The arrival of the marist brothers in australia


Noel Dennis joined the Marist Brothers in 1949 and taught in a number of their Sydney schools before leaving the Institute and joining the Australian Public Service. He is now retired. He wrote A Short Life of Marcellin Champagnat published by the Marist Brothers in Sydney in 1994. His research into the early days of the Marist Brothers in Australia was published as The French Marist Brothers in Colonial Australia in the journal Australasian Catholic Record in 1997.

When did the Marist Brothers come to Australia?
The first group came out as missionaries. Br Michel Colombon, in December 1837, was the first Marist Brother to set foot on Australian soil. Between 1836 and 1858 thirty brothers came to Australia, New Zealand, New Caledonia and the islands of Oceania to work as missionaries. It was not until 1872 that the brothers opened their first school in Sydney.

Marcellin Champagnat founded his institute to teach children. What circumstances led to these brothers going as missionaries and not opening schools until 1872?
When Rome approved the Marist Fathers (Society of Mary), in 1836, they accepted the challenge of missionary work in Oceania. Marcellin Champagnat was delighted to hear this and asked to be part of the group going to Oceania. His Superior General, Father Colin, realised that age and health were against Champagnat and reasoned with him that he could do more good by preparing others to take on the task. The lay brothers in the Society of Mary, who assisted the priests were an essential part of the missionary work of the Marist Fathers. Champagnat was always in favour of forming a Society of Mary and argued for a branch of teaching brothers in the society. Others were not attracted to the idea but suggested he could make it his personal project and so he established the Institute of the Marist Brothers. The earliest brothers who worked in the Pacific were not members of the Society of Mary but were volunteers from Champagnats teaching Marist Brothers. Nine Marist Brothers set out in Champagnats time. Thirty four brothers went out to assist the priests from 1836 to 1858. For all practical purposes those brothers who came out to Australia before 1872 were regarded as brothers in the Society of Mary. This is evident from the wording on the inscriptions on the headstones of those buried in Sydney.

Who were in the first group?
In 1836 three Marist Brothers were selected by Champagnat to accompany the missionary priests.
Br Marie-Nizier Delorme was on the island of Futuna with St Peter Chanel when the saint was murdered and narrowly escaped death himself. He had received the habit from Champagnat in 1833. He went on to Wallis Island and then to Hunters Hill in Sydney where the Marist Fathers had set up their supply base. He was there to welcome the group of Marist Brothers when, in 1872, they opened their first school in Australia at St Patricks Church Hill in Sydney. Despite ill health he cooked for the brothers and cleaned the apartments. His health deteriorated and he returned to France but died on the way, in London, in 1874. He was 56.
Success crowned the work of Br Joseph-Xavier and Fr Bataillon on Wallis Island. Ill-health saw Br Joseph retire to Hunters Hill in 1851. He continued to help the missionaries until his death in 1873, aged 66.
Despite constant arthritic pain, he was remembered for his tender care of the sick, according to a letter from Fr Joly to the Superior General in France. The letter also gives an insight into the work of the brothers. He had care of the sacristy and the church, the house linen, the preparing of rooms for the missionaries passing through. He had charge of the cellar, of preparing and bottling the Mass wine to be sent to the missions…and kept a store of all the things that were sent to us from France, which are sent on according to opportunity and need to different missions….
After the missionaries had landed on Futuna and Wallis, Br Michel Colombon and Bishop Pompallier sailed to Sydney before moving on to New Zealand. Michel became dissatisfied working as a mission man-of all-work saying that he had expected to work at his vocation as a teacher. Michel left the brothers but continued to work on the mission as a lay worker. He died in New Zealand in 1880, aged 68.

It could not have been easy for these brothers…
Their task was not easy. They often faced starvation. Most suffered from malaria and other diseases. They were heroic men. They came to cultures so different from Europe to work in dangerous situations. Br Hyacinthe Chatelet was murdered in the Solomon Islands in 1847 and, in 1864, Br Euloge Chabanay was killed in a battle between Maori tribes in New Zealand. He was 52 and had received the habit from Champagnat in 1840. Br Deodat died in a shipwreck off New Zealand in 1842.

Do we know the stories about some of the other missionaries?
Brother Florentin Françon was born in the Lavalla district in 1815 just one year before Champagnat came to Lavalla as curate. He received the habit from Champagnat in 1835, went to New Zealand in 1838 and worked there as a missionary for 38 years before coming to Sydney in 1876. He died in 1903, aged 88 and was buried at Hunters Hill.
In 1856 the Marist Fathers sought permission from France to build and the request stated there is sandstone on the property which can be quarried and Br Rolland, an able stonemason and worker in iron , would be able to ensure economies. Br Gennade Rolland entered the brothers as a novice in 1840. At 28, in 1845, he went to the Solomon Islands and saw his leader Bishop Epalle killed. Later he was with a group in which two priests and Br Hyacinthe were killed. He came to Hunters Hill and worked there as a cook, blacksmith, carpenter and gardener for thirty-six years until his death in 1898.
The last of the thirty-eight brothers sent out to work in the missions was 32 when he left France in 1857. He was Br Augule Chiroussel. He spent fifty years as a tradesman and handyman at Hunters Hill. He was 81 when he died .
The stories of these missionary Marist Brothers underline the dedication to duty that was to characterise the teaching brothers who came out to Australia from 1872.

