Patrician Brother Mark Ryan reflects on an eventful life
When asked if he would do the past 60 years as a Patrician Brother all over again his answer is very simple … “Oh my word yes”.
Reflecting on six decades of religious life, Br Mark Ryan said he has no doubt he is exactly where God wanted him to be. Introduced to the Brothers as a boarder at Holy Cross College Ryde after the passing of his mother, little did he know what a profound effect they would have on the rest of his life.
After graduating as an industrial chemist and spending a few years in the workforce, he decided something in his life was missing and thinking of the strict but kind Irish Brothers who played such a huge part in his formative years led him to enter the community and make his First Profession in 1960.
“It was tough for all of us but the Brothers were wonderful” -Brother Mark Ryan
He said growing up without a motherly figure was very tough but the Brothers made it as comfortable as they could for the hundreds of boarders away from their families and friends. “We lived in Breeza, about 45km south east of Gunnedah, and when Mum passed away, dad had little choice but to send me to boarding school as he couldn’t work and look after me at the same time,” he said.
“For a nine-year-old my world had turned upside down and everything was a bit of a blur. I can still remember walking into the school with dad that first day not really sure what to expect, but two things that stick in my mind was the statue of Christ and his Cross out the front and the odd shape of the tower.
“It did take a little while to settle in and there were lots of tears, I guess there was a style of parenting in those days, where fathers in particular raised kids to be independent, so you just had to man up.
“The Irish brothers had a charm about them in their own way, the little kids in particular would cry at night, and they would be strict with a kind side.”
Growing up without female role models was never easy for any of the boys but Br Mark fondly remembers the Brothers who made it a happy time despite the challenges. “It was tough for all of us but the Brothers were wonderful,” he smiled.
“Brother John Gallagher came out from Ireland in a boat with six other Brothers and taught me science which obviously made a big impression on me becoming a chemist.
“But there were fun times too and I‘ll always remember the tradition on St Patrick’s Day when the whole school would go to the Zoo, and Br Anthony Phelan would appear in the green Ford with tea chests full of doorstop sandwiches (the thick ones), cake, fruit and boiling water to make tea at lunch.
“They were all such great characters who I think really did keep the world going and who obviously inspired me to become one of them.”
Despite his work forcing him to travel further afield, his bond to the Ryde school always remained. In 1951, he began a part-time Diploma of Applied Chemistry at the Sydney Technical College, then a Bachelor of Science at UNSW, all while working as a quality control chemist in the cosmetics and pharmaceutical industry.
He kept up his association with the college’s Old Boys’ Union and one day just decided there had to be more to life. “I was reflecting on the fact that the Patricians had moved from the inner city to the west – Granville, Blacktown, Fairfield and Liverpool and that’s the occasion I thought ‘I’d like to give it a go’,” he said.
And in 1959 fate and faith intervened and he joined the Patrician Brothers Novitiate and professed in 1960. He taught at Patrician Brothers, Fairfield, to the end of 1962 then went back to Wahroonga from 1963 to 1966 before being made acting principal at his old Ryde school ahead of the position of principal being awarded to him in 1969.
“I was principal there until I returned to the classroom in 1971 before moving to Fairfield again in 1972 and I stayed there until 1990, the last four years as principal.”
In 1991, Br Mark returned to teaching at Holy Cross, and took up several roles including overseeing the Big Chapel and Mass preparation. Despite later retiring, he continued to tutor senior chemistry and maths students allowing him to dedicate time to his other great love … music.
During his school years he signed up for every choir and concert and on leaving school played bagpipes in the Irish National Association Pipe Band. Over the years Br Mark has either led or performed in many concerts, including the Patrician Brothers’ and Brigidine Sisters’ Centenary Concert at The Opera House in 1983, which celebrated the 100-year anniversary of the orders’ arrival in Australia from Ireland.
“The performing arts are a big passion of mine,” he said, a love that has not gone unrecognised at Holy Cross College – its music centre bears his name. Today he plays the tuba with the Leichhardt Brass Band and spend hours and hours either playing or listening to music.
“I suppose that’s one of the great sadnesses in my life, my mum was a lovely pianist and she was meant to teach me but sadly she passed away before I had the chance to learn,” he said. “Not knowing my mum as an adult was the great disappointment in life for me.
“Apart from that I have had a pretty good life and honestly don’t think I would have been happy anywhere else. Every day I give thanks for the incredible life I have lived.”