Looking Behind Allows MacKillop to Move Forward

Posted on 18 December 2015 by Sam Patterson

Harry, a former resident of St Vincent de Paul?s Boys? Orphanage, stands proudly in front of a black and white image of himself

There is a photo that has pride of place on a wall in the Heritage Centre at MacKillop Family Services, that depicts a group of proud young men performing in a marching band. Whilst the photo is black and white, and grainy with age, it is clear from the posture of the men and the focus in their eyes that it is an event of some significance.

I have always wondered about the story behind that photograph… Who are these young men? I have wondered. And who are they performing for?

Last week, the answers to these questions were revealed to me, as I prepared to attend the annual Heritage Christmas party. This important event, now in its 10th year, is open to the former residents (and their families) of the orphanages and children’s homes that were run by MacKillop’s three founding congregations in Victoria. The Heritage and Information Service plays an important role in preserving the records of the former residents, and assisting them to navigate these records to learn more about their childhood and to find lost family members.

As I was looking at the photograph of the marching band shortly before lunch, a fit-looking 74-year-old man called Harry pointed at the trombone player in the foreground and proudly announced, “That’s me!” He went on to explain the photo was taken at the annual St Patrick’s Day march, when all the local Catholic schools would be invited to perform at Parliament House.

Harry (pictured above) is a former resident of the St Vincent de Paul’s Boys’ Orphanage, and the President of the Old Boys’ Committee. He rarely misses the annual Christmas party, which plays an important role in helping former residents to reconnect and celebrate the festive season together.

Harry’s was just one of many stories I heard throughout the annual gathering.

During lunch I sat opposite Patricia, who was raised in our homes after being given up at birth by her single mother. Almost 80 years later, with the help of the staff at the Heritage Centre, she located three cousins she had never known existed. This was her first Heritage Christmas lunch.

After the meal I met Alby, a regular at the Christmas lunch for many years. This year he had an extra spring in his step, thanks to the presence of his brother Ray, who had not been back for 65 years. Alby and Ray wandered the halls of our head office, reminiscing quietly about memories of their childhood home.

And following the event I heard the story of Alf and Elsie, who will celebrate their 60th wedding anniversary next year. They met on a tram, where Elsie was working as a conductress. When they met, they did not realise they had grown up in adjoining orphanages, though Elsie remarked that the moment she laid eyes on Alf, “I saw something in him, that was in me.”

As I reflect on the day, I am struck by two thoughts.

The first is the importance of the little facts and anecdotes that added together make up the story of our life. Without these stories, it is impossible to establish a strong and meaningful sense of identity. The work of our Heritage team is vital in this regard. Their dedication and commitment to uncovering long-forgotten facts, and sharing these in a compassionate and sensitive way, is extraordinary.

The second is the incredible resilience and generosity of spirit of our former residents. Many of them suffered trauma as children, but one way or another they have moved on with their lives. Today, they are always available to offer a kind word or an empathetic audience to support their colleagues.

I often hear people say that one of the real strengths of MacKillop Family Services is its readiness to acknowledge and learn from past experiences – whether positive or negative – in order to create a better, more child-safe organisation today. The Heritage Centre is a true testament to this. May we never forget the stories learned from our former residents and may we always do what we can to preserve their histories.

Find out more about MacKillop's Heritage and Information Service.