Tom McMahon posed the question in his commentary last Friday: "What is a Brother?" Graham English and the editor of Catholica, Brian Coyne, have both had long associations with the Christian Brothers initially being educated by them. Graham subsequently became a brother and spent a long period in the Congregation before leaving and getting married. Brian Coyne worked closely with the Brothers and the Edmund Rice Network earlier last decade — in fact producing for them an online newsletter that was invaluable in developing Catholica much later. Graham English has penned this reflective essay about the Brothers which we publish today as our lead commentary. Brian Coyne published his reflection in the forum and you'll find the link to that at the end of Graham's essay. Both report largely favourable memories of their experiences.
What is a Brother?
The first Christian Brother I remember meeting was George Dynan. He was just about to be appointed principal of the small Brothers' school in my hometown, having been on the staff there for eight or nine years already. I was seven. I spent the next eight years at the school. He was principal for the first six.
There were 240 boys and five Brothers at CBC. The Brothers all taught all day then took us for sport after school and often on weekends, and when I was in year six Brother Cummins took a small group of us on Saturday mornings preparing us to sit the bursary exam in October. The only help they had, apart from mothers working in the occasional tuckshop, and doing their mending, and the men who went out to the bush a couple of times a year to gather wood for their fires was Miss Watt the housekeeper. In Brother Dynan's tenure as principal the school did well in public exams and at all competitive sport.
Our school was freezing cold in winter and unbearably hot in summer and was moderate when the weather was. "It was air-conditioned," one wit observed, "whatever the air was like outside that was the condition of the air inside." Everything was basic. There were no frills. When I hear people now complain that their child's school has unflued heaters I smile. We'd have killed for any kind of heaters. The Brothers' house was cold too. It was meant to face the rising sun so it would be warmer in winter but an eccentric Irish parish priest (who ironically now has the school called after him) demanded it be placed the other way. So the sun never got in. Of course all houses there were cold so the Brothers were cold and poor like the rest of us. That is one of the things I found attractive about them.
A "mixed bunch"...
The Brothers who taught me were a mixed bunch. One we called Tombstone because he was as dead and boring as a large cemetery in spite of being a university medal in Classics. The one who taught me in year seven was a sarcastic bully and a most unattractive man. A couple of them were violent. But most of them were good men and a couple were outstanding. Jack Cummins taught me in years five and six. He was the one who took me on Saturdays for bursary prep. He also took cadets, football, swimming, athletics and cricket. He was enthusiastic and energetic and just lately some of the surviving men from those days went back to our hometown to celebrate with him his seventy two years as a Brother. Keith Smith who taught my brother was a gentle man who was good for us. Michael Merritt who also taught my brother was an enthusiast and we liked him. Brian McInnis who taught Physics as if it was the most important and exciting thing in the world had me, a barely adequate mathematician thinking as a twelve year old I might be a scientist. Brian Berg who was a wonderful sports coach made me interested in cricket by getting me to score. He also treated all of us equally. The best of the Brothers didn't need to mention social justice. They just did it. Brother Barfield made me learn off great slabs of Henry V and The Merchant of Venice and he picked me in the five stone sevens rugby league team and we won everything we went in and so I got my only sporting trophies. Our school was so small we usually had barely the numbers to make up the teams so we all played. And once an old Brother named Br Hanrahan came to our town for a holiday and taught us for one morning. I remember all that he taught us and decided as a seven year old that if this was teaching I wanted to be part of it.
Our town was really too small to have a Brothers' school and I think that the Provincial Council in far away Strathfield often gave the place a bad run. They once sent us an eighty year old legally blind Brother and expected him to teach a full day's school. In a school with five teachers this meant 20% of our staff was blind. Kids in our town were tough enough for the able bodied men on top of their game and they carved him up. They also sent a few men who were tired or burnt out or alcoholic, and one or two who were rank incompetents. A school as small as ours with its five teachers could be quite good if three of them were really good and the others were okay. We had that in my primary years. If three were just okay and two were not competent we were in trouble. Some years we were in trouble. Big schools with larger communities could hide the mad, the incompetent and the strugglers. In a tiny place no one could be hidden.
The first inclination to join the Brothers...
I started saying in year five that I wanted to be a Brother. The reasons are not clear to me now and they weren't then but they had something to do with that fact that here were some really good men and I wanted to be like them. There was also my fascination with learning things and I thought that maybe I could teach. And there was not another thing in our town that adults did that I thought I wanted to do. If an ideal man existed, I thought one of these might be it. From then on each year the Brother who came around getting boys to be Brothers took an interest in me and when I was fifteen I went to Strathfield to be a Brother. This was lucky. I'd have failed the Leaving Certificate had I stayed at home. The Brothers at Strathfield made sure I passed.
In the training college I met some great men. Columba Davy taught me to read poetry and when we were scholastics introduced me to literature. He gave us a list of books and said, "Read these", and I did and I was on my way. He also told me I could write quite well and told me on the basis of vocational guidance tests we did that my Leaving pass was not a fair indication of my ability. I was grateful for that. Finian Markwell taught me how to teach. Vic Bell told me to keep up my reading or I'd dry up. I have read and read ever since. And somewhere along the line I learnt some liturgy, theology and scripture and was introduced to the psalms.
