Tony Butler’s Hermitage in the South

Tony Butler, A Hermitage in the South: A history of Marist Brothers Mittagong 1906–2006 (Marist Brothers 2006)

This is a chronicle of a place that has played an important part in the Australian story of the Marist Brothers, a Catholic religious order. It’s very much an in-house production, which I’d expect will be read from cover to cover by a pretty circumscribed group of people. I am one of that group.

From 1905 until the mid 1980s, the property at Mittagong in the southern highlands of New South Wales was the key training place for new members of the Marist Brothers in Australia. Since then, it has served a number of functions connected with the Brothers’ work in religious education. The buildings are still there, extended, redesigned and surrounded by vineyards, but still recognisable, with a strong Marist Brothers presence.

I spent half my teenage years there in the 1960s – the last two years of secondary school in what was called the Juniorate, and then eighteen months up the hill in the Novitiate. Though I went home to my family for a couple of weeks at the end of the first two years, it was a time spent almost entirely in the company of other young men about my own age. We cooked, cleaned and gardened. We chopped wood, cleaned grease traps, and shovelled sawdust for heating. We studied, sang and did religious ceremonies. Each day we rose early to pray and spent long periods in would-be contemplative silence. We got chilblains in the bitter Mittagong winters (especially bitter for those of us who came from tropical north Queensland). We played vigorous soccer, hockey, cricket and handball (though the unsporty ones like me tried to minimise those activities). We had no radio. Newspapers, Super 8 movies and TV were curated by our teachers, and in the novitiate were almost completely absent (once or twice a news item about Vietnam was read to us at meals, before the other pious readings). We went on long bush walks.

We prepared ourselves for lives in religious community. We were said to be in formation, and though many of us dropped out along the way, and most of us left the order, some within years, some after decades of our time in Mittagong (three years in my case), they were definitely – for good and bad – formative years.

Our relationships weren’t all sweetness and light, but there was an underlying sense that we were all there because we wanted to do good in the world – we wanted to be good. I don’t remember any violence or threats of violence, which I gather is pretty unusual among groups of adolescent boys. We saw ourselves as heading for lives of celibacy, and the only women we saw while at Mittagong were family who came on the sparse visiting days, so our sexual acculturation was a long way from typical.

The book doesn’t go deeply into such matters. But as well as drawing on dry documentation about things like building extensions and deliberations among the order’s leadership, it includes personal reminiscences from every stage of the history, and there are reflective passages like this:

Both juniorate and novitiate emphasised the community rather than the individual, for the cultivation of singularity was to be avoided. Everything was done in community, whether it was praying or working, studying or eating, playing or walking. Sometimes a junior could be carried along by the tide without having a sense of who he was as an individual, an issue to be faced in his later years.

So yes, there was that.

In my days at the juniorate there were two very old brothers. Brother Gerard was my Latin teacher, who would interrupt his intensely scholarly lessons to quote a couplet from Pope, compare something a scientist had said in the news to a line from Lucretius, or exclaim that he’d just seen a fox running up the hill opposite our classroom. Brother Eusebius had retired from teaching, and spent most of his days, as far as we could see, pottering about the flower gardens with his secateurs and drinking tea with Gerard. He had a favourite Brother/Dad joke. ‘I’m Brother Eusebius,’ he’d say, then take off his glasses and wave them in front of his face. ‘You see be us.’ One of the rewards of reading this whole book was to discover that when three Brothers walked from Sydney to Mittagong in 1905 to take possession of the property, Eusebius was one of them. I don’t think any of us had a sense that this sweet old codger had a story to tell.

Broader issues are either mentioned in passing or glossed over. There is no mention of the pre-invasion history of the land, though if it were written today it would probably include an acknowlegement of Gundungurra and Dharawal people as the traditional owners. The seismic changes in the Catholic Church following the Second Vatican Council are deeply embedded in the narrative, perhaps, with no need to spell them out. And you would search in vain for any light cast on the child sexual assault scandals that had already rocked the Marist Brothers for some time before the book’s publication, though at least two of the men named in its pages had been convicted and, I believe, done time in prison.

In my own time at Mittagong, there was a moment which indicates a path that might have been taken.

