84. Schooling, religion & Imperialism, Part B: Secularism

Post 68. Schooling, religion & Imperialism, Part A: a natural trinity considered the extent to which the War sharpened the perception for Irish Catholics that the state school was both Protestant and Imperialist. This was particularly the case after Easter 1916.

This post looks chiefly at Catholic attempts from 1915 to establish a school in Yarram. It highlights the significant fault lines that existed in the community, and reveals how the religious division between Catholic and Protestant was exacerbated further by the desire to create a  Catholic school. Catholic opposition to the Protestant proposal to teach the Bible in state schools was another major controversy at the time. The post provides a case study of the bitter sectarianism that became a feature of Australian society and politics as the War progressed, and also in the period after the War.

The Catholic school, St. Mary’s, at Yarram  was not opened until the start of 1918. This meant that in the period leading to the War, and for most of the War, all Catholic children in the Shire of Alberton attended the local state schools. This common experience of schooling helped to reduce the level of religious difference in the local community, at least until Easter 1916. In fact, as noted in earlier posts, over the early period of the War there was little apparent conflict between Catholic and Protestant. Catholics enlisted at rates equivalent to their numbers in the local community. Importantly, the promise of Home Rule had neutralised the key political difference between Great Britain and Ireland.

Arguably, the clearest example of the unity between Catholic and Protestant in support for the War came in March 1916 with the St Patrick’s Sports Carnival. In February 1916, Fr Sterling suggested that the proceeds from the annual sports carnival should go to support wounded soldiers. St Patrick’s Sports was the biggest sports carnival held in the Shire of Alberton and it was normally used to raise funds for various Catholic charities and works. Fr Sterling’s offer was written up in both local papers: South Gippsland Chronicle (2/2/16) and Gippsland Standard and Alberton Shire Representative (9/2/16). It was seen as a very generous and patriotic offer. There was a large working committee set up to manage the event and, significantly, its membership went well beyond the local Catholics and covered all sections of the community. For example, it included at least 2 members – B P Johnson and A E Paige – from the Church of England Board of Guardians. Alfred Paige was in fact the head teacher of the Yarram State School. As well, many of the committee members also served on the local recruiting committee or other groups such as the local Belgian Relief Committee. Overall, the working committee featured some of the most outspoken Imperialists in the local community.

The total profits raised by the 1916 St Patrick’s Sports Carnival was £720 and the detailed breakdown of the day’s takings were outlined in an article in the  Gippsland Standard and Alberton Shire Representative on 3/5/16. The profits were divided between the Red Cross and the Victorian Sick and Wounded Soldiers’ Fund. The whole day was acknowledged as a stunning success and it was easily the single, most successful fund-raising event for the War effort staged in the Shire of Alberton to that point. As the local paper put it (3/5/16) the effort … will stand for many a year as the district’s biggest effort.

However, by the time the profits were counted the Easter Uprising in Dublin had occurred and long-standing differences were building. Moreover, it is possible that the efforts of the local Catholics in supporting the War effort via the St Patrick’s Sports Carnival were at least partly driven by the sense that there was real pressure on them to prove their loyalty and demonstrate that they understood the need to make financial sacrifice for the war effort.

There was a significant local background issue. Just 2 weeks after the local Catholic community offered the St Patrick’s Sports Carnival as a fund raiser for the War effort, the newly built St Mary’s Catholic Church was blessed and opened in Yarram. The cost of the new church was £3,500 and by the time it was opened most of the funds for it had already been raised. It was a dramatic achievement by the local Catholic community to fund and build the church in only one year. So in early 1915 the Catholics had the newest and most impressive church in Yarram. However, there must have been misgivings, if not opposition, to this development, with the argument that the time was not right for such fundraising and building programs. All attention should have been focused on the War. In his history of Catholic education in the area, Synan (2003, p. 144) makes the claim directly:

In reality World War I was not a prime time for the Yarram Parish to proceed with a new church and school. Because of patriotic fervour, the wider community took a dim view of Catholics using scarce resources to build parish facilities when all the nation’s energies were being directed towards winning a war against Germany.

