Every item tells a story

Don’t throw out that dog-eared schoolboy photograph of you or an ancestor. It would be a welcome addition to the archives at St Aloysius’ College.

By Tim Quilty, College Archivist at St Aloysius’ College, Milsons Point

The archives at St Aloysius’ College comprise a significant collection of objects, documents and records detailing the history and life of the College since 1879. Many common day objects, of no value to most at any particular point in time, were fortunately considered important enough to preserve by someone, for whatever reason. Many such items are now in the care of the College, preserved and shared for generations to come.

That being said, consider this paradox: despite thousands of photos in the College archives, members of the College community regularly ask for photos of events that were once so familiar that no one bothered to record them. For example, there have been recent requests for images of cadets parading in the Wyalla yard, Fr McEvoy’s Norton motorbike and Fr Whiteley’s Wyalla playground. None can be found. Notwithstanding, it is always a great surprise to uncover the fact that a boy with a Kodak Box Brownie camera once took a seemingly unimportant photo that has eventually found its way into the College archives. Others will continue to arrive over time.

It has been said that history is written by the victor and further verification sometimes may be applied to the recollection of events. This is no surprise to parents who have listened to embroidered stories of a day’s events. A young cadet once recounted his version of a passing-out parade when the boy next to him fainted and “they had to go back and dig his beret badge out of the College Oval”. Teachers’ classic stories often have a connection to a common theme – absent homework.

Fr Patrick McEvoy SJ as a tree lopper. Photo courtesy of St Aloysius’ College.

Our archives also contain a significant oral history collection with over two hundred hours of cassette recordings that have been digitised for preservation. It is fascinating to listen to vivid stories of teachers, Old Boys and parents, warmly recounting formative experiences. On one tape, a prominent senior lawyer recounted when in Junior School his delight at regularly assisting an elderly Fr John Forster SJ tend the garden outside the Old Chapel. It remained a special memory for him, notwithstanding success in later life.

An interesting aspect of our archival collection is how a single object, event or person can connect different boys, families, Jesuits and lay teachers. Fr Forster is a case in point. Recently, the College archives gratefully accepted objects donated by George Crowley (SAC 1956). George has generously donated other special objects to the College Archives and gave his time some years ago to assist with the management of the archives. Included in George’s most recent contribution was a Fr Forster shell, an Imitation of Christ prayer book inscribed by Fr Forster for George’s late father “Master Kevin Crowley” (SAC 1921), and a copy of the Alter Christus.

Fr Forster, born in 1870, had been a teacher, Prefect of Studies and Rector during the combined 44 years he spent at St Aloysius’ College. He passed away in 1964 at the age of 93. Curiously, Fr Forster had been a draughtsman with the Victorian Railways before entering the Society. He would paint the inside of small seashells, and then, using a fine pin, skilfully inscribe the College crest or a prayer with a steady hand. When requested, Fr Forster would also write the names of boys in their prayer books in beautiful copperplate script.

Imitation of Christ prayer book illustration and sea shell inscription by Fr John Forster SJ. Photo: St Aloysius’ College.

Fr Forster has been described as “a pious, gentle, artistic lover of birds and trees” and “the guardian and guide of small boys”. He had tremendous energy and was the embodiment of Rudyard Kipling’s poem ‘If’, filling “the unforgiving minute with sixty seconds worth of distance run” as a Latin teacher, bricklayer, carpenter and painter. He lived a full life dedicated to being a man for others.

His story is just one of many preserved in the archives. And if you have an old photograph or artefact that you think has little intrinsic value apart from what it means to you, please get in touch with us!
If you have any items you’d like to share with the College archives, the author can be contacted at tim.quilty@staloysius.nsw.edu.au

This article was originally published in a recent edition of ‘The Gonzagan’ newsletter for St Aloysius’ College, Milsons Point.

Feature photo by Zetong Li on Pexels.