In community later I lived with some astonishing men, and some who were not astonishing but they were all okay. Some seemed permanently depressed but as far as I know I did not live with any men who were paedophiles.
I did train with some who have been named or charged with sexual abuse since. I was a country Catholic boy, out teaching aged nineteen and I did not pick any of my colleagues in training as being potential abusers. I was naive and very inexperienced. And I presumed that because I was doing as I was told and I was trying to keep the rule that everyone else was too. In a community that aims to be good naive boys like I was miss things. It is hard to believe that a man you live and pray with in community would prey on children. Later I became more canny.
Practical men rather than scholars...
The Brothers they sent to our town were usually not deeply educated, even the ones teaching senior classes, though same became so later. The ones I knew saw themselves as practical men rather than scholars. George Dynan, the first Brother I knew was a good example. I was a young Brother living in community with him when in his early fifties he had a serious heart attack. This man who had been principal of several Brothers' schools had only a few years before begun a degree at university and was still a unit or two short of finishing. His first attack disabled him and I remember how sad he was that he could not continue his degree. He had wanted to be university educated all his life, he had come close and now he wouldn't get there. I didn't realise how serious his condition was and so was not with him when he went back into hospital and died. The Brothers in those days were not into much sentiment. Had someone said, "He's dying", I'd have walked the few kilometres to the hospital. I did help clean out his bedroom and bending the rules slightly I grabbed his cufflinks with his initials engraved on them. George's family owned men's wear shops and he was quite debonair. I still wear them on special occasions.
At the school reunion I went to lately one of the men listed the good things the Brothers meant to us in the late 1940s and the 1950s and it was quite a list. He said it was a magic time. I agreed with all the things on the list and occasionally there was some magic but it was not, for me at least, a magic time. The 1950s in our country town were often tough. Most people were poor. As in all places then most of the men had been at one of the wars, the women had been left to fend for themselves. The kids from the middle class families went off to city boarding schools after sixth class.
I am grateful I grew up in the country but I'd have loved to have gone to a really good school where we had some choice of subjects. I'd love to have learnt Latin properly. Some of the city schools were often really good but country schools were second best.
While our town was really too small for a Brothers' school and while our school was often pretty ordinary I am grateful I went to the school and for the good men I was influenced by. When I went to Strathfield and joined the Brothers they furthered my education in ways that could not have happened otherwise. Walt Whitman says, "Unscrew the locks from the doors. Unscrew the doors themselves from their jambs." The best of my teachers at CBC got the first bit right and later in various ways I was enabled to try the second bit. It is still a work in progress.
Very little was said about anyone who left...
From early on I knew of men who had been sent away from the Brothers for sexually abusing kids. Very little was said about anyone who left the Brothers for any reason, especially those who left suddenly. It was the way things were done. They were 'defectors' or worse even if they left for a good reason. We were a tribe and they were cut off and never mentioned again. I think about this now and then. We were an Irish order. The Brothers I knew were not Irish, a few were but they were rare by my time but we had been deeply influenced by them. We took on some of their goodness and some of their anxieties and drawbacks. The Irish in Australia for a long time were a traumatised people. They were refugees from the Famine and from British oppression. If you have read John McGahern's novels, for instance you will know that violence and religion often went together in Irish culture right up until at least the 1960s. They were also narrow. Read what Irish commentators are saying now about the silence of the Irish bishops at Vatican II. Read what Yves Congar says about them. On the whole the English-speaking Church of the time, here and everywhere else was narrow and fearful. 'Survival' was our main aim and survivors do not easily take risks or ask questions.
Flawed attitude to sexuality...
And the Church's attitude to sexuality when I was young was flawed, distorted and frequently wrong. It still is. When I was a novice we learnt poverty very well. We were Masters of Obedience aged sixteen. We spent days and days learning and practising being poor and doing as we were told. All we were taught about chastity was DON'T. And we learnt nothing about intimacy. In spite of that most of the men I trained and lived with became good wholesome people. Many left and married or formed other loving relationships. I like them. Many who stayed are good caring people doing great work still even as old men.
I do not understand paedophilia or paedophiles. When the extent of the problem and the extent of the cover up became clear in the last however many years I was shocked and hurt. I felt let down. Now I grieve for them and for myself. I grieve for the good men who now find it impossible to say "Christian Brothers" when they answer the phone because the term has become tainted. I grieve for all those men who did their best and who did a lot of good and whose reputation has been tarnished or trashed. Sometimes I feel very angry.
This reflection was prompted by Tom McMahon's question, "What is a Brother?" I have no simple answer but I must say that when people ask me where I went to school I say "Christian Brothers". If people want to laugh or taunt that is their problem.
Graham English submitted to Catholica on 27 Aug 2012
What are your thoughts on this commentary?