This Old Boy’s return to De La Salle Ashfield for college centenary

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The college's sculpture of St John Baptist De La Salle. Photo: Giovanni Portelli
The college’s sculpture of St John Baptist De La Salle. Photo: Giovanni Portelli

“Let us remember that we are in the Holy Presence of God” was a reminder heard frequently during my school education.

It was often recited at the change of study periods while I was a student of the De La Salle (DLS) Brothers – and it was heard again on 6 May before a crowded St Mary’s Cathedral where staff, parents, and past and present pupils of a school founded by that order gathered to celebrate an important milestone.

At the invitation of Ashfield’s then Vincentian parish priest, Fr Paul Cullen, the Brothers began working towards opening a school for boys towards the end of 1916 and took their first enrolments for the following year.

The invitation to prayer that became part of the lives of those who were educated in the La Sallian tradition was recited again at the 100th anniversary celebration Mass for Ashfield DLS by a former principal, Br Peter McIntosh FSC as he began his reflections on the college; some of its outstanding old boys; and his own administration from 1962-67.

Br Benignus Patrick FSC was the original Ashfield principal and Br Peter revealed that he had enjoyed the privilege of being interviewed by him when first presenting himself to join the Brothers.

He could well have been turning back the clock to those foundation times in reminding the congregation of the words from the patron saint of Teachers, St John Baptist de la Salle: “God sends persons with necessary enlightenment and zeal to help young people to attain the knowledge of God and his mysteries”.

Br Peter spoke of vocations to religious life which emanated from the college: many to the Brothers and some to the priesthood, including the parish priest of Austral, Fr Bob Hayes, who was principal celebrant for the anniversary Mass.

Fr Bob was among a number of old boy priests who joined the celebration but found himself elevated to the main role because the Vicar General of the archdiocese, Dr Gerald Gleeson, was unable to attend.

For those who appreciate the tradition of good-spirited sporting and other forms of rivalry between the Catholic boys’ schools of Sydney’s inner west, the change provided an additional homely touch for Ashfield whereas Fr Gerry had completed his school days with the Christian Brothers at St Patrick’s, Strathfield.

In his homily, Fr Bob provided personal reminiscences of his student years and his appreciation of the educational tradition that was being honoured by the occasion.

Further memories came from fellow old boy Br Gerard Rummery FSC, a former assistant Superior General of the Order in Rome, where former Brother and now Mons William Mullins, another concelebrating priest at the Mass, spent two terms with the Congregation for Catholic Education.

Initial and long-standing Irish leadership was noted by Br Peter who said it was 1943 before an Australian – rather than a Brother from Ireland – was named principal.

The college was also the first Catholic secondary school in NSW administered by a layman when Peter Donnan was appointed to that role in 1973.

Tributes were paid to the support of parents who had assisted the growth and development at Ashfield and, as one who was a student during Br Peter’s term as principal, it was pleasing to hear him refer positively to the “well-mannered and loyal” boys who had been part of the “Ashy spirit”.

Seven of my fellow classmates followed that Mass with a celebratory lunch further reviving recollections of our school days and a more formal celebration dinner was held that night where the centenary was reviewed through the recitation of “Ashy turns 100” from Geoff Mooney, ex the class of 1968.

Musical entertainment came strictly from various old boys and the oldest ex-student in the room, Jack Pedemont, aged 90-plus, led the cutting of the anniversary cake before the current principal, Stephen Kennaugh spoke to round off the evening.

I was the sole representative of my year that night and several other guests told me that they too were “loners” leaving us to assume that wherever our former classmates were located, we trusted they continued to appreciate always being “in the Holy Presence of God”.