The 140th Birthday of the College is only possible because there were great men and great women who preceded us and built the sure foundation. The larger-than-life and the unassuming, the people of faith and wisdom, the living and the dead. ‘A house built on rock’ as today’s Gospel encourages. That’s why we are here. So many people of influence and so many stories to recall and share. We could spend many days speaking of all those heroes and telling their stories. But I will recall just one. Our Founder, Fr Joseph Dalton SJ.
Joseph Dalton was born at Waterford, soon after the restoration of the Jesuits and their return to Ireland. Young Joseph went to school at Clongowes Wood, whence our present ‘Gappies’ hail. Dalton joined the Society of Jesus and later became Rector of two Jesuit Colleges in Ireland. Then the new Irish Mission to Australia was launched.
The Provincial wrote to all the Jesuit communities inviting volunteers to be missioned halfway round the world. Dalton later said, ‘I couldn’t expect anyone in my community to volunteer if I, the superior, didn’t put my name down first.’ So he did. And the Provincial chose him. He was then aged 50 — at the time, that was more than the life expectancy of a male in Ireland. Imagine that. Dalton is living the magis. Never past his ‘use by date’. For him, there was always another door to be opened.
He left for Australia, with two other Jesuits, as superior of the new Mission ‘Down Under’. In pre-Suez Canal days, the good ship Great Britain took the passage around the Cape. By all reports, it was a tough journey. Passengers did not see land after leaving Wales until they sighted Australia.
En route, there was a duel on board and a case of smallpox. A cow, kept below decks to provide fresh milk for well-to-do First Class passengers, died of sea-sickness after only one week at sea. The crowd of Second Class passengers cheered maliciously as it was thrown overboard. But then the vacant cow stall was used to lock up troublesome passengers of the lower classes! Perhaps the cow had the last laugh. The three Jesuits were quite active on board and Dalton records that there were ‘three converts to the Faith’ along the way.
They arrived in Melbourne in 1866 to join two confreres already there — three priests and two brothers now in all. But in their first year, one of the brothers left to marry. And the other brother just plain disappeared — perhaps to the goldfields? So Dalton lost 40 per cent of his workforce, his team, in one year. Did it stop him? Of course not. He was never one to look back.
Fr Dalton immediately took over the decrepit and moribund Cathedral school, St Patrick’s in Melbourne, and soon turned it around. He was there for 12 years. Its enrolment, its spirit, its outcomes, all soared. Dalton never shied away from a challenge. Sadly, that great school, St Pat’s — ‘the Aloys of Melbourne’ — was taken from us by the Archdiocese in the 1960s and demolished.
Fr Dalton purchased 70 acres of land for the new Xavier College at Kew which opened in 1878. He established our two parishes at Hawthorn and Richmond with a primary school each. A man whose vision was nothing less than bold. Even during that first year at Xavier, he was negotiating expansion to Sydney.
In 1878 he moved to Sydney amid a great deal of anti-Jesuit feeling here and campaigns to thwart the Jesuits’ arrival. Even Archbishop Vaughan, who eventually invited the Jesuits to Sydney, was advised by his own brother, a Bishop in Manchester, that, in welcoming the Jesuits to his Archdiocese, he was only ‘creating a rod for his own back’. A number of NSW parliamentarians were on the offensive. Some Catholic quarters were also suspicious.
Dalton went into that lion’s den. And he soon won them over. His weapons would only be a natural openness and the conversational word.
Dalton took over the parish of North Sydney, which then extended from the harbour to Palm Beach across to Berowra and back. Huge! We are told those first Jesuits lived very poorly in a four-room shanty built from corrugated iron and flattened kerosene tins. Imagine that in a Sydney summer. But he was building God’s Kingdom — that was enough. I think Dalton lived out that Prayer for Generosity — ‘to toil and not to seek for rest’. Turning his attention to education, he then rented St Kilda House in Woolloomooloo, which was to become our St Aloysius’ College.
Dalton was Rector for one year before purchasing 118 acres to establish yet another boarding school at Riverview. Our ‘Founding Father’ also established the Lavender Bay parish and parish schools as well. Such an energetic man. The only foundation of his that was to fail was St Aloysius’ College and Parish in Dunedin, New Zealand, which operated 12 years between 1878 and 1889.
Fr Dalton remained at Riverview the rest of his life. Despite all those earlier misgivings and distrust of Jesuits, in his lifetime Dalton had become the friend and confidant of many members of the hierarchy, as well as earning the respect of vice-regals and parliamentarians. His pupils loved him. He died in 1905, aged 87, and was buried from St Mary’s North Sydney. The funeral was enormous. Church and civic leaders, parliamentarians, non-Catholic friends, families and so many Old Boys — all mourning such a great loss.
Interestingly, Dalton was no great innovator in education. He was not an academic or an intellectual. He left few writings, apart from his diary. And his faith was lived out simply and practically. But so pastoral. He loved others and was loved in return.
As a young man, he could never have guessed where his life would take him. But he left a mark beyond his dreaming, in a place beyond his imagining. Here. For us. Joseph Dalton’s story is a rich one. A story so often graced. But also a story sometimes grim. Dalton’s experience of success and failure, of hardship and ease, of the permanent and the passing, of allies and enemies, is something we all know from time to time. It is part of our story, too. That’s why he is such a good patron.
Apparently, during his life, Dalton’s favourite expression, a Latinism, to wish people well in a venture was Felix faustumque. ‘May it be favourable and prosperous.’
So today, we look about us here. Felix faustumque? Yes, it has been.
Fr Ross Jones SJ is Rector of St Aloysius’ College Milsons Point. The above text is from his homily at the Commencement Mass celebrating 140 years of the school.