WEDNESDAY WARRIORS: The St Pat's Ballarat Tradition, by James Gilchrist

WEDNESDAY WARRIORS: The St Pat's Ballarat Tradition, by James Gilchrist

Cardinal George Pell

The St Pat's Ballarat Tradition
by James Gilchrist 
(Connor Court, 2010, 263pp, $29.95, ISBN: 978-1-92142-132-7. Available from Freedom Publishing)

More than nine years ago when I was appointed Archbishop of Sydney from Melbourne many friends were kind enough to lament my transfer and some were horrified that I would have to live in Sydney. I explained that I was not being sent to Afghanistan!

On the other hand, it was a Melbourne-born Sydneysider, a Collingwood diehard, who paid me the ultimate compliment of claiming that my transfer to Sydney was the best thing to happen since Plugger Lockett, one of the finest full forwards in the history of the game, left St Kilda for the Sydney Swans.

Regarding the present book, it seems to me that Aussie Rules is more like cricket than the rugby codes and soccer, at least in Australia, in the amount of quality writing it generates, not just in the upmarket Melbourne  Age, but in papers like the  Herald Sun. And James Gilchrist's  Wednesday Warriors fits easily into this top category as it is beautifully written, clear and insightful.

It is not just another school history or an account of one aspect of that school's sporting achievements, but has a much wider significance and appeal as it charts the changing sub-culture of an important Victorian provincial school across more than sixty years through interviews with players from those eras. It also records the unsuccessful quest of the 2009 First XVIII for the Herald Sun Shield, effectively the Victorian schoolboy football team championship. They were a young team and their successors this year achieved this goal, but Gilchrist records the human ups and downs, the triumphs and disappointments, of their various efforts.

St "Pat's" College, as it is known almost universally, was founded by the Christian Brothers in 1893 to prepare boys for university. Many professional men continue to come from the school, but it has never been an academic hothouse. Originally most of the students were boarders, while today there are 1,000 day boys and only fifty or so boarders. When I was welcomed back as a new bishop in 1987 the Headmaster proudly explained to the boys that the College then boasted two Brownlow Medal winners (the best and fairest award in the AFL) and two bishops among its old boys (in that order!)

Every old boy's photo is somewhere on the walls and the school has produced more ex-student priests (over 300) than any other Australian school.

However St Pat's mirrors the wider society as it is no longer a power house for faith and has a strong minority of non-Catholic students. But it does have a number of ex-students studying for the priesthood (probably as good as any other Victorian school) and it certainly has more fine footballers playing in the AFL than at any time in its history.

In the best sense the football tradition of the school is flourishing. Young men are being taught to strive to win, to work hard, to succeed or fail as a team with self respect and dignity. The sporting lessons still taught in good schools are irreplaceable for the future.

Not surprisingly outstanding coaches have contributed a lot to the St Pat's football story. The earliest of these was Jack Morrissey who coached from 1905-1922 and whom I can remember watching the team in the 1950s. Naturally he and Brother Bill O'Malley were too long gone for any interviews. The legendary Brother O'Malley coached from 1937-1959 and had two Brownlow Medal winners in his 1952 team.

Other fine coaches were Brother Bob Aron and Gerard Ryan, but the most remarkable is the present coach Howard Clark, who started in 2002. He already has a win, second and third in the State championship and during all this period he has struggled against serious and debilitating ill health. His courage and his moral leadership will continue to influence his charges long after they have finished playing football.

Clark should be able to speak for himself: "I want to produce outstanding citizens, men with a sense of justice for others, a sense of service to others, good males, good partners for their wives, role models for their children." Amen to that.

We cannot deny or ignore the relentless and hostile pressures on self-discipline, family and faith from the surrounding society. But many Catholic schools, like St Pat's, continue to work effectively for goodness, decency, strong principles.

Gilchrist understands the changing world in which we live. He sets the school's struggles to maintain its best traditions, sometimes against home-grown opposition, in this wider contest, often unrecognised, between our Judaeo-Christian values and the knockers, the destroyers.

He provides a sophisticated entrée into the hearts and minds of some good young men today and their mentors from very different backgrounds and into the changing self-understandings, even world views, of their peers from the First XVIII over the last sixty years.

Wednesday Warriors is a fascinating piece of work and deserves to be read widely today. Certainly tomorrow's historians who seek to understand us will find in it a mine of information.

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