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Flaming Torch Francis Irenaeus McCarthy

Bill Wilding

Flaming Torch Francis Irenaeus McCarthy

Bill Wilding

ISBN 978 0 646 48755 7 Text copyright 2012 W. J. Wilding Published by Mirrabooka Press (A Division of Openbook Howden) 2-12 Paul Street St Marys SA 5042 Designed and Printed in Australia by Openbook Howden Design and Print




CHAPTER 1 - Flaming Torch 1 CHAPTER 2 - The Boy 7 CHAPTER 3 - The Brother 19 CHAPTER 4 - The Teacher 29 CHAPTER 5 - Parade 53 CHAPTER 6 - Cambridge 67 CHAPTER 7 - The Headmaster 81 CHAPTER 8 - St Kevin’s 81 CHAPTER 9 - The Educator 101 CHAPTER 10 - The Uncle 113 CHAPTER 11 - Bon Vivant 121 CHAPTER 12 - Flickering Flame 131 ACKNOWLEDGEMENTS 140 APPENDIX 1 – Timeline 141 APPENDIX 2 – Reference from Sir Joseph Burke 142 APPENDIX 3 – Preface to unpublished book – Lure of the Mountains 143



P R E FAC E Had Francis “Frank” McCarthy known that I was to be his biographer, he would have been appalled. A man of such distinguished letters, to have his life written by one whose tools of trade were physics and mathematics, would have been contrary to his high expectations. Such is life. As will emerge from the following, I had only a distant knowledge of Frank until I came to St Kevin’s and there spent 10 years with him. Following my departure from the College, we frequently met, and then in his last six months I was closely connected with all of his moves and situations. Following Frank’s funeral, at which I delivered the eulogy, many suggested that something more should be recorded of this remarkable man. I wholeheartedly agreed. But then it dawned on me that this would mean that it would fall to me to undertake the task. Task is not the word that I want. Rather, this endeavour has been a privilege, a work of love. So many have shared their experiences with me and enabled this biography to be the accumulated testimony of those whose lives were enriched by Francis McCarthy. Education has been my life’s work. Having observed a multitude of educators of varying effect over more than 50 years, I find that the separation of the wheat from the chaff has become rather instinctive. To encounter the stories of others who have recognised greatness has only confirmed what I was able to witness at first hand. Francis McCarthy was an inspiring and dynamic educator for nearly 70 years. He fired the imagination of his pupils. They sensed that their interests were his interests and their future his concern. His students at Parade, St Kevin’s, and elsewhere held him in the highest regard. But there was more to this man than his classroom instruction. This I have attempted to lay out. Be the judge.





Flaming Torch

We all have had many teachers; those whose different styles we experienced and gained from on the journey of learning and self-discovery, some whom we endured and maybe even feared, and (let us hope) a few whom we always look back on with great appreciation. This biography attempts to explore traces of the life of one who belonged in the last of these categories. But Frank McCarthy was one in that category who was far more than the ordinary. The tributes following his death came from many parts of the world for a man who spent most of his life teaching in the one Australian city. They told of one who was way beyond the ordinary. The great teacher and philosopher Aristotle posited: “The sign of great teachers is that the accomplishments of their students exceed their own.” Hearing of Frank McCarthy’s death, a leading Melbourne cardiologist said of the deceased: “He was one of the great men of my life.” To say that one profession is more important than another, or that some public figures have contributed more than others, is to venture into the speculative. But it can be said with absolute confidence that Francis Irenaeus McCarthy, in a teaching career spanning seven decades, inspired thousands of lives. Many of his students ventured into significant areas of life, and contributed greatly to the public good. Amongst these have been professors, judges, countless doctors and lawyers, art experts, teachers, Heads of schools, a Head of the Australian Defence Force, a Head of the Prime Minister’s Department, and a Director of the National Gallery of Victoria: all these were students of his. Of prime importance to Frank McCarthy were the good and generous men, the great husbands and fathers, and especially those committed to the Church as brothers and priests, who came from his classrooms. In many interviews as part of research for this book came the frequent statement: “I would not be here in this position today if it were not for Br Frank.”


Art became a great love of his life, and rather than being limited by his chosen profession, he went beyond the conventional path to open the eyes of so many young and old to its beauty and inspiration. He was widely appreciated in this field and frequently invited to deliver addresses and open exhibitions. Francis Haskell, the Professor of Art History at Oxford University and world-renowned authority, claimed Francis McCarthy as a dear friend. Frank had dedicated his life to be a religious brother in a congregation of the Catholic Church. As a Christian Brother has was committed to a style of life with many restrictions on his freedom for independent action. The vows of poverty, chastity and obedience limited his field for choice, and committed him largely to the directions set by others. While many persons left religious life after some years of service, he chose to stay. His decision to join the Christian Brothers as a 15-year-old was challenged many times in his long life. But his faith and commitment were deep, and they both carried him through a number of life’s crises. With his capability and qualifications he could have successfully achieved fame in other fields of endeavour. But within his chosen field he achieved far more than could have been anticipated. The Congregation of Christian Brothers has produced many very fine and inspirational teachers in its history, both in Australia and the other countries of its operation. This man could be numbered amongst perhaps four or five of the truly outstanding educators. We teachers are ultimately judged by our students. This judging may often occur with hindsight acquired over many years, and with the opportunity to compare individuals’ experiences with those of others. “Frank was a great man and the person above all who had the greatest influence on my formative adolescent years. I will miss him and his endearing idiosyncrasies. I cannot attend his obsequies but will have you all in mind as you farewell this remarkable and lovable Christian Brother.” - Tony White, a student at Bundaberg in the 1940s “I would like you to know that you had a profound influence on my life, through the challenge of your teaching, your inspirational style, the way you made us all think, and the model you provided us as a man.” - Dr Paul Power, a student at Parade in the 1950s “Brother’s inspiration and intuition, and his willingness to broach any subject intelligently and rationally, endeared him to all who were fortunate to be in his classes. He fostered the confidence of students who had little or none. He turned pass students into honours students. Such was the impact of his powerful personality, and powerful intellect.” - Jim Keogh, a student at Parade in the 1960s “At my first College Assembly Frank entered in procession in full doctoral robes including bonnet to the amusement of many staff and students. This was the emergence of Opposite page: Portrait of Francis McCarthy by Peter Dunne


