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25 years of Catholic Education in Parramatta

Silver Jubilee Catholic Education
Outer West Regional Office staff in 1985 included (back) Br Aengus Kavanagh (4th from right) and Terry Keogh (centre).

By Br Aengus Kavanagh FSP

Major structural changes in the leadership and management of Catholic schools were underway in the greater Sydney area in the 1980s.

Prior to 1986, the present Dioceses of Parramatta and Broken Bay were Pastoral Regions within the Archdiocese of Sydney. In the early 1980s, a process to decentralise the administration of Catholic education had commenced, leading to the establishment of up to five regional offices.

What is now known as the Diocese of Parramatta corresponds closely to what was then known as Sydney’s Outer West region with Bishop Bede Heather as the regional bishop.

The regional presence in the outer west commenced in a spare office at the newly opened John Paul II Senior High School, Marayong, in 1981, then moved to an upstairs apartment in Dunmore Street, Wentworthville, in 1982.

Meanwhile, a vacated Presbyterian Church on the corner of Flushcombe Road and Marion Street at Blacktown was acquired, refurbished and opened as the first Catholic-owned Education Office in the region in May 1986. These premises are now occupied by the Parramatta Institute for Mission.

For many years the Sydney Archdiocesan Catholic Education Office (CEO) had been located behind St Benedict’s Church on the corner of Broadway and Abercrombie Street in the Sydney CBD.

By today’s standards, the CEO was very lean in staffing and it was a long way from Broadway to the outer west heartland. As a consequence, a majority of Catholic schools in the outer west region felt isolated and had tenuous connections with the CEO except for occasional visits from a thinly scattered number of primary school advisers.

Up until the end of the 1980s, all Catholic school finances were administered by the Catholic Building and Finance Commission, a body separate from the CEO.

Catholic schools generally, and especially those more physically distant from the CEO, were much more autonomous 25 years ago. That was an age of more modest staffing of CEOs and an age less beset with the present day multiplicity of regulations, compliances and accountabilities.

With the rapid expansion of Catholic schools in the 1970s and 80s, and with the decline in vocations to Religious life, the proportion of lay to Religious staff in the schools had increased dramatically.

Nevertheless, more than 70% of the 65 Catholic schools in the region, up to the mid-1980s did have Religious as principals. Today, there are only three Religious principals in our diocesan schools.

In general, the setting up of a regional office in the outer west was warmly accepted by the Catholic school communities and by the clergy. Bishop Bede became a great friend and patron of the office.

Due of the region’s distance from Sydney CEO, a shortage of capital grants, and because of the rapid expansion of outer western suburbs, there was a serious under-provision of schools for many Catholic communities.

A major challenge for the limited staff in the growing regional office was to collaborate closely with local parishes in the acquisition of sites, the planning, funding, building and staffing of  new schools.

Applications for capital funding and negotiation with the Catholic Building and Finance Commission were major agenda items in this period.

There was little, or no, specialist expertise among regional office staff. As the Regional Director, I and my Assistant Director, Terry Keogh, found ourselves on a sharp learning curve.

The 1980s witnessed what was probably the most rapid expansion of Catholic education in any given area at any given time in Australia. The 14 new schools opened across the Diocese from 1981 to 1988 shows just how rapid this expansion was.

The 1980s were heady days in the system of Catholic schools in the embryonic and early years of the Diocese of Parramatta.

Br Aengus Kavanagh FSP was the inaugural Regional Director of the Outer West Region from 1982 to 1986 and is still working in Catholic Education in the Diocese in the areas of leadership and formation.