150 years of Marist education

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Students from St Patrick’s College, Dundas at the Sesquicentenary celebrations. Photo: Patrick J Lee
Students from St Patrick’s College, Dundas at the Sesquicentenary celebration of Marist education in Australia. Photo: Patrick J Lee

When four young Marist Brothers, all aged in their 20s from France, Scotland and Ireland first set foot in Sydney 150 years ago to establish the order’s first school here at the invitation of Sydney’s first Archbishop Bede Polding, they would never have dreamed the rich legacy they would leave in sowing the seeds for one of Australian Catholic education’s greatest success stories.

When St Patrick’s Marist school for boys opened in Harrington Street in the Rocks on 8 April 1872, it had just 139 enrolments.

Today, 150 years later, Marist Schools Australia cares for over 50 thousand students across 19 dioceses, all united in the spirituality of the order’s founder St Marcellin Champagnat, focused on bringing generations of young people to the knowledge and love of God, focused on Jesus and the Church through Mary, Our Good Mother.

“The Order was destined to serve not only the recovery of the Church in France, but also the French Church’s great mission to the South Pacific and beyond.”

Marist education marked this Sesquicentenary with a Solemn Mass at St Mary’s Cathedral on Friday 8 April which brought together representatives from its schools across Australia and which was concelebrated by the Archbishops of Sydney and Melbourne, alongside the Bishops of Wagga Wagga and Parramatta: all dioceses with proud histories of Marist education.

Principal celebrant at the Mass, Sydney Archbishop, Anthony Fisher OP paid tribute in his homily to the founder of the Marists, St Marcellin Champagnat, who had witnessed the chaos caused by the French Revolution, including the confiscation of Church property and was determined to restore the Catholic faith in France and lead a missionary order, committed to spreading the faith to remote parts of the world.

“The Order was destined to serve not only the recovery of the Church in France, but also the French Church’s great mission to the South Pacific and beyond”, Archbishop Fisher explained.

St Patrick’s Community c1881. This is possibly the first photo of a Marist community in Australia.
St Patrick’s Community c1881. This is possibly the first photo of a Marist community in Australia. Photo: Marist Schools Australia

“Marcellin was convinced that for his teaching Brothers to flourish they must embody and live out the ideals of the best of teachers, the one who taught the child Jesus himself, Mother Mary.

“By laying such solid and practical foundations even amidst the chaos of the French revolutionary era, Marcellin set up a fraternity to grow from a handful of brothers teaching in a small rural school in 1818, to now a major religious order educating and forming over half a million young people across 82 countries worldwide, including 50,000 in our own country”.

The Provincial of the Marist Brothers, Br Peter Carroll FMS said the order’s work has evolved greatly through the years to now cover 56 schools including a mix of all boys and co-educational secondary schools, with more than 40 of them administered by local dioceses and 13 administered by the Marist Order itself.

“The Marists arrived here with very few resources, yet through faith and patience … and with the blessings of God and the ever guiding presence of Mary, Our Good Mother, we have created something that will outlast us.”

Br Peter said while the administration has evolved, the Marist mission has remained firmly committed to the enduring vision of St Marcellin Champagnat, especially his primary focus on serving the disadvantaged in education.

“The Marists arrived here with very few resources, yet through faith and patience, cooperation and collaboration, imagination and energy and with the blessings of God and the ever guiding presence of Mary, Our Good Mother, we have created something that will outlast us”, he said.

“The Marists of Champagnat are committed now and in the future to working with and for the Church in Australia, to educate and evangelise children and young people, particularly those most in need in the way presented to us by St Marcellin”.

Marist school students perform at the 150th Mass in St Mary’s Cathedral. Photo: Patrick J Lee
Marist school students perform at the 150th Mass in St Mary’s Cathedral.
Photo: Patrick J Lee

On the day the four pioneering Marist Brothers arrived in Sydney after the long voyage from Europe, their first destination was St Patrick’s Church in the Rocks where they prayed before the Blessed Sacrament, praising God and Our Blessed Lady for their safe arrival.

Under the leadership of their first Provincial, the French-born Br Ludovic, their school enrolments in adjacent Harrington Street quickly grew to cover three schools in three years and in that time seven novices, three postulants and another Brother also joined the Order.

To mark the sesquicentenary of Marist education, a sculpture of Br Ludovic was unveiled at St Patrick’s Church Hill, created by Sydney sculptor Roger Apte, who has also created other life-like statues of significant figures in Australian Catholicism also on permanent display at St Patrick’s, including Charles O’Neill, who founded the St Vincent De Paul Society in NSW.

“In Br Ludovic, the Marists asked me to capture some of his unique character in the sculpture and he was very much known for his vision, vigour, drive, energy and enthusiasm …”

“The work for St Patrick’s has made me aware of where the gift God gave me can be used to serve as an object to carry stories and thereby, meaning and connection for His people”, Roger Apte explained to The Catholic Weekly.

“In Br Ludovic, the Marists asked me to capture some of his unique character in the sculpture and he was very much known for his vision, vigour, drive, energy and enthusiasm as well as a man of deep integrity and extraordinary ability”.

“The sculpture captures him at the age of 60 but with the younger vigour of a man of 40 which was the age he left Sydney bound for New Caledonia”.

First Marist school principal Br Ludovic Laboureyras. The bust was sculptored by Roger Apte and unveiled at St Patrick's Church Hill. Photo of bust: Alphonsus Fok
First Marist school principal Br Ludovic Laboureyras. The bust was sculptored by Roger Apte and unveiled at St Patrick’s Church Hill. Photo of bust: Alphonsus Fok

Fr Peter McMurrich SM from St Patrick’s Church Hill said it was wonderful to honour such an inspirational figure for all Marists in Australia on such a landmark anniversary. “Br Ludovic had a great willingness to take a leap of faith, coming to Sydney in his late 20s, into a new country with a foreign culture and not being able to speak English well, but still pushing ahead and establishing the first Marist Brothers’ school in Australia and going on to be novice master, nurturing early vocations for the order.

In so doing, he demonstrated a great faith and commitment to the Gospel and a willingness to ‘give it a go’ and let God do the rest”, Fr McMurrich said.

While the Marist Brothers have not experienced the same growth in vocations over more recent years, the order has seen a rapid growth in laypeople committing themselves in a formal way to the charism through the Marist Association of St Marcellin Champagnat.

Established in 2015, the association has a remarkable 1000 members with 90 percent of the members laypeople and the other 10 percent made up of Marist Brothers and clergy.

“Every year we would have around 5000 participants across our 56 schools and other ministries who are directly involved in some formal type of formation program.”

The association offers spiritual formation to members who are invited to engage in a wide variety of volunteer activities including aid projects in the Pacific region through Marist Solidarity as well as an annual national assembly held across June, July and August 2022.

The National Director of Marist Education Australia, Dr Frank Malloy, said the Marist association is a powerful reflection of a tradition that began in the late 1980s when the Marist Brothers recognised the importance of strong spiritual formation of lay Marists to keep the charism alive for future generations.

“Every year we would have around 5000 participants across our 56 schools and other ministries who are directly involved in some formal type of formation program”.

You can find more information about the Marist Association of St Marcellin Champagnat on the association’s website: http://www.maristassociation.org.au/