Loyola Senior High School: The early years

As Loyola Senior High School in Mt Druitt celebrates its 25th anniversary, foundation principal Fr Ross Jones SJ shares memories of the school's formative years.

About two years before I was ordained, I was commissioned to come to Sydney from Melbourne, where I was studying, to explore the possibility of the Jesuits engaging in a new school. In the spirit of the magis, it was to be where the need was greatest, and where our particular spirituality and pedagogy would be welcomed. I met with directors of schools in three dioceses — Sydney, Wollongong, and the relatively new diocese of Parramatta. The first two had no projects which would seem to engage us.

Then I visited the Parramatta Catholic Education Office. In those days, it worked out of a little wooden building — almost a hut — in Blacktown. I met the director, the charismatic Ann Clark. When I sat down, she reached behind her desk, pulled out a roll of tentative sketches and said, ‘This is what we have in mind — a senior high school in Mount Druitt.’ I instinctively knew that this was what we were looking for. I reported to the Provincial. Thankfully he and his advisers opted for the invitation to come here. A year or so later, the same Provincial told me I was to be the foundation principal. I didn’t sleep for a week.

So we Jesuits bought a house and adjoining block of land in Mount Druitt, near the Westfield shopping centre — I think for about $120,000 (those were the days!). In the surrounding locality, every six months or so, an egg producer or poultry or vegetable farm would convert into residential blocks. Housing boomed, the population grew. You had to navigate with an open street directory on your lap (no Google Maps then). But the directory was out of date as soon as it was printed.

I soon began visits to the students at St Agnes’, Rooty Hill, who would be our first intake cohort. We had long discussions and votes about the name of the school, its crest and motto, its uniform. I soon became an expert on women’s dress fabrics. It was a democratic process and, later on, students seemed proud of the outcome. In future years, they were surprised and quite chuffed that people in the street would stop them and compliment them on their appearance. The red and yellow colours were from the house of Loyola in Spain. Coupled with black, I approached the local Indigenous community for approval to make links with the First Australians in referring to the three colours. They were happy. I was also delighted that later we were able to offer the Aboriginal Studies HSC course to students.

Fortuitously, we sought architects for the school design during a significant building slump in Sydney, so many notable architectural firms tendered for our relatively small project. The successful tenderers were Denton Corker Marshall, a leading firm who had designed landmark buildings, both in Australia and abroad. But when we came to seeking builders, a hitch was discovered. Due to an oversight, the CEO had not yet actually purchased the land! It still belonged to the Lands Department. The sale was promised, but nothing was signed, and there had since been a change of government. Neighbours on either side of the block were also very keen to purchase the property. The architects nearly collapsed. We said prayers, held our breath, and eventually were sold the property.

Stage one was begun. The first year cohort came over from St Agnes’ and laid the foundation stone outside the chapel. A time capsule was buried. The building completed. The chapel and library at either end of the campus spoke to the complementarity of the vision of head and heart we held for the formation of those who were soon to join us. For their inspiration, Denton Corker Marshall received a prestigious Sulman Award for their design.

We began with about 160 year 11 students from St Agnes’, St Patrick’s Blacktown, St Dominic’s Penrith (all 7-10 schools then), local government schools, and from further afield. There were so many national backgrounds. Such a richness. When I asked students about the birthplace of grandparents, I estimated there were some 50-plus countries of origin here in the extended family ancestries. I have to admit in my time here there were students from nations I had never heard of and I had to duck into my office and consult an Atlas.

One student from El Salvador told me she was baptised by the martyred Bishop Oscar Romero, who gave her a prayer book which she still had. He is now on his way to canonisation. Another student, from Thailand, had a surname so long it exceeded the number of characters, 16, that the CEO database allowed for registering names.

The vibrant tapestry of our cultural mix was something we celebrated from the earliest days. We had two flagpoles and on any national day, we flew, when we could, the flag of that country next to our national flag. I wrote to Embassies and Consulates, explaining who we were, asking if they could donate their country’s flag to us. It was an interesting lesson for me. The smallest, poorest nations gave us a flag. But generally, “the world powers” declined — although the US did send us a folded cardboard flag (which presented problems running it up the mast).

This sense of heritage and community led us to celebrate our patron’s day, St Ignatius’ Day, within a multicultural day. A Mass (with prayers in different languages), foods from so many ethnic and cultural sources, complemented by song and dance in such a range of languages and styles. It is wonderful to see that tradition continues.

