"If you had a ball, you had a friend": Former resident shares his experience in St Vincent's orphanage with his family

Posted on 11 October 2016 by Anna Masci

Photo of John & Maureen Ellis & their children in the Chapel at MacKillop's South Melbourne site.

John and Maureen Ellis visited MacKillop Family Services to show their children and grandchildren John’s childhood home.

John’s memories started flooding back the moment he arrived.

“These aren’t the doors we used to enter by,” he said, as we walked through the front entrance. “This was the Brothers’ entrance, we had to enter around the side.”

Today, the building is the head office of MacKillop Family Services where we continue the work of our founding congregations: the Sisters of Mercy, the Sisters of St Joseph and the Christian Brothers.

John arrived with his wife Maureen, seven of his eight children and their partners, and 9 of his 13 grandchildren. He was giving them a tour of his childhood home.

“Dad said he was coming back here and he was surprised we all wanted to come with him,” his son said.

“Of course we wanted to come. We hear the stories of dad’s past, but it’s something else to actually see it.”

As the family walk into what was once the Orphanage Dining room, John’s adult children are excited by one of the Heritage displays; toys from their father’s past.

“That explains why dad always gave us quoits and hula hoops as presents,” they exclaim as John tests his childhood skills on the quoits. There’s a big cheer when he gets on the peg.

Reflecting on how their father’s childhood experience affected their own, John’s children and grandchildren enjoyed a morning tea in the Heritage Centre.

As we walk through the building, John shares his story. St Vincent’s Orphanage became his home in 1948 when John was just 8 years of age. It was his home until 1954.

John had many siblings and for a brief time he lived with three of his brothers at St Vincent’s Orphanage. When there, he discovered he had an additional two brothers living in St Augustine’s orphanage in Geelong.

John recalled stories of his childhood, sharing stories of playing in the playground.

“If you had a ball, you had a friend,” John said.

He explained how precious tennis balls were during play time and talked of how they played football with a makeshift football made of socks.

“Dad loved giving out tennis balls as gifts, we always got tennis balls growing up. Now I understand why,” said one of his daughters.

She also remembers playing ‘kick the tin’ as a child, a game her father recalled playing the Orphanage playground.

John went on to explain how he and his friends would go down to Albert Park Lake to go yabbying.

“We burnt fires in the back yard and cooked the yabbies in jam jars. I don’t know how we got away with that,” John recalls.

He remembers the children he grew up with and the mischief they got up to. “There was a metal plate in the play area that the naughty kids would have to stand on, usually for four hours but sometimes up to six,” he said.

“And when we’d watch movies, the naughty kids would have to sit on the bench at the back and face the projector, they weren’t allowed to watch the movie.”

When questioned if he was one of the naughty kids, John laughs, “Oh, just once or twice,” he responded, explaining that his brothers looked after him.

He goes on to describe how he spent his free time on Saturday afternoons. "On Saturdays, I would walk to Fitzroy to visit my dad. I would save the money I was given for the fare and would spend that money going to the pictures or buying food at the tuckshop.”

Seeing the photograph of the tuckshop bought back memories. “If you had friends in the tuckshop, you’d get a little more food for your money,” John said.

Sometimes, in the winter, John would attend the football with his brothers. He would receive tickets to the Footscray games from the Orphanage. To this day, John is a dedicated fan of the Western Bulldogs. 

To acknowledge and honour our history, quotes from case files dating back to 1850 and from former residents are shared on the walls. It was John’s wife, Maureen, who discovered a quote that exemplified John’s experience:

“We came into care because of neglect. Both parents had a drinking problem. Father was in gaol. Mother was missing during the night when we were taken away. As I was the eldest, I had to look after the rest of the family and I was just under ten years of age,” the quote read.

But John was the first to notice his brother in a photo of the St Vincent’s football team in 1949.

“There he is, there’s my brother,” John said as he showed his children and grandchildren the photo of his brother as a child.

John summarises his childhood experience at the Orphanage: “I never had any bad experiences here, but you never heard a word about love. It just wasn’t mentioned. It took Maureen many years to teach me about what it means to be a family,” John said.

Over the years, John and Maureen embraced the Church and became strong, loving members of their local community.

“Our mum and dad have always been carers. We had a young Vietnamese refugee living with us for a year and he still calls them mum and dad. They have always opened their door to people in need of help,” his daughter shared.

Their role as carers has been reflected in their children, with one child reflecting on the work they now do as adults.

“It’s interesting, out of all the children, most of us now work in the care industry – in mental health, nursing and family services. I don’t think that’s an accident!” his son reflects.

Visiting and touring the Orphanage was a special day for the Ellis family. His children were struck by how talkative their father was as they walked through.

“This place is prompting memories for dad, he never talks like this. I’ve never heard these stories before,” said his daughter.

“To understand dad’s history is to understand his life,” she said.

MacKillop’s Heritage and Information Service provides a search and support service for people seeking information about Victoria's Catholic Homes and Orphanages.