St Mary’s Towers MSC Training Centre: 1904 - 2004

THE MISSIONARIES of the SACRED HEART were founded by a young priest Jules Chevalier at Issoudun in France in 1854. He was convinced that the hope for a struggling world was to be found in belief in the compassionate love of God revealed in the heart of Jesus, and he used all means to impart that message. In 1881 he accepted responsibility for missions in Micronesia and Melanesia, and a few of the members of his small congregation of priests and brothers sailed for the Pacific, setting up a foundation in Sydney as a base for missionaries. They were soon entrusted with parish responsibilities in Botany, Randwick and Kensington, and in the 1890s established a grand monastery on the hill in Kensington to be a training house for their members. It was to cater further for the needs of their new members that they purchased St Mary’s Towers in 1904.

Four MSC priests were due for ordination at the end of 1904, but a dozen new novices were expected in 1905, and so despite a substantial debt on recent buildings, more space was needed. The superior Fr Treand already had the approval of his superiors in Rome to spend up to £4000 on a new wing (to include a chapel), and another £1500 on a country house for holidays and for convalescence from the illnesses that were prevalent in Sydney and had hit the society’s young members hard. He considered that he could buy the Douglas Park property with this money, and also save the £50 he spent on renting a place in the Blue Mountains for the summer holidays each year.

The property already had a fine chapel, and would be very suitable as a venue for the scholasticate (seminary for preparation for priesthood). The farm too would provide produce that would make for savings for Kensington. So the MSCs purchased the major portion of the Nepean Towers Estate, (spending more than had been originally proposed). Fr Vandel arrived there on 7 December with Brothers Robert South, Fernand Arnboult and Felix Tremayne, and next day, the golden jubilee day of the foundation of the society, Brother Robert received the keys from Mr Arthur Wetherill.

A few days later Alain de Boismenu, missionary bishop in Papua New Guinea, said the first Catholic Mass in the Jenkins chapel.

Scholasticate

Over the next hundred years, St Mary’s Towers was to be at various times a venue for training members of the MSC society at all levels: an apostolic school (a secondary school for aspirants), a novitiate for both clerical and lay brother trainees, a brothers’ technical training school, and a scholasticate (seminary). Though purchased originally for the scholastics, it was used by them for only a few years. Thirty scholastics arrived in December 1904 with Fr Vandel as superior, but he had to go back to Kensington to look after the novices. When the seminary professor Fr Lynch fell ill, Fr Vandel was needed to teach the scholastics, so they returned to Kensington also.

The scholastics holidayed each summer at St Mary’s Towers, and remained there for the academic year in 1910 with their professors Frs Vandel and Lynch and two senior scholastics. But next year they were back at Kensington.

They returned to Douglas Park in 1918 with Fr Vincent Tyler their prefect of studies, moving into a newly completed building (“The Ark”) behind the main house. But then it was judged that Douglas Park was too full, with too many separate communities (thirty seven in the school, seven novices, thirteen scholastics); and now that students were coming into the seminary after studying in the apostolic school, it was thought that twelve years of preparation in the same isolated county place was just too long; so in 1921 the scholastics returned finally to Kensington, where further building had taken place to accommodate them.

Novitiate

The novitiate operated at Kensington until 1908. From 1908 to 1916, there was no novitiate, because a heavily indebted province could not afford it. By 1913 plans were being laid to open a novitiate at Douglas Park, first for lay brother aspirants. Fr Vandel was the novice master. The clerical novices came in 1917, with Fr Cochard the novice master. They moved in to the wooden structure at the back of the old house, while the Ark was being built for them further back from the established buildings. When the scholastics came in 1918, the novices stayed in their old building, and the scholastics took the Ark for a few years. There was also need for a bigger chapel. At first it was proposed to extend the existing chapel, but then a new site was chosen behind the main buildings. It was planned to build it in stone, but finally a timber structure was built. The novitiate remained at Douglas Park for many years under successive novice masters Frs Troy, Kerrins, Fleming, Hoy, McGuane, Butler and Mitchell. In 1970 the programme for training aspirants was subjected to the same scrutiny that Vatican II caused to be given to all aspects of Church life, and new systems and venues were tried. But from time to time since then the novitiate has returned to Douglas Park, most recently in 2001.

The novitiate was a year of learning about and practising spirituality. The quiet isolation of St Mary’s Towers was very suitable for this. Though the novices lived on the same property as other groups (school students, members of the professed community), they were kept to themselves, joining with the others only for some common religious exercises. The day was regulated: rising at 5.00am, morning prayer, an hour of meditation, after breakfast in silence some study of spiritual writers or a talk from the novice master or study of the MSC constitutions and rules, perhaps some study of Latin, examination of conscience, meals usually in silence with reading from an uplifting book such as the life of some holy person, Rosary, visit to the Blessed Sacrament, a period of manual work, perhaps a bush walk or a swim, spiritual reading in common, a couple of short periods of recreation, night prayer and early bed. The novices donned the black religious habit, usually a much patched one, at the beginning of the year, and received a fine new tailored one at the end when they pronounced their first commitment to the society. Then they left for the seminary, at first at Kensington, later at Croydon in Melbourne. The brothers stayed for a second year of novitiate before their appointment to some house of the province.