For me, so many touching stories regarding our sense of enculturation emerged. Loyola opened a few years after the end of the first Gulf War. We welcomed quite a number of asylum seekers from UN Refugee Camps in Turkey. They were a few years older than their peers but prized so highly what they now had. One young man, when I asked him what he did in Iraq before fleeing, pulled a small, very worn and crumpled black and white photo from his wallet to show me. There he was, dressed in a black robe and with round black hat. He was a novice in a Chaldean Christian monastery atop a mountain in Iraq, before it was destroyed by Saddam Hussein and the community slaughtered or scattered. What a change in life — from monk to Mount Druitt!

We had another student, a young woman in our first year, who was Muslim. Her father, as a hobby, was a fine woodcarver. During the year, he came to see me. He explained he was so glad that his daughter was in a school which, as a matter of course, acknowledged and celebrated the presence of God. For all that we had done for her, he was so grateful. Then he presented the school with a gift — it was a beautifully-carved crucifix. What an intersection of faiths! What an exchange! Finding God in all things — especially the surprising ones. I knew, then, that we were on the right path.

Pastoral care soon developed as one of our core strengths. There were difficult times in some homes. Being on the street was often tougher. One fellow who had experienced gang violence on the streets told me, ‘I love it here. I feel safe at Loyola. From the morning until 3pm I’m not constantly looking over my shoulder.’ Another boy’s family moved to Fairfield. Reluctantly, he felt he had to leave to be nearer to a local school there. So, very sadly, he signed out one Friday afternoon, handing in his books and uniform for sale. He reappeared on Wednesday morning, wanting to re-enroll in spite of the huge travel time. In the two days, no one in the new school had spoken to or helped him. No one cared. Belonging was here. Pastoral care meant looking after each other.

I was so blessed with the staff who applied to teach here and joined our community. They embraced our spirituality and our style. They were professional and they were compassionate. So generous in covering every base. Multi-tasking. Going that extra mile. In a new school, you don’t have the luxury of pulling last year’s program out of the filing cabinet to use again. For those first two years, everything was drawn up from scratch. I am especially indebted to Mrs Patricia Maidens, the deputy principal and co-founder of the college. I could not have achieved anything near as much without her.

The other four Jesuit schools competed in an annual football carnival, for the coveted Loyola Cup. In our first year, we were invited to join. Some of those other schools had year group populations larger than our total population. They had long traditions in such sporting competitions, and they employed specialist coaches. To form a team and some reserves, we had less than 80 boys in our first year (and a couple of boys from year 10 in St Agnes’ who would soon come to us) from whom to choose. But we made a team, coached by a couple of members of staff who knew a smattering of soccer.

The competition was hosted by Riverview during a school week. I went with the team, and with an early second-hand mobile phone — the only one in the school and, yes, the size of a house brick — I reported the results back to Tricia Maidens who broadcasted the progressive scores and wins across the school’s PA system. Loyola had players from South America, African nations, eastern Europe, the Mediterranean. Soccer was in their blood. We won the trophy. And what celebrations followed! Our opponents were stunned and in admiration. It was one of the turning points in our identity. We went on to win it the next three years as well. We were as good as anyone.

Prior to our official opening, we wrote to the student body of every Jesuit school in the world which bore the name St Ignatius or Loyola. This was pre-email. We told them we were opening a new school, Loyola College, and, as a sister school, asked would they like to send our students a greeting. Before long, we were deluged with replies, most in languages we could not read. Some in Chinese calligraphy on beautiful scrolls. Some from schools many centuries old. Some with personal messages from individual students. Others, collages of photos. We hung them in the library. At once, we were not just any new school on a block somewhere. We were part of long tradition. We belonged to a worldwide family.

Twenty-five years on, I still remember our official opening by the much-loved Bishop Bede Heather on the vigil of St Ignatius’ Day 1993. On that occasion, our Tongan students offered to perform the Tau’olunga, a dance reserved only for very special occasions. The Gospel proclaimed that day was the parable of the mustard seed, that smallest of seeds, which grows into a tree in which the birds of the air can feed and nest. That was to be our image of Loyola. We could never imagine what it would grow into. But day by day, those blessed to be able to enroll here, to work here, to teach here, to learn here, saw that flourishing. Yes, they saw themselves and their fellow students growing in knowledge, in faith, in confidence and in identity — and also, like that tree, becoming a shelter and a strength and a support for others. Loyola students have never existed for themselves alone.

Long may it be so.