However, the situation was more complex than this claim. In his account (1/3/16) of the opening of the new church in the Gippsland Standard and Alberton Shire Representative, the editor, A J Rossiter, wrote in praise of the local Catholic community and the new church. In Rossiter’s view, other religions in the community needed to follow the Catholics’ example:

The Catholics have set an example worthy to be followed by at least two other denominations in the town. As with them, wooden structures had to suffice in the times when the people were struggling, but all that is changed. People are well off comparatively, many have grown rich, and were that zeal displayed in spiritual matters which was characteristic of our fathers, there would be no wooden churches to-day in Yarram. It is a disgrace that the very worst buildings in the town are certain churches. From Sunday dates a new era in the Catholic Church in this district. There stands on an admirably adapted site a church that is an ornament to the town, and in the minds of all devout Catholics there must abide a feeling of pride and thankfulness.

It is also worth noting that a new Anglican church was also built in Yarram in WW1. The foundation  stone was laid on 6/2/18 and the new church was dedicated on 24/7/18. So the establishment of the new Catholic church was not, in itself, a direct cause of division in the local community. However, the creation of a new church school was a different matter; and from early 1915 the Catholic community was committed to such a move.

There had been a Catholic primary school (St Mary’s) in Yarram from 1885 -1890. However without access to a Catholic teaching order it had not been able to compete against the local state school. The situation changed dramatically with the appointment of Bishop Phelan to the diocese of Sale (1913-26).

Patrick Phelan was born in Kilkenny, Ireland. He was ordained in 1888 and arrived in Melbourne the same year. He was consecrated bishop in 1913. He was a keen supporter of Home Rule. As the new Bishop of Sale, he made Catholic schooling a major focus for his work. He wanted more parish primary schools across Gippsland. In the report from his ad limina visit to Rome in 1914, Phelan noted that there were twice as many Catholic children in state schools across the diocese as there were in Catholic schools (Synan, 2003 p. 138).

Specifically in relation to the Shire of Alberton, Bishop Phelan set out his plans for a Catholic school in Yarram in a visit to the parish in May 1915. The grand scheme was described in detail in a report in the Gippsland Standard and Alberton Shire Representative on 5/5/15. Phelan made the initial focus that of the education of girls. He emphasised the importance of a Catholic education for girls … the future women who have the making or marring of the future. If they have the ladies – the real Catholic ladies – they sanctify the home. He spoke of a Catholic school in Yarram where families who lived out of town could send their daughters ‘as weekly boarders’.  Critical to the success of the plan was  his promise that he would attract an order of teaching nuns who would set up a convent and run the school. However, he also made it very clear that there was no chance of attracting a teaching order of nuns to the town until there was a new church. He was reported as stating:

He had spoken of a community of nuns, but for them they needed a decent church. So long as this disgraceful church stood to their credit – or discredit – there was no chance of a convent.

For Bishop Phelan the contract with the local Catholic community was that a new church had to be built before the convent and the school were established. As indicated, the church was funded and built in less than one year.

In early 1915 when Bishop Phelan set down this contract with the local Catholic community, relations between the various religions in the community were, apparently, unremarkable and, as already noted, there was certainly no difference in terms of support for the War. Yet, even then it did not take much to stir religious controversy. In his preaching that day, Phelan focused on what he saw as the evil of ‘secularism’ and he used France as his example. Secularism for Phelan equated to godlessness and religious persecution. In fact, secular schooling, as far as Bishop Phelan was concerned, was in large part the cause of France’s parlous situation. In the same sermon he was quoted as claiming:

The present state of France is due to the secular education imparted by a masonic and infidel government in the public schools to the last generation of children. … In his opinion the present awful war was in one aspect due to the iniquities in France, which are directly traceable to infidel education imparted in the schools. It was up to Almighty God to chastise that nation and bring her back to a right sense.

The risks involved with such sweeping condemnations of secularism and secular education became very quickly apparent. One week later (12/5/15)  in the Gippsland Standard and Alberton Shire Representative there was a very extensive letter from Francis Blanc – farmer from Alberton West – highly critical of both Bishop Phelan and his arguments. Not only did he attack Phelan for being hostile to the French, he actually made the claim that Phelan was a ‘friend’ of the Germans. He also aired the (conspiracy) theory that the Vatican was supporting the Germans. As well, based on his own experiences as a school boy in France in the 1860s in Catholic schools, he blasted the failings of the very education system that Bishop Phelan advocated.  Essentially, Blanc argued that in his personal experience the ‘learning’ in Catholic schools in France had covered not much more than religious dogma and indoctrination.  Further, he argued that the weakened state of the Catholic Church in France was the direct result of the Church’s involvement in politics and, in particular, its support for the restoration of the Bourbons. Finally, in praising the contemporary secular system of education in France, Blanc also noted that it was the same as the Victorian model of compulsory and secular schooling.

