Catholic education celebrates 200 years

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Students from Padstow’s St Therese Primary School have met their pen pals from local nursing home. Photo: Alphonsus Fok
Students from St Therese Primary School, Padstow, meet friends from a local nursing home in 2019. PHOTO: Alphonsus Fok

Unique educational heritage unmatched in the world


Catholic 
schools across Australia have made an extraordinary contribution to the nation’s social capital, but must be robust in facing challenges in maintaining their religious identity and mission, say Australia’s Catholic bishops.

In a pastoral letter to mark 200 years of Catholic education, the bishops acknowledge that while enrolments grow, so is the number of non-Catholic students attending them, while many Catholic parents choose to send their children to state-based or alternative independent schools. 

“Much more is required, however, for a genuinely Catholic school than a preponderance of students from Catholic families or of staff who are devout,” they wrote.

St Mary MacKillop would be well pleased with the scale and reach of Catholic schooling in Australia today”. -Australian Catholic Bishop’s pastoral letter ‘200 Years Young’

A list of “essential” requirements include that leaders and staff “understand, and are solidly committed to, the Catholic community of the school, that students are enabled to have a “personal encounter with Christ” and that schools be “Eucharistic communities” supported by the families and parishes. 

Acknowledging the efforts of the clergy, religious and lay faithful in the establishment of schools,
 the bishops wrote that “the great champion of Catholic education” St Mary of the Cross MacKillop would be well pleased with the scale and reach of Catholic schooling in Australia today. 

Archbishop Anthony Fisher OP
, Chair of the Bishops Commission for Catholic Education, launched the letter on 18 February in Sydney. 

NCEC chair Nicholas Moore (left), its executive director Jacinta Collins and chair of the Bishops Commission for Catholic Education Archbishop Anthony Fisher OP. PHOTO: Peter Rosengren

The archbishop said that as well as contributing to the social fabric and offering faith-based education to families, Catholic education had been a significant factor in “turning down the temperature on the sectarianism that Australia used to have. 

Catholic schools have encouraged the celebration of our diverse ethnicities, religions, backgrounds but also brought people together with a common mission and focus,” the archbishop said. 

In the context of growing secularisation and challenges in transmitting the fait
h, Archbishop Fisher said the Church was also undergoing “a kind of institutional examination of conscience at the moment where we are asking are we really being true to our mission to the identity we have been given by Christ and by the Church. 

It’s a good question for every generation to ask itself, he said. 

“The 200 year celebration is an opportunity for us to take stock of where we are today, and it takes us back to our original mission” -Jacinta Collins

National Catholic Education Commission Director Jacinta Collins said certainty around government funding for Catholic schools meant that focus is being directed to priorities including improving the faith formation of students, educational outcomes particularly for disadvantaged students and better management of the connections between parishes and schools. 

“T
he 200 year celebration is an opportunity for us to take stock of where we are today, and it takes us back to our original mission which is to provide the choice of a Catholic education for every Catholic child in Australia,” she said. 

Millions enriched from humble beginnings

The virtual launch included students from St Patrick’s Primary and Parramatta Marist schools in the Diocese of Parramatta. Both schools are linked to the first Catholic school in the nation, which opened on Hunter Street in Parramatta with the blessing of Irish Catholic priest Fr John Therry in October 1820.
 
From an initial class of 31Catholic schools now educate more than one in five Australian students, with many others attending Catholic pre-schools, colleges and universities in a ‘womb to tomb’ offering. 

Today
 1,751 Catholic schools educate 768,000 students and employ 98,000 staff, with nearly 40 per cent located outside of metropolitan cities in regional, rural and remote communities.  

The old Parramatta Marist School was established to provide for poorer families of the colony. PHOTO: Supplied

Archbishop Fisher said while there is much to celebrate over two centuries, the Bishops acknowledge in their pastoral letter the irrevocable harm caused by child sexual abuse in Catholic schools and other institutions over the years.   

“This damaged many children and families, as well as the credibility of Church institutions, including schools, in the eyes of many. 
As these failings have been steadily corrected at a systemic level, the trust of families is being gradually rebuilt,” he said.

National Catholic Education Commission Chair Nicholas Moore acknowledged the support of successive governments of the past six decades and contribution of the Catholic community, particularly parents, who have contributed through school fees and fundraising.  


For more information see www.200years.catholic.edu.au 

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