If the Marist Brothers came to Australia as missionaries what was the reason that brothers were sent in 1872 to open their first school in Australia?
A separate Catholic school system might never have developed in Australia had it not been for the passing of the Public Schools Acts of 1866 and 1880. Finances were increased for the new public schools. The Presbyterians and Methodists closed their schools, and Anglican church schools reduced their activity. The Catholic Church made every effort to retain their schools believing that a separate educational system was crucial for the survival of their church. Nuns and brothers were needed to set up schools outside the State system. There were many requests made to the Marist Brothers from around the world for teaching brothers including letters from bishops and priests in Australia and the Marist Fathers strongly supported them. Br Ludovic Laboureyras was the man chosen to lead the group to open a school at St Patricks in the parish of Church Hill in Sydney, a parish under the control of the Marist Fathers. By 1879 the Catholic Church in Australia had an alternative, separate group of schools.

Was Ludovics task easier than the early missionaries?
He did not have it easy. The difficulties he experienced were different .As a Frenchman who did not speak English particularly well he was confronted with a difficult task. In Sydney at the time there was a climate of uncertainty. There were divisions among clergy and laity and divisive national elements. Ludovic had to deal with poor Irish migrants many of whom would have preferred their own Irish Christian Brothers. But he overcame the many problems. Opening day in 1872 saw 139 children enrolled on the first day. It was chaotic. The lack of discipline continued for a few weeks but the brothers soon established a change.
Ludovic was subjected to unfair criticism about his administration. There were suggestions of school funds being sent back to France but careful documentation of his administration refuted the charges. Rumours were spread about his tyranny over his community and about his personal luxury. These were put to rest following a pontifical visit by Archbishop Vaughan. The cleric had the use of Ludovics bedroom and was surprised by its monastic bareness. The luxury items were not to be seen and Ludovic insisted there be an inspection of the attic and the cellar so that it could not be said that the items were hidden away.
He did have staff problems and resources were small. Br Augustine McDonald, a Scot became very ill shortly after the school opened but continued to teach and prepare the students for their first public examination. Br Jarlath allowed himself to become involved with people outside the community with subsequent risk to his practice of the religious life and returned to France in 1874. Br Peter Tennyson, Irish born left the institute in 1874, settled in Victoria where he owned a produce store and hotel and was mayor of his town. He died in 1904.

How long did Ludovic stay in Australia?
He spent twelve years before going to New Caledonia in 1884, then to Scotland as novice master. He retired to France and died in 1924 aged 79.

Ludovics success laid the foundation for a successful contribution in the years that followed to the development of education in Australia. Was there one significant contribution that Ludovic made?
Ludovics decision in 1872 to start a novitiate to train Australians to be Marist Brothers was probably the most significant contribution he made. The success of Catholic education in Australia at the time was dependent on being able to set up schools staffed by nuns and brothers. Ludovic was determined not to depend on overseas people to staff the schools. His novitiate was the beginning of a flow of Australian youth into Champagnat congregation. The Marist Fathers had been in Australia for over 28 years when Ludovic opened his novitiate. The first Australian vocation to the Marist priesthood was Matthew OSullivan who was in the first group of vocations to the Marist Brothers and who became Br Bartholomew before leaving to become a Marist priest in 1893.

What was the outcome of the decision to open a novitiate?
Since 1872 the Marist Brothers have worked in over a hundred schools throughout Australia educating hundreds of thousands of Australian young people.
Over three thousand young Australians who were educated by the Marist Brothers, got to know them, liked them and decided to dedicate their lives as Marist Brothers to something they recognised as worth doing.

How would you sum up the contribution of the French Brothers to Australia?
A French Marist Brother founded the province of Australia. Every novice from 1872 to 1898 was formed by a French novice master. At least ten French brothers served as Director of schools in Australia. St Josephs College in Sydney is widely regarded as one of Australias most eminent schools. The College was directed by a French brother for its first ten years.
Australians owe a debt of gratitude to all those French brothers who left their country to work in ours. It was inevitable that control of the institute in Australia would pass from the French brothers to the Australians. Their efforts laid the foundation for Australians to continue the good work of these sons of Marcellin Champagnat.


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