JOHN CLIFTON RECALLS FATHER GEORGE PELL AT HIS SCHOOL IN BALLARAT IN THE 1970S.
This testimony is drawn from Gerard Henderson’s review of Louise Milligan’s work of prejudice and delusion – CARDINAL
The earliest memories of my nearly 45 year friendship with the now Cardinal Pell were the childhood ones at St. Francis Xavier College Primary School. There were a handful boarders and the rest were us day kids. The school known locally as Villa Maria is tucked away in the hills as you enter Ballarat from the east. It was a private school run by the nuns of the Sisters of Mercy order, with Fr. George Pell guiding its direction. Luckily now for us kids, it was not connected to the parish school network under Bishop Mulkearns’ authority.
Louise Milligan tries hard to link Fr. Pell to the parish school of St. Allipius. He had no roles at all. Gerard Ridsdale was the parish priest next door at St Allipus and also chaplain to their school. Fr. Pell had many roles at our school Villa Maria. He was our chaplain, football coach, swimming supervisor, and in charge of taking the few boarders and day kids on outings. These outings could be the pool, beach or even the footy in Melbourne, Richmond games only, of course. We all learnt to swim