Homily for Mass for Bicentenary + Opening of 2024 School Yearfor St Mary’s Cathedral College

07 Feb 2024

St Mary’s Cathedral, Sydney, 7 February 2024

For thirty years now ‘adventure’ films have been the most popular; the related genre of ‘action’ films come in a close second.[1] We laugh hilariously at well scripted comedies, are enthralled by tense dramas, and comforted by touching love stories. But ticket sales prove adventure attracts us most.

What is it about the episodes in franchises like Indiana Jones, Jurassic Park, Harry Potter, Fast and the Furious, Star Wars, Pirates of the Caribbean, Hunger Games, and Lord of the Rings, or one-offs like E.T., Lion King and The Revenant thatevery one of them has yielded more than half a billion dollars in box office sales? What is it about the endless stream of blockbusters from the Marvel and DC universes that we can’t seem to get enough of?

Exhilarating special effects and electrifying deeds, gripping story lines and some good acting all help. But what really grabs us, I think, is that adventure stories make us feel alive. The energy and excitement, highs and lows, danger and surprises, exaggerate but also correlate to our own experience as lead characters pursuing goals amidst obstacles. Other stories go beyond our experience, exciting our imaginations and inspiring us to more—more meaning, purpose, effort—calling us to become a hero in our own story and do great things in the future.

There’s adventure in many spheres of life, and education is undeniably one of them. When we set out on our schooling journey, we are usually young and impressionable, naïve or driven but unsure of ourselves, hopefully open to the learning about God, the world, ourselves. The same is true for the students! To be sure, each brings talents and experience to the adventure—we are not blank pages for the teachers or students to write on—but we discover and hone our natural gifts and have many of the most formative experiences along the way.

No such adventure is a one-actor movie. Along the way we encounter a full cast of supporting characters: classmates and teammates; confidants and life-long friends; inspirational and persistent teachers; mentors and role models; stirring disciples and spiritual guides; and personalities agreeable or challenging, stimulating or dull. Each plays a part in making school rich and memorable; more than mere background, they are constituents of what schooling is.

Put so many people together, with a common purpose and over a course of years, and you have an “institution”. It’s not only individuals that have adventures but institutions also. A two centuries old institution will inevitably have been through quite an evolution, with a large cast of actors, numerous plot twists and character developments…

The original producer-director of the Cathedral College adventure movie is buried beneath us: Fr John Joseph Therry, first official Catholic chaplain to the colony, who established an elementary school to the east of St Mary’s Chapel on this site in 1824. [2] The Hyde Park Chapel School was conducted by Mr Thomas Byrne. When John Bede Polding was appointed bishop, the chapel became a cathedral and the school was promoted to a minor seminary (or secondary school) for novices and laity taught by Benedictine monks.[3] The cast list was expanding…

After the seminary closed in the early 1860s, St Mary’s School was operated by lay teachers. By the 1880s it had excellent results and had a whopping 260 children in primary and as many in infants, making it the largest religious school in the colony.[4] But when several teachers entered the Sisters of Charity and the government stopped aid to church schools, it was time for another plot twist, this time directed by Archbishop Roger Vaughan.

In 1883 St Mary’s reopened as two schools: St Mary’s Cathedral Girls’ School, headed by a Sisters of Charity novice, Sr Mary Berchmans, with an enrolment of 700 girls and a staff of sisters; and St Mary’s Cathedral Boys’ School conducted by the Marist Brothers at the opposite end of the site. From 1887 they took secondary students as well. New buildings were in order but there was competition for space, with a much larger cathedral being gradually constructed after the first burnt down.

In 1912 Archbishop Michael Kelly blessed and opened a new structure, with a Christian Brothers boys’ school on the ground floor and a Charity Sisters girls’ school on the two floors above; separate stairways and playgrounds minimised mingling! The brothers extended the program to intermediate and eventually leaving certificate, while the sisters established a commercial college, offering young women business courses.

The shift to the suburbs presented new challenges to the College and, partly to entice enrolments from outside the CBD, Br H.F. Gygar registered it as a choir school in the 1940s. It became a musical centre of excellence, with a world-class choir to this day. But by the 1960s the old school building—built for 550 students—had more than double that. As the site could no longer accommodate two schools, the girls moved elsewhere and the boys’ school ceased junior primary except for choristers.

