Rich harvest

While i was reading Christine Trimingham Jack’s fascinating personal account of the education young girls have within a Catholic boarding school run by the Society of the Sacred Heart of Jesus, I found a hymn refrain echoing throughout the text that I associate with my own, more recent education under this same religious order: ‘bind, bind, closer—the old and the new …’

The hymn celebrates the childhood of Saint Madeline Sophie Barat, the French founder of the order in 1779. It exhorts ‘her children’ in countries and centuries far removed from post-revolutionary France to acquire the ‘stamp’ of her blessed character. The Society’s continuing and self-conscious aspirations to imprint on its students the characteristics of a ‘Child of the Sacred Heart’—and more broadly the mark of a good Catholic ‘lady’—provide the contours for Trimingham Jack’s history of Kerever Park, the boarding school she attended as a child in the Southern Highlands of New South Wales. The book explores the formative role of such a Catholic education in shaping the self-understanding of Catholic girls in the 1940s and 1950s. It examines the function of the school’s physical setting, daily rituals, educational practices and religious symbols in producing ‘Catholic wives and mothers in accordance with the middle-class model of the time’.

Trimingham Jack has interviewed 14 ex-students and religious sisters at the school. The results are interwoven in the book with her own reflections and some archival material. The book’s strengths are the intriguing way these female voices have been placed in the foreground and the interplay between their past and present lives and ideas. These rich sources would have benefited from being placed in context within the women’s broader life experiences and other formative influences. Trimingham Jack carefully investigates both internalisation and rejection of Catholicism’s traditional constructions of femininity. There is an immediacy and potency in this dialogue between ‘the old and the new’ as the women recount their affirmation, interpretation or rejection of perspectives established during childhood. They do so as adults within a radically new social context and against the backdrop of the changes to Catholicism that followed the Second Vatican Council.

Trimingham Jack uses the interviews to explore the complex interactions between conformity and challenge to the school’s social and spiritual order. Her history of Kerever Park resembles a number of recently published Australian Catholic memoirs in its movement between reminiscence and reappraisal, which is sure to resonate with readers from similar backgrounds.

As a commentary on education and convent life in Australia, Growing Good Catholic Girls provides a detailed and engaging history of one such school, some of its past pupils and teachers. Its discussion of the interactions between Catholicism and gender identity will contribute to the expanding academic exploration of this issue. However, it does not draw upon the growing historiography of Australian Catholicism now available, which would place the book within a larger context. Other important related issues are left relatively unexplored, such as class, nationality and race, feminist discussions surrounding the body, and recent explorations of religious spirituality all equally as constitutive of Australian Catholic identities. This is despite the tantalising possibilities presented within the text.

These reservations aside, the affectionate yet sometimes ambivalent account of Kerever Park makes for an interesting study in the changes, continuities and multiple allegiances encountered in personal histories—and indeed within the history of modern Australian Catholicism. In its exploration of the ‘bind’ between the past and the present, and the durability of these old school ties, Trimingham Jack’s book encourages the reader to summon up memories, and in my case melodies, from our own past school experiences. 

Growing Good Catholic Girls: Education and Convent Life in Australia, Christine Trimingham Jack.

Melbourne University Press, 2003. isbn 0 522 85055 3, rrp $34.95

Alana Harris is the recipient of the Newman College Archbishop Mannix Travelling Scholarship and the Rae and Edith Bennett Travelling Scholarship. She is presently undertaking a DPhil in Modern History at Wadham College, University of Oxford.



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