Beginning in 1817, a young French priest recognised the need for poor provincial boys to have access to an education.
So much was his determination that he established his own order of teaching brothers to fulfill this mission.
Called 'the Little Brothers of Mary', the Marist Brothers were founded originally under the Society of Mary (the Marist Fathers) but earned their independence as their own order in 1842. Within decades, the Petit Freres de Marie, had spread throughout Europe and were poised to spread their belief in the 'Strong Minds' and 'Gentle Hearts' throughout the rest of the world.
The Marist Brothers in Australia“I have the honour, by the direction of His Grace the Archbishop of Sydney, to address you on the subject of the Primary Education of our Catholic children in this Archdiocese, with the view of obtaining if possible the co-operation of some of the subjects of your congregation. The Very Rev Pere Poupinel, Visitor General of the Society of Marists here, has given the Archbishop hopes that you will be disposed to afford us the assistance we require, and has promised to do what may be in his power to second our application.” 1
In his letter to Br Luis María, the Superior of the Marist Brothers in France, Archpriest Sheehy (writing on behalf of the founding bishop of Sydney, Dr John Bede Polding), suggested that the reason for calling for the assistance of the Marist Brothers was the instigation of the Public Schools Act of 1866. This Act controlled requisite teacher training and religious education within schools and would severely limit the ability of Catholic schools to continue as they had.
The Marist Brother’s superior training had preceded them and Bishop Polding called on them to establish a teachers college intended to train Catholic teachers within the diocese to meet the standards as established in the new law. While Br Luis María could not provide the resources to support a teachers college, he was able to send four Marist brothers to inaugurate a new school.
The Marist Brothers first arrived in Australia in December of 1872, just thirty years after the death of their founder, Champagnat. They were led by the 28 year old Brother Ludovic Laboureyras, a Frenchman with limited teaching experience and relatively poor English speaking skills. This young man was charged with leading three other brothers, all native English speakers.
The 140 boys that enrolled in the original Church Hill school in Harrington Street in the Rocks must have been an incredibly promising sign to both Br Ludovic and Bishop Polding. However, the boisterous behaviour of the young boys when provided with pen and ink to complete grading exams would have been less than inspiring to the young brother. The pressure he was feeling would surely have mounted when he was visited by a the curious bishop who bore witness to the results of the chaos. Together, Br Ludovic, Br Augustine, Br Jarlath and Br Peter worked together those first months to establish order and discipline among their rapidly growing cohort.
Australia's first Marist schools
This first Marist school in Australia would later become St Patricks Marist College when it moved into secondary education in 1975. St Patricks moved to its current site at Dundas in Sydney’s greater west, in 1962. Parramatta Marist began as the earliest Catholic school in Australia, having been established by Fr John Therry in 1820.
In 1873, Dean Rigney was appointed as the Parish priest in Parramatta. His belief that Catholic students should be taught by the religious led to call for the Marist Brothers to take control of the school that would become known as Parramatta Marist High.
In 1876 the community of Marist Brothers was twenty three strong and in control of three Marist schools. Just ten years later, there were over seventy Marist Brothers in the process of developing a dozen schools in Australia and a further ten in New Zealand. By 1893, the Marist Brothers were educating approximately forty-five percent of the Catholic school-age boys in the entire Sydney province.
From here the Marist Brothers followed in the footsteps of their founder by quickly establishing schools in all mainland states of Australia.