Apostolic School

The Provincial Chapter of 1910 decided to open a juniorate at Douglas Park. This was called the Apostolic School, where boys from the ages of 14 to 18 would undertake preparatory studies before entering the novitiate to begin their journey to the priesthood. When it began in 1912, Fr Nouyoux was in charge, and Fathers Fleming, Vandel, Frank Tyler, Power and Donovan and scholastics Tom O’Loughlin and Vincent Tyler made up the teaching staff. Fr Linckens, visitor from the Roman superiors with powers to regulate the Australian Province, drew up the rule for them, based on the model already existing in Europe. Its purpose was to train young men in priestly, missionary and religious life. The daily horarium was: 5.40am rise, 6.10 prayer, 6.30 Mass, classes, study, examination of conscience, rosary, more classes, sport, spiritual reading, visit, perhaps a choir practice, and night prayer. Holidays were from Christmas Eve to I March, and from 15 July to 6 August. The boys did not go home in the winter holidays, but friends and relatives could visit them. Studies would be conducted in Religion, English, Latin, Greek, French, History, Geography, Maths and Science. There would be no newspapers. Admission would depend on a sincere desire to be a priest and religious, on good health, good character, the ability to afford the cost, and passing an entrance exam.

In 1913 when Fr Nouyoux became provincial, Fr James Power was placed in charge of the school (“Prefect” was the title), Fr Vandel being superior. Next year there were eighteen boys in the school. When Fr Power left, Fr Vandel took his place as prefect until the end of 1920. Other MSC priests who contributed greatly in the school in the first twenty years, and often held the position of prefect or of community superior, were Frs Vincent Tyler, Frank Tyler, Goodman, Fleming, Bridgwood, Hyland and Power.

The school soon outgrew the old buildings. Plans for a new stone building were made in 1915, when the enrolment was expected to swell to twenty seven. On 8 December 1915 the Apostolic Delegate laid the foundation stone of a new wing to house thirty five students, and officially opened it in November of the following year. The school population continued to grow: there were forty three students in 1917, back to thirty six in 1927. In 1935, a new building, the Jubilee wing, was built on to the existing school, finally providing suitable accommodation for a larger number of students. When Fr Tyler was prefect, the school was officially registered in the NSW system, and nine senior students sat for the Leaving Certificate for the first time in 1926. With so many students of high ability, and a small school where they could be given individual attention, the boys from the school always scored very well in the public examinations. The syllabus was slanted towards the arts, but every now and again a call was made to increase and improve the teaching of mathematics and science subjects.

As noted above, there was much more emphasis on religious observances than would be found in an ordinary secondary school, but there was also a full programme of classes, plenty of sport available, and picnics that involved long walks to Maldon or Appin or Pheasants Nest or up the Razorback Range, especially on special feast days and during the holidays.

The Church’s more important feast days provided opportunities for special holidays, with silence at meals relaxed, set study waived in favour of free reading in the library, more free time, sporting fixtures, perhaps a concert for the superior’s or prefect’s feast day. Some of the priests who were prefect of the school in later years were Frs Drake, Kevin English, Littleton and Connolly.

Fr J. F. McMahon was appointed superior of the Douglas Park community in 1954. He modernised the curriculum of the school, bringing it more into line with a normal Australian secondary school. The number of students was usually around fifty, but in 1958 there were seventy one. When the Superior General visited in 1962, he wondered if the modernisation had not gone too far, and called for a return to more strict discipline and the teaching of obedience. But already questions were being asked about the value of the school, or its relevance in Australia’s changing educational scene. A survey of alumni over ten years from 1935 showed that only about 20% continued to ordination. The increasing complexity of the school system made it more difficult for a small secondary school to perform well, and it was suggested that aspirants to the society could complete their education at one of the other MSC schools before entering the novitiate. The Apostolic School finally closed in 1966. There was some discussion about re opening, but the decision was taken not to do so.

Lay Brothers’ Formation

Young men intending to join the society as lay brothers had been coming to Douglas Park for their novitiate since 1913. There had been no comprehensive plan to train them in working skills or trades, though this was suggested from time to time. Of course some were already skilled in trades, or had learned skills from the older brothers. When accommodation was at a premium in the 1950s, the brothers built a new wing, the Brother’s Wing, which has since become the main accommodation for the community.

A plan for formal training of the brothers was finally devised in the 1960s, and a course of training to begin at the Brothers’ Training Centre was approved in July 1967.

They would have classes in religion, secular subjects and a range of basic skills during their novitiate years, then stay on for two years of technical training. The course commenced that August, but the scheme did not last very long; at the end of 1970 the brothers on the second year of the course were given other appointments, and the younger brothers had already been transferred to Croydon.

By the 1970s then, St Mary’s Towers had ceased to be the centre for training of aspirants to the MSC society, except for a novitiate in some years. The way was open for new uses for the buildings and grounds.