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Parish and School History at St. Anthony's Alphington

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A Parish School

St. Anthony’s Parish formerly came into   existence in 1915, after having spent a  number of years under the Northcote Parish and  operating as a “church of ease” for the  growing number of Catholic families in the Fairfield/Alphington area.  One of the primary objectives of the fledgling parish community  was to secure a school  building to provide for the educational & religious  instruction of its youngest   parishioners.

 It was with much enthusiasm that some 1,200 people gathered on St.  Patricks Day 1917 to observe the official opening of the St Anthony’s Parish School ,  located at No 43 Austin St.  In the midst of the 20th Century’s first world war both materiel & manpower had proved scarce, and the building erected was one purchased second hand from St Joseph’s Parish in Malvern.

 The school consisted of 3 rooms, and was initially to house a student population of 80 pupils.The administration of the Parish rested in the hands of its first Parish Priest - Father Michael Hayes.   The school’s day to day activities were under the auspices of the Sisters of St Joseph, an order of nuns established by Mother Mary MacKIllop more than 50 years  earlier.  Its first    Principal—Sister Isabelle Colvin was a novice of Mother Mary & close personal friend.  She was one of only three sisters who filled the initial teaching positions at the school. 

 The following 2 decades saw increasing  enrolments stretch the resources of the school & parish.  Both the Church and School buildings struggled to accommodate the needs of its pupils and parishioners.  Some classes were held in the church hall which was itself purchased second hand at the time of acquiring the school building. The examiners report of 1925 observed “ the Sister in charge of infants Grade 1 & 2 taught under difficulties . 107 children in one small room. “   Planning for new buildings was  problematic given the     prevailing financial despair of many during the depression.   Fortunately,  the then Archbishop, Mannix  was in favour  of spending as a means of stimulating the economy & staving off unemployment for many .  

 In 1931  the parish reluctantly farewelled Fr Hayes whose failing health could not sustain the work of our growing parish.  After a transition period Fr. Francis    Molan settled into the position and remained until his death in 1969.  Although he was a  taciturn character, he was driven by the needs of his Parish and saw to it that the construction of a new school was of first priority. By 1931 enrolments were peaking at 317 pupils and something had to be done!   Despite the lack of  finances in the community, fundraising stepped up.  Parish societies such as the Catholic Young Men's Society & the Children of Mary Solidarity organised garden parties, euchre nights, balls etc to contribute to the coffers.  The men of the societies undertook “block collections” going out street by street visiting homes to seek donations.

 It was a proud community that joined with Archbishop Mannix in August 1934 to attend the opening & blessing of the new St. Anthony’s School building.  The church was packed & parishioners lined the street, as dignitaries  proceeded up Austin St to the new      building.  The next day the children settled  in, no doubt appreciative, whilst savouring their customary bread & dripping sandwiches and playing “cherry bobs” with the pips from their fruit. Lessons of  Arithmetic, Algebra, Geometry, Dictation ,Spelling, History, Geography, Drawing, English Literature - Composition & Grammar including Latin and Greek roots, were standard classes for the school week.

 A new decade was on the horizon as the year 1939 progressed.  Two events of significance were to follow.  Another World War was declared as many children’s father left for foreign lands—some not to return.  Air raid drills  in  subsequent years became part of the routine for the school day; no doubt  causing much distraction and excitement amongst the children.  In 1939 the parish also suffered the loss of its original church which was burnt down by an arsonist.  The Parish had to rally again to oversee the construction of a new church.  This was achieved surprisingly quickly as it was blessed & opened in 1940.  This building remains with few structural changes to this day.

 The impact of the 2nd World War was manifested in the post war  era of European migration.  Irish Catholics had migrated to Australia in numbers in the  1900’s, many laying the foundation of church & religious orders in this country.  Similarly, the influx of migrants in the late 1940’s -early 50’s would change  &  enrich the presence of the catholic community. The vast majority were unskilled workers who sought out the suburb of Fairfield for its           affordable housing & close proximity to the city and employment.  By 1951 the number of pupils in attendance had risen to what now seems an unbelievable level of 420 pupils!.  The sixties saw a proliferation of prefabricated classrooms erected in the school yard to accommodate the needs  of all at the school. 

 The sixties also saw a significant shift in the practises and habits of society in general  The move towards a more secular society was in full swing.  The church had previously been the main focus of parishioners social as well as spiritual life.  The increased choices for entertainment, availability of easy transportation, and the increasing    ownership of vehicles etc  meant that the world had opened up to many.   The societies within the church declined, as did the numbers entering religious orders.  In 1974 the first lay principal was appointed at St. Anthony’s.  Thereafter followed the removal of the Sisters of St Joseph from the school in 1975. 

 Teaching practises and policies evolved in response to this changing world.  In the mid 1980’s St Anthony’s made applications under the disadvantaged schools project.  Stating that of an enrolment of 234 pupils, 83% were identified as being of migrant  extraction and of disadvantaged social circumstances.  The objective of its application was “with the help of a School Community Liaison Teacher to encourage/support parents to identify with the school and inform themselves about parenting and the current approach to  education.  Our ultimate objective is to include parents in decision making and the planning of policy and  programmes.” 

 There followed in 1982, and latter in 1995, significant and extensive renovations to the school buildings.  The refurbishment undertaken in 1995 at a cost of $759,000 was financed by Commonwealth Government Grant with the school community itself contributing $50,000.  This was in stark contrast to 1934 when Archbishop Mannix emphasized the injustice of the Catholic community receiving no state aid and hence paying twice over for the  education of its children.

  During the 1990s and first  decade of the 21st century we have again seen the  demographics of our suburb and school community change markedly. Our school has remained abreast of the many improvements in teacher practise and has responded to the changing demands and  opportunities of a new technological age.  With the renovations undertaken in 2010 under the BER (Building the Education Revolution  ) we can again lay claim to  having state of the art facilities and resources.