Irish Christian Brothers have been meshed in the child abuse scandal, I am sometimes asked to give my impressions of my school days. My experience as a student at St Kilda during the 1950s: There was never a hint of sexual abuse. In my early years, the school was staffed by more than 20 brothers and only two lay teachers.

However after reading some destressing articles about less fortunate CBC students from other colleges and with the college’s 140thcelebrations underway, I have been reflecting more deeply about the educational, religious and social development acquired under the Irish Christian Brothers.

For me, during a very different era, CBC St.Kilda was a wonderful school of which I am still very proud and very grateful that my mother chose it for my education. I am constantly reminded of a comment made by one of my closest friends of 60 years, himself a St.Kilda old boy, who now finds his  strength and support with the Masonic movement: ‘Peter, you and I would not be the people we are without the brothers at CBC.’

That bold statement has to be measured against the experiences of my four sons who were educated at CBC Box Hill, St Leo’s College. All of my boys hated their Box Hill education, far and beyond the fact that there was an active pedophile at the college. It was another generation.

Many years after leaving school, I met one of my ex-teachers on a train. He explained that he had left the order because it had all changed and he no longer felt comfortable working within it. And I could understand what he was saying. Major reforms to the teaching profession and a changed church that had passed through Vatican II, were now well ingrained in our society. Remembering his classroom personality and disciplinary behaviour, I realized it would have been difficult for him to progress into the new environment.

Now, I also understand the feelings of my four boys. At St Kilda there were many brothers who loosely fitted into three categories: Dedicated Christian men whose mission was to cultivate boys’ characters. There were others, a little difficult to understand because of their strict discipline, yet they were okay and finally a few physically brutal men who should never have found their calling in a religious order.

At Box Hill in the 1980s there was a handful of brothers, some of whom, like my ex-teacher on the train, were lost in the new Christian education world.

imagesIt was not only teaching that had changed; so too had Catholics’ approach to their faith and the practice of it. Many priests too were lost in the post Vatican II church. Many quit and enjoyed a new wholesome Christian life. Others hung in there often deeply frustrated about what they saw as a declining commitment to doctrine and declining congregations.

What had happened between the CBC St Kilda years and CBC Box Hill and beyond is that the used by date for some of the old traditions of the religious professed brothers was up. For many generations, these men had played very important roles in young men’s lives. Brothers like Basil Worner, a Western Australian who taught me at St.Kilda, had a remarkable influence on me. I only wish I could meet him again for coffee. However there were so many of the old traditionalists who found it impossible to come to terms with the changes. The Book of Ecclesiastes tells us:

‘For everything there is a season, a time for every matter under Heaven..a time to keep, and a time to cast away.’

Kevin People’s excellent new book, Trapped in a Closed World, confirms anecdotes from some who were members of orders like the Irish Christian Brothers that religious training was far was satisfactory in a changing world. A closed and narrow all male environment where unreasonable harsh discipline somehow merged with Christian ideals, was no longer acceptable.

I thoroughly enjoy returning to my school in Westbury St. The most rewarding time is participating the annual ANZAC Eve service at the college then joining many other old collegians over lunch and hearing what CBC St Kilda and its Christian brothers meant to them. Today at St.Kilda an entirely new world exists. The college is completely staffed by lay teachers. The atmosphere between teachers and boys is something to experience. It is exciting to see how CBC St.Kilda has embraced the positives of the new but maintained those important values of the old.

Congratulations St.Kilda on your 140th.

Peter is a writer, an old boy of CBC St.Kilda and a regular contributor to Tinteán.