Two days later (14/5/15), Fr Sterling felt the need to defend Bishop Phelan with his own letter to the editor. Stirling did not engage in the argument on the claimed failures of secular education. Nor did he  tackle the issue of church-state relations in contemporary France. Rather, his primary intention was to defend Phelan against the charge of disloyalty;

I am in a position to know that the Bishop is thoroughly anti-German in the present war, and when in Ireland made several speeches to the Nationalist Volunteers urging them to go to the front.

Additionally, Sterling refuted the claims about the Pope supporting the German side, or, more correctly, the claim that the Vatican had not been prepared to support to the cause of Belgian relief. He also made a point of praising both France and the French, and he pointed to his own family’s close association with the country – at the time he had 3 siblings living and working in France. The letter stands as an urgent exercise in damage control.

Bishop Phelan’s views on the contemporary secular state and, more significantly, its State system of education represented one of the fundamental fault lines in early 20 C Australian society; and this particular episode showed just how much tension and division there was to draw on and how quickly the old enmity could flare up.

The Catholic position on education was that children’s religious growth and development were at least as important as their mastery of the conventional – ‘secular’ – curriculum. For Catholics, both components of education had to be delivered, preferably by a religious order, within a school that was distinctly Catholic in its culture and daily practices. Moreover, the local Catholic primary school was seen as a highly visible manifestation of the strength of the local Catholic parish. Bishop Phelan’s deeper message to the Catholics of Yarram in early 1915 was that they needed first to build a church that truly represented their standing in the wider community, and then establish a Catholic primary school that would develop the Catholic identity of the local children, strengthen Catholic families and serve as proof of the strength of the local Catholic community.

The Catholic position was commonly seen by many as divisive and exclusive. It effectively removed Catholic children from the mainstream, secular state school and denied that a common education could characterise Australian society. It also meant scarce resources were compromised. The push for the Catholic school occurred at the same time as the community was lobbying for a higher elementary school in Yarram.

But there was yet another tension in this overall picture from mid 1916. Under the Education legislation of the time, religious denominations had the option to conduct religious instruction classes in the state school. Even though the option was taken up by all denominations, including Catholics, it was certainly not the preferred option. For Catholics, it could only ever be a compromise solution until a Catholic school became available in the local area. But for Protestants it was also an unsatisfactory arrangements. Their preferred model was that the state school teachers themselves – and not the local clergy coming in to the school on an occasional basis – taught ‘bible lessons’ as part of the school curriculum. But Catholics saw this plan as an attempt to turn the state school into a Protestant institution.

The debate was a long-standing one but the War appeared to give it some additional momentum, in the same way that the temperance movement gained considerable traction. Indeed, the backers of bible instruction for (Victorian) state schools advocated a referendum on the issue at the same time as the referendum on early closing. An article in the The Argus on 28/6/16 reported that the (Victorian) Government wanted to make clear that it was not going to follow the advice of the Scripture Instruction Campaign Council on the timing of any such referendum. Indeed, Cabinet also made it clear that it understood how divisive the issue was in both parliament and the community, and that it believed that even those who favoured the idea of the referendum… did not favour it while the war was in progress, and in no circumstances would support at this time a proposal of that kind, which might cause great division among the people.

However, there clearly was lobbying at the time for the referendum for ‘scripture in schools’, and those in favour of the referendum had a very different take on the issue of the timing of the referendum during the War. Ironically, given Bishop Phelans’ earlier attack, the argument ran on the presumed evils of secular France. For example, J Nicholson, Superintendent, Scripture Council, wrote in a letter to the editor in The Argus on 29/6/16:

The plea for postponement of all efforts to honour God’s Word in our national education until after the war is singularly lacking in moral perspective. If ever there was a time for “acknowledging God” in our national “ways” it is surely now! France was the first to lead in “secular” education, and the banishment of God from national thought; but this war has done much to correct that blunder in France. May we do likewise.

Even though the proposed referendum was formally put on hold, it continued to be pushed and  this prompted the Catholic hierarchy to respond. On 2/8/16 the South Gippsland Chronicle reported in detail on a sermon delivered by Bishop Phelan in Sale. In his sermon, Phelan told Catholics that they could not vote – in State elections – for anyone who supported the proposal to conduct the referendum. For Phelan, the backers of the referendum were determined to teach the Protestant religion in state schools and have all taxpayers, including Catholics, pay for the arrangement:

To put such a question to a popular vote would be to ask the people as a whole to say, first of all, whether the State – which has no religion – should in future teach the Protestant religion in the State schools; and whether Catholics should be called on to pay equally with Protestants for the teaching of the Protestant religion.