the new CBC that Frank was to bring about. Frank insisted on high standards in all aspects of College life – he led by example. During Frank’s headmastership the College performed very well academically and won many titles within the Associated Catholic Schools competition. Many held Frank in awe. He was an extraordinary human being who had the capacity to engage with all walks of life.” – Peter Clinch, a student at CBC St Kilda in the 1970s “Once he spent a whole Religious Education class exploring the opening lines of St John’s Gospel – ‘In the beginning was the Word…’ I am not sure how many of us understood at all the philological, theological and metaphysical explication he led us on but I remember being so impressed by his erudition and passion for knowledge and understanding – and I wanted to be like that.” – Dr Paul Hicks, a student at St Kevin’s in the 1980s “I was trying to explain to my missus how much Frank meant to me. I thought I was one of Frank’s pet students, but it appears he had that affect on every one he was in contact with. My missus simply could not fathom how one could love their school and a particular teacher as much as I did – I reckon she thinks I am strange! When I left St Kevin’s I did not ask the Headmaster for a reference, nor the year level co-ordinator or even my own teacher – I went straight to the top and got one from Frank.” - Joe Cassera, a student at St Kevin’s in the 1990s “Even now, I am amazed that Brother McCarthy could maintain the concentration of 13-year-old teenage boys to have discussions and debates about metaphysics and cosmology. To my mind, this was a testament to his ability to distil complicated concepts into language that everyone could understand. However, it was not until I picked up some of the same philosophical writings years after I finished my secondary schooling that I fully comprehended the extent of his abilities as a teacher. The ideas that had seemed so simple when conveyed to me as a 13 year-old by Brother McCarthy were challenging to comprehend ten years later in the absence of his guidance.” – Gerard O’Shaughnessy, a student at St Kevin’s in 2003 We seek from our teachers the spark to ignite in students processes of thought, ever widening imagination, and especially confidence and curiosity. Most produce some sparks for their students. But in the case of Francis Irenaeus McCarthy, this happened for so many, at such an intensity – and for so long – that he can be described as a veritable flaming torch; a flaming torch that was not confined to the students in his classes, but extended generously to students at other schools, to fellow teachers, to parent groups, to members of his family, and to anyone he met. “He was a big influence on me as a young teacher in the early ’50s, I have much to thank him for. I come across outstanding brothers, men on whose abilities were built the reputation of our schools. I believe Frank belongs in their illustrious company. 4

He is such an important figure that it might be worth considering a full-length biography. Certainly there has been no one else in my experience who has lived our mission so fully.” – Br Regis Hickey cfc, former Assistant-General of the Christian Brothers John O’Dea, a nephew of Frank, wrote: “A long life dedicated to excellence, service, fine arts, family, vows of poverty, chastity and obedience, all washed down with an occasional fine red, is only to be celebrated. For its richness lives on in the minds of family, friends and the thousands of students who were taught by Brother Frank during a 70-year teaching career that he would never have sought to terminate voluntarily. I am certain my uncle could have been almost anything he chose: a magnificent father, a Cambridge professor, an art connoisseur or a successful motivator and leader in any field. Instead, at 15 years old, he chose the life of the Christian Brothers and the challenge of teaching boys. He chose a vocation that enabled him to be an ‘in loco’ father, motivator and leader to not a few but thousands, and a big contributor to art and academia as well.” His funeral occurred in the midst of the holiday season of early January 2010 when large numbers of Melburnians have departed the city for the summer break. Despite this, St Ignatius’ Church in Richmond was crowded to overflowing, with nearly 1,000 assembled to honour a man held in great repute. The mourners were mainly men whom he had taught, with a high proportion of them being still in their 20s. Their grief was heartfelt and palpable. Where did this man come from? What gave given him the wherewithal to do what he did? Why did he join a religious order, and why did he stay and live within its constraints? Why did he not accept the offers of university positions? What were his secrets for being such an inspirational teacher? What gave him the drive to keep on teaching daily, well into his 89th year of life? Who was this flaming torch?



Flaming Torch Students seek from their teachers the spark to ignite processes of thought, ever widening imagination, and especially confidence and curiosity. Most teachers produce some sparks for their students. But in the case of Francis Irenaeus McCarthy this happened for so many, at such an intensity and for so long that he can be described as a veritable flaming torch; a flaming torch that was not confined to the students in his classes but extended generously to students at other schools, to fellow teachers, to parent groups, to members of his family, and to anyone he met. The author of this biography, Bill Wilding cfc, is a fellow Christian Brother educator who, when Headmaster of St Kevin’s College, lived with Frank McCarthy for 10 years and came to know him, his family, his friends and past students. Bill has brought together the testimonies and memories of a considerable number of those who knew Frank McCarthy well. But when one such as Frank lives such a long and full life, no one knows it all. The story recorded in this volume provides access to much more of this extraordinary life than any individual might claim to have.

Flaming Torch  

Students seek from their teachers the spark to ignite processes of thought, ever widening imagination, and especially confidence and curiosi...

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