Irish, But Were They Christian?

A Memory of his schooling by Peter Lalor Philp

Peter as a young school boy at CBC St. Kilda

In April, this year I attended the annual ANZAC eve ceremonies at my old school, Christian Brothers College, St Kilda. As I was about to enter the main gates of the school, I met up with two elderly men. The first introduced himself as a brother, the second addressed himself as a Christian Brother. Over the decades since I graduated from the college, I have reflected on my years there, weathered by maturity, Vatican II, the plague of sexual abuse and the impacts of certain individuals.

There are many things that I still remember about CBC St Kilda from the 1950s. The pride that Principal Brother J V Coghlan had for the college and how that pride managed to flow through to so many students. The glory days at the Olympic Park, at the combined Catholic colleges athletics’ carnivals when St Kilda dominated the competition. And Brother Basil Worner, a wonderful human being. However, my deepest reflections always centre on the identification that the second brother expressed of himself: a Christian Brother.

I sometimes ponder as to whether CBC St Kilda was particularly special; it probably was. With all the modern-day attention on school bullying, sexual abuse and religious brainwashing, during my years at Westbury Street, I can never recall any concerning instances of these offences. Rather our senior students of the period were generally ones we looked up to. While sexual abuse was not a topic discussed during my time, the playground agenda included other reports of teachers who were behaving badly. Christian doctrine education was simplistic sometimes bordering on fundamental;, however there were sessions that sign-posted Christianity as a commitment to relations between rich and poor, which is the key message of the Gospels of Jesus.

What was so significant about the second brother at the gate distinguishing himself as a Christian brother? Was it a simple statement of fact: he did belong to that religious order, or was he highlighting his journey of life? 

I was encouraged to write this story following Frank O’Shea’s Tinteán article ’A Word for the Brothers’ particularly his research into Edmund Rice, the founder of the Irish Christian Brothers. Rice appeared to be anti-corporal punishment principally its excesses as practised by so many religious. But he discovered that it was so ingrained in the Irish culture that members of his congregation were ready to rebel against his reforms, to the extent of trying to expel him from the brothers.

This reform attempted by Edmund Rice and the introduction by the brother at the gate might afford an interesting nexus for those of us who were educated in the Catholic system and for those from the outside who try to make sense of vocations to religious life. Rigid discipline, including liberal use of corporal punishment, was an accepted custom, irrespective of secular or religious institutions. The contradiction rests with the understanding of the meaning of Christian. In my reflections, I still have problems with the behaviour of some religious, both men and women, and seemingly the lack of the love, compassion and example espoused by Christianity. Why do so many, who joined religious orders with the greatest commitment to a life of justice and compassion, appear cold and in many cases violent?

Prominent writer, Kevin Peoples in his book Trapped in a Closed World, provided me an invaluable source for reflection. He talks about the methods of recruitment of young immature boys into many religious institutions who were then exposed to a form of training that was highly disciplined, extremely narrow in its worldly outlook, and frequently unhealthy – an adherence to a doctrine rather than a way of life.

Undoubtedly, despite this, the majority of religious were able to journey their way to a highly effective vocation.

However, I am regularly confronted, generally by ex-Catholics, who berate the Irish Christian Brothers as though the order has never made a worthwhile contribution to the formation of young men who passed through their care. Such talk is frustrating and unjust.

There are too many damaged victims of religious physical and sexual abuse. That is unquestionable. But there have been a great many brothers to whom former students owe so much. For me, what the brother at the gate said in passing strongly resonates – ‘Christian Brothers’. 

A bit older, Peter is in the middle of the top row.

At the annual ANZAC ceremony at CBC St Kilda, I have listened to a number of old collegians speak about certain brothers whom they highly respect but whose mission in life I found difficult to understand. What a learning experience. Those men, not appreciated by me, had a lasting effect on others as Christian Brothers, carriers of the Gospel.

I repeat an old line by a former student who no longer believes in his old faith but who constantly reminds me ‘Thank Heavens for the Christian Brothers – we would not be the people we are today without them.’ 

I am forever grateful for the love, compassion and justice given to me by many including by old mate, Basil Wormer, who cared for me so well as a Christian Brother at CBC St Kilda, now St Mary’s College.

Peter Lalor Philp with Basil Wormer


Peter Lalor Philp is a Melbourne writer. His book, Journey with the Poor, documented his work in Latin America during the reign of terror of the 1970s which included the assassination of Archbishop Oscar Romero. Peter is also a broadcasting historian. His recent publication, Drama in Silent Rooms, is the first complete history of Australia’s radio drama on the ABC and the commercial radio networks. He is the great great grandson of the Eureka Stockade leader, Peter Lalor, and has written a number of articles for Tintean about Peter and his brothers James Fintan and Richard Lalor.  Peter was a feature writer for the Melbourne Sunday Herald, managing editor of the Catholic Advocate and broadcaster on 3KZ, Melbourne.

Now in retirement, Peter lives in South Gippsland where he writes and produces  documentaries about the history of Australian radio and is writing the Lalor family history which  incorporates the later Australian born Lalors.

Contact: email  (M) 0419 580 717

One thought on “Irish, But Were They Christian?

  1. From Ireland and Christian as well!
    Certain aspects of our schooling do have a long-term effect. Just how quickly the words “Christian Brothers College, St Kilda” in Peter Lalor Philp’s post raised my hackles was a case in point. I was a student at De La Salle College, Malvern in the 1950s. CBC St Kilda was our great adversary, and it we had our share of wins.
    At De La Salle, we were not taught by Edmund Rice’s Christian Brothers but by another congregation which seems to remain somewhat submerged as a separate entity in the mind of the general populace. They are known through their founder’s name as the De La Salle Brothers. St Jean-Baptiste de La Salle was born in France in the seventeenth century. His foundation is close to 300 hundred years old, rather older than the congregation known in Australia as the Christian Brothers. The De La Salle Brothers are the original Christian Brothers, Fratres Scholarum Christianarum, Brothers of Christian Schools.
    Despite originating in France, Ireland played a big part in the establishment of the De La Salle Brothers in Australia. One of the two Brothers who came to a short-lived mission to Western Australia was an Irishman. When the congregation returned to establish themselves permanently in Australia in 1906, five of the fourteen Brothers arriving were Irishmen.
    But Peter Lalor Philp’s article is not addressing such matters of historical trivia but wider issues of recruitment at a young age, alleged narrowness in their preparation, and the discipline they meted out in schools. Being taught at De La Salle by an older brother who was something of a stranger to me because he had left home before I was born, I have a unique view on those matters which I share in my recently published book, Chronicle of a Burnley Boy.
    Chronicle of a Burnley Boy also offers readers a view of growing up in an Irish-Catholic family in a less privileged parish and suburb and how this later interacted with education and politics. The result is sometimes a rather different perspective from those of writers such as Kevin Peoples and Vincent Buckley.
    More information about the book is available by emailing:
    Ray Watson
    13 September 2021

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