In the late 1980s Br Michael Hoffman led the College into exile in Waverton while a new school and presbytery were built. In 1992 all returned to state-of-the-art buildings rebranded “St Mary’s Cathedral College”. While the ethnicity and haircuts in the Year 12 photos have varied down the years and the brothers finally completed their service, the mission of developing young Christian all-rounders has continued. High academic results, musical excellence, sporting success, pastoral care, community service and a close relationship to the cathedral have characterised the college through its now two hundred year long adventure.[5]

Where next for the College under Principal Kerrie McDiarmid? Will it be entering Jurassic Park or Rivendell, raiding a lost ark or finding Nemo? Well, in 2025 the College will be coed once again, but this time without separating the sexes! It will be K to 12. A major new building is in the pipeline. And I’m pleased to announce a St Mary’s Cathedral Girls’ Choir will complement the Boys’ Choir, with each chorister receiving a full scholarship.

It’s said that to know where you’re going, it helps to know where you came from. So, in the words of the Prophet Isaiah (Isa 63:7-9), we sing the Lord’s praises for His goodness to us in “days of yore”. Four religious congregations lent their charisms to the project of making us “sons and no rogues”. So did the wider Catholic education system and Catholic community. So also, umpteen principals and staff, students, families and friends. The College survived many challenges, adapting to young people’s circumstances in the evolving colony, nation and culture, bringing them to Christ.

In our Gospel, Luke recounts Mary’s Magnificat (Lk 1:39-55), sung soon after the angel announced the greatest adventure of all time. She acknowledges that God’s “mercy has extended from generation to generation” and responds with thanksgiving, even exhilaration. But she also looks forwards, in confidence and mission, for God’s mercy is promised “to Abraham’s descendants for ever”. All individual adventures of Christians are ultimately connected, all subplots within the great divine drama. All are important actors in that great story, children of God in need of salvation, but also blessed and exalted. The script for this greatest adventure, St Mary sings, is God’s plan, promised to our ancestors, advanced by the generations, and embraced by us from this day forwards.

Boys of St Mary’s and soon girls as well, principal, staff and friends: yours is a holy adventure—a pilgrimage—and you are blessed to have St Mary, Help of Christians, as your tour guide. Adventures make us feel fully alive; holy adventures also promise us eternal life. May you continue to thrive in your third century, as an educationally excellent, musically glorious, humanly admirable and spiritually infectious college. Congratulations! Our Lady Help of Christians—pray for us.

[1] https://americanfilmmarket.com/relative-popularity-genres-around-world/

[2] Charles McGee, The Forgotten Ones: Teachers in the Catholic Schools of New Suth Wales before 1880 (Sydney: Catholic Education Office, 2012), 23.

[3] “A glimpse into St Mary’s Cathedral’s educational history,” Sisters of Charity Australia https://www.sistersofcharity.org.au/what-we-do/congregational-archives/a-glimpse-into-st-marys-cathedrals-educational-history/

[4] “St Mary’s Girls School,” Freeman’s Journal 4 March 1882.

[5] “History of St Mary’s Cathedral College,” St Mary’s Cathedral College https://smccsydney.syd.catholic.edu.au/history-of-st-marys-cathedral-college.

Introduction to Mass for Bicentenary + Opening of 2024 School Year for St Mary’s Cathedral College – St Mary’s Cathedral, Sydney, 7 February 2024

Welcome to St Mary’s Cathedral for our Mass celebrating the Bicentenary of St Mary’s Cathedral College.

For two hundred years, a proud tradition of Catholic education has existed on this site, attached to this cathedral, the mother church of Australia. Throughout its rich history, St Mary’s Cathedral College has contributed to the formation of thousands of young people, illuminating their minds, cultivating their hearts, inspiring their spirits, and allowing them to become leaders and contributors to our Church and society. The students have gone on to be bishops, priests and religious, spouses and parents, community leaders (including our present Prime Minister), professionals and workers, stars of sport or music, and more. No wonder the bishops of Australia regard the schools as a jewel in the crown of the Catholic Church in Australia.

Concelebrating with me today are College old boy and now chaplain Fr Roberto Keryakos and Cathedral priest Fr Ben Saliba, and assisting me Acting Dean of the Cathedral Fr Lewi Barakat. I salute Principal Kerrie McDiarmid and past College Principals, Executive Director of Schools Tony Farley and past directors, CEO of Catholic Schools NSW Dallas McInerney, provincials or representatives of the four religious orders that have run the College, distinguished alumni and alumnae, and former staff; and other distinguished guests already acknowledged;

Finally, to the current students, teachers and staff of the College, as well as family and friends joining us on this joyous occasion, a very warm welcome to you all!

Having received candles from the four religious orders that have played such an important part in the history of the College, we now bless and light a new bicentennial candle that marks the latest chapter in this school’s great history…