He added an argument which was to take on far greater meaning at the end of 1916:

No man has a right to record a vote [in a referendum] to coerce the conscience of another.

Not surprisingly, Bishop Phelan’s position attracted criticism. Specifically in relation to the Shire of Alberton, it set off a series of letters-to-the-editor that ran for all of August and into September 1916, with the 2 key letter writers being Rev F Tamagno (Methodist) and Fr. P F Sterling (Catholic). Once again, Sterling was required to step in and defend his Bishop’s comments.

Rev Tamagno’s first letter in the South Gippsland Chronicle was on 4/8/16, just 2 days after Bishop Phelan’s sermon. Tamagno certainly did not back away from the idea of having the Bible … inculcated in the State school curriculum.

The State Government lately decided against a referendum on Scripture lessons in the schools. … We Protestants do not accept the Government’s decision as final. We must organise (like our Roman Catholic friends) to send men into Parliament who will endeavor to have the Bible firmly established in this State’s schools.

Rev Tamagno argued that such scripture or Bible lessons would not equate to the teaching of Protestantism and would not promote sectarianism. He also took exception to the claim made by Bishop Phelan in his letter that the Catholic schools were saving the Victorian taxpayers £300,000 pa. In his view the amount claimed was overblown and yet another of the Catholics’ ‘fanciful grievances’. Further, he held that if the Roman Catholics faced financial hardship it was because of the ‘arrogant claims on education’ made by the ‘Romish Church’. The implication appeared to be the naive and gullible Roman Catholics in Gippsland – and all of Victoria and all of Australia – were being manipulated by the autocratic Roman Pope in the Vatican. On the issue of Church-State relations, Tamagno certainly saw the weakness of the modern, secular state but he argued that Church and State needed to work together – as in the case of the referendum on scripture – and that Protestants were far better placed to do this than Roman Catholics who were ultimately answerable to the (foreign) Pope. However, as indicated, he did admire the political organisation of the Catholics and urged his side to adopt the same tactics.

Fr Sterling replied to Rev Tamagno, in the same paper, on 9/8/16. Sterling argued that Tamagno’s letter was a typical attack on Catholics. He claimed Tamagno wanted to represent Catholics as … a terrible nuisance always growling about their grievances. Sterling’s tone was sarcastic and in his attempt to reveal what he saw as Tamagno’s condescending tone, he put words into Tamagno’s mouth, literally, and had him claim:

We [Protestants] even gave them [Catholics] permission to enlist in the army and fight and die for their country and still they keep on grumbling.

Sterling was making the point, directly, that Catholics were not second-class citizens. Nor could their beliefs be ignored or simply dismissed as the product of unthinking or blind obedience to Rome. In fact, Sterling was pointedly critical of Tamagno’s language:

The church to which I have the honor to belong is known to its members and to most outsiders by the designation of the Catholic church. Officially we are styled Roman Catholics. This term is ridiculous and self-contradictory, but we tolerate it because we must. No gentlemen and no man of education, except a piebald bigot, ever uses such terms as Rome or Romish.

Fr Sterling also covered the main argument that Catholics were right to fight against the teaching of scripture – as part of the curriculum – in state schools because, in his view, this practice would in effect make the schools Protestant. Sterling saw the proposal as an attempt by the Protestants to get their religion into the state schools ‘on the cheap’.

As indicated, this controversy continued in the local press for at least 6 weeks. It would have been impossible to ignore.

The events and positions described in this post show clearly that, leaving to one side both the complexities of the broader conflict between Irish Nationalism and British Imperialism, as played out in Australia, and the divisive issue of the first conscription referendum in late 1916, there was considerable potential for suspicion, mistrust and outright enmity between Catholic and Protestant in the local community, with much of this tied to very particular interpretations of ‘secularism’, particularly in the context of education. As much as people in the local community worked to promote a sense of unity in the face of the War, the fault lines between Catholic and Protestant were very substantial and undeniable. In this particular case, the commitment by local Catholics to reject ‘secular’ education and establish their own school, and at the same time deny Protestant influence in the state school, definitely compromised the ideal of a united local community.

References

Synan, T 2003, A Journey in Faith: A History of Catholic Education in Gippsland 1850-1981, David Lovell Publishing, Melbourne

Gippsland Standard and Alberton Shire Representative

South Gippsland Chronicle

The Argus

 

 

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