By Br Nicholas Harsas
As the only principal and member of a religious congregation in Sydney Catholic Schools, Brother Nicholas Harsas talks about his 30 years in education
It’s hard to believe how much the times have changed since my first year of teaching Year 1 students at St Charles Catholic Primary School, Ryde, in 1986.
But what hasn’t changed – and never will – are children. They will always be what makes teaching enjoyable for me. To see children happy, safe and proud at school, engaged in their learning, having good rapport with their teachers and understanding they belong to the Church is something very special.
As a little boy in the 1970s at Our Lady Queen of Peace Primary School, Gladesville, and later at Holy Cross College, Ryde, I was already thinking of being a primary school teacher.
I was taught by religious, the Sisters of Mercy, the Patrician Brothers and many lay teachers who inspired me to take up education as a career and a ministry.
I’ve been living my childhood dream for more than 30 years, but I never could have imagined that in 2019 I would be the only religious principal left out of the 152 schools in the Sydney Catholic Schools system.
Catholic schooling used to be synonymous with religious teaching orders. The Patrician Brothers (Brothers of St Patrick), the religious congregation I belong to, was founded by Bishop Daniel Delany in Tullow, Ireland in 1808.
He had a vision for a better quality of life for youth (and all) in his diocese where so many lives were crushed by poverty.
The Charism of the Patrician Brothers
Around him were other men, united in hearts and minds, who were convinced that the most practical way to improve people’s lot was to empower them through a good education, and nurturing good human values integrated with religious and spiritual values.
This is still at the heart of the charism of the Patrician Brothers which fuels its ministry in various parts of the world. It is also what gives me impetus in my new role in 2019 as Principal of Holy Spirit Catholic Primary School, Carnes Hill.
Ours is a relatively new school in the Archdiocese of Sydney, at only 17 years old.
It was established by the parish, the archdiocese and Sydney Catholic Schools.
While various parish priests have always had a very close relationship with the school, there has not been the presence of religious in the school until I arrived there.
I frequently wear my religious habit and for a Patrician Brother it is the white soutane and green sash. The students were most interested in this new arrival who looked so different from any teacher or principal they had seen!
On Ash Wednesday this year, the beginning of Lent and my first year at Holy Spirit School, a student came up and asked me why I was still wearing green when purple was the colour of Lent.
Full marks for getting the colours of the liturgical season correct at least! I think the school community now knows a little more about why I wear a green sash (our grand celebration of St Patrick’s Day helped with that).
Teaching as a profession
Teaching has always been a profession that has appealed to me. To be able to support children in their learning and to know and love God is so important. I have now been involved in primary school education for over 30 years in five schools, and in four schools as principal. Having the opportunity to witness children learn and to grow in their faith is a privilege; to work with teachers, staff, parents and local priests in this endeavour is very satisfying.
Today the curriculum is jam-packed and there is far greater emphasis on compliance and accountability.
But a school community will always be a very dynamic one with many diverse people coming together each day with shared values and a common purpose – to provide the students in the school with the very best Catholic education they can! This is not just the responsibility of a single teacher or principal; it can only happen when there is genuine cooperation between staff, parents, parish and of course, the students.
There are so many joys and some sad times I have experienced as a teacher and principal, and each experience has enriched my teaching, my leadership and my ministry as a Patrician Brother.
A joy for me over the years is the connections I have made with students and their families. Over the course of my religious life and teaching career I have been asked by students and their parents to be godfather or sponsor to many of them.
To take on these roles is a special responsibility, on the day of Baptism and Confirmation, and beyond. Many of these (who were in primary school) are now in their mid-30s and I still have a close relationship with them, their spouses and now their children.
This has been one of life’s greatest blessings for me.
Having the children of my own ex-students attending the schools where I have since worked in, is another joy for me. To remember the parents (as primary school students) and now see their own children as engaged and happy learners in Catholic schools gives me great satisfaction, and another reason to praise God.
If I could go back in time to decide about my life choices, I would do it all again. Teaching is a noble profession and religious life a most life-giving vocation.
Brother Nicholas Harsas, fsp
Related Links: Students Farewell Br Nicholas