During our time in the novitiate, one of the older Brothers spent an evening telling us his life story. The way the book tells it, the novices were enthralled by the rich and varied life he led before joining the order. That’s probably accurate, but only thing I remember from that evening is his explanation for why he was at Mittagong rather than teaching in a school.

He told us he had found himself attracted to a young boy, and immediately told the head of his community, who organised for him to be transferred to another school. It happened again, and this time it was agreed that he should be completely removed from proximity to young boys. He spent the rest of his life in charge of the dairy at Mittagong, admired and loved by successive generations of adolescents.

The message was clear: first, as a Brother you can have unexpected desires/impulses/temptations; second, you can and should immediately take steps to get you the fuck away from where you might do harm. Secrecy, denial and concealment would lead to serious trouble.

I think I understand why that version of the evening didn’t get into this book. But I think of that man as a hero. I don’t know how many groups of young men he told his story to, facing possible humiliation each time. We certainly weren’t the only one. Nor do I know how many children were spared from predatory Brothers by his cautionary example – not enough, but I hope there were some.

So thanks, Tony Butler, for the labour of love in compiling this chronicle. It brought back vivid memories, and stirred a good bit of thinking.

9 responses to “Tony Butler’s Hermitage in the South

  1. This is fascinating stuff…
    I enjoy Keneally’s early fiction in part because as a young writer, his stories drew on his time in a seminary. Gerard Windsor too, though I’ve only read Heaven, Where the Bachelors Sit.
    The Spouse and I were talking the other day about medieval philosophers and whether it was as true for men as it was for women that joining a monastery was a way of getting an education that went beyond what was available to all but the wealthy classes. I can imagine that in Australia up until the provision of free secondary education beyond the Merit Certificate, that joining a seminary might be preferable to being sent at 13 or 14 to work in a factory or a mine… but the passage of years might bring a desire for the wider world (not to mention other desires as well!)

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    • Yes Lisa, I nearly mentioned Heaven, Where the Bachelors Sit, which is the closest I’ve read to my experience, though Gerard W was in the Jesuits, who had/have a much higher opinion of themselves than the Marists did/do. The other strong reference is The Devil’s Playground: one of the novices in the group two years ahead of mine had been to the NSW equivalent of the Macedon juniorate where that movie is set: I remember thinking it all rang terribly true except for the sexual stuff, (which when I rewatched it recently seemed to be the main point of the movie).
      We certainly had a big class mix in my group, but the days when a religious ‘vocation’ meant opportunities not available elsewhere were pretty well gone.

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  2. I’ve read The Devil’s Advocate … I thought it was a very good book, interesting about philosophical issues in daily life, which is something that always interests me. (And not just because I married a philosopher!) I see from re-reading my review that I had plans to read more by Morris West, but I don’t even have one of his on the TBR. My guess is that he would be well out of favour by now.

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    • I think you’re right that Morris West is now out of favour. I remember enjoying The Devil’s Advocate and The Shoes of the Fisherman. But it’s Fred Schepisi’s The Devils Playground that’s connected to my Mittagong story

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  3. Then I should revitalise my quest to read more of him!

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  4. This book is news to me, Jonathan, so thanks for putting me onto it. I trust you are well, and pleased I discovered your blog a few weeks ago. If my memory serves me correctly, you played a role at Mittagong in introducing us to everything from Jackson Pollock to Jacques Tati to the Russian Ballet. And Brother Gerard never noticed any foxes during my Latin classes; we were in the hard slog of Cicero’s Ad Verres!

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    • Michael! Hi! Are you in Sydney? It wasn’t me who introduced Jackson Pollock or the Russian ballet. I do remember we were shown M Hulot’s Holiday on a small screen in the rec room, but I didn’t start it. I did do a concert performance of the final monologue from Marlowe’s Doctor Faustus, of which the highlight was a pretty realistic wrist-slitting

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      • Michael Galvin

        Been living in Adelaide, off and on, since 1990. I thought you played a role in choosing the films we watched in the rec room, including about Pollock and Diaghilev. You certainly played a huge role in talking about them enthusiastically to people like me, exposed to them for the first time. As for Tati, I thought it was Mon Oncle?
        Can you send me an email, save further personal stuff for later. Dont think I have yours…

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      • You’re right. It was Mon Oncle. How ahead of ourselves we must have been, to enthuse about those people I would have sworn I hadn’t heard of for another decade! I’ll email you.

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