St Patrick's Catholic School Roll of Honour
Above: The St Patrick's Roll of Honour recreated in 2016. Left: Miss Elizabeth Hunt, the teacher at St Patrick's from 1903 to 1934. Courtesy of St Patrick's, Pakenham.
The St Patrick’s Roll of Honour commemorates 22 former students who served during WWI. The first Catholic school in Pakenham was established near the Toomuc Creek in the early 1850s by the district’s early Irish-Catholic settlers. By 1866, the school had been relocated to the present site on the Old Princes Highway, although it subsequently closed following the withdrawal of state aid to denominational schools (Ferry, 2016, pp. 21-26). The school reopened in 1888. The average enrolment in the years before WWI was around 30 students, studying from Grade 1 to the Grade 8 merit certificate. They were taught together in one classroom by a single female teacher. Emily Stone (later Mrs Mayger) was teacher from 1894 to 1903, followed by Elizabeth Hunt who served from 1903 to 1934. Between them, Emily and Elizabeth would have taught all of the former students who subsequently enlisted for WWI.
The dedication of a roll of honour was suggested by Miss Hunt, probably prompted by the divisive debate over conscription in 1916 and 1917. This had been accompanied by a welling up of anti-Catholic sectarianism which always lurked beneath the surface of Australian society. Many Irish-Australians (including Dr Daniel Mannix the Irish-born Catholic Archbishop of Melbourne) were opposed to conscription on the grounds that it would free up British troops to continue the suppression of the nationalist movement in Ireland. It was easy then, for some to accuse Catholics in general of being “disloyal” to the Empire. Indeed, just before the second referendum in November 1917, a Protestant minister in Kew claimed Catholic schools were “nurseries of rebellion, disloyalty and bigotry”. This prompted Miss Hunt to weigh into the debate herself, writing to the Editor of The Age newspaper in Melbourne: “As a teacher in a Catholic school, I resent that false accusation. Our little children are given lessons in Christian charity, and are taught to pray daily, even for those who strive to injure them and their religion by spreading calumnies throughout Australia. This is only a small country school, but I feel sure its record will compare favourably with that of any school of similar enrolment in the State of Victoria. The school register shows that up to 1914 90 boys were enrolled and educated here. It is quite clear that many of these boys have not yet attained military age. However to my certain knowledge, eighteen past pupils have enlisted, four of these having made the supreme sacrifice. Other past pupils have volunteered, but were rejected as physically unfit - Yours etc, E.A. Hunt, Pakenham” (The Age 15/11/1917 p.8).
Shortly thereafter, Miss Hunt proposed to use some money presented to her to recognise the former students who had enlisted with an honour roll. Given the outcome of the War still hung in the balance, the timing of the initiative suggests that for Miss Hunt, the honour roll was a public means of defending the honour of her school and the Catholic education system in general. Indeed, there was a strong emphasis on this when the Honour Roll was unveiled on 20 April 1918. As the parish priest Fr Merner told the assembled crowd, it would “serve to show that our Catholic schools know how to teach their pupils their duty to God and to their country ... This Honour Board is a credit to the children of the school. It will ... remind them to follow in the footsteps of those who have gone before, and, if occasion arise, to be ready to die in defence of Australia”. Fr Merner also praised Miss Hunt for having “manifested the true spirit of patriotism by her action in sacrificing her self-interest to provide this Roll of Honour in acknowledgement of the brave deeds of former pupils” (PG 26/4/1918, p.3).
The honour roll itself was described as being a “very handsome one”, with the panel made of blackwood set in a “massive” frame of figured Queensland oak (PG 26/4/1918, p.3) Twenty-two names were inscribed on the roll, some of whom were not later included on the Pakenham & District Soldiers’ Memorial, presumably because they had left the district long before the outbreak of War. The first name on the roll of honour was that of Sr Norah Rhoden who served in the Australian Army Nursing Service. Five of the names were marked with a cross denoting that they had been killed in action. However, the total number of former St Patrick’s students who lost their lives during the War was seven (over 30% of those who served): In addition to the five soldiers marked with crosses on the roll, Arthur Ward was killed just days before the unveiling, while John Kelly died of illness in England in October 1918. When those who were also wounded or became ill during the War are also considered, the casualty rate for the former St Patrick’s students rises to a staggering 68% (Ferry 2016A p. 5)
Former students from the 1930s and 1940s such as Kevin Clarke and Sr Kath O’Neill remembered the honour roll hanging proudly in their classroom. At some stage though, it was taken down and put into storage, perhaps when new brick classrooms were built in the mid 1960s. The board was still in storage under one of the old classrooms in the 1980s when Sr Kath O’Neill returned to the school as principal. What happened to it after that remains a mystery. The idea of creating a honour board was suggested during the planning for the St Patrick’s Primary School 150th anniversary celebrations in 2016. The timing also coincided with the national Anzac Centenary 2014-2018. In the absence of photographs, it was not possible to recreate the original design. For this reason, a new board was made by John Ruys, set into an antique wooden frame. Fortunately, the names which appeared on the original roll were recorded at the time by the Pakenham Gazette. The words of dedication on the new board were devised by the School Principal, Mick O’Brien based on the speech Fr Merner gave at the dedication of the original Roll in April 1918. The new Honour Roll was unveiled at St Patrick’s Primary School on Remembrance Day, November 11 2016. Amongst the guests were relatives of some of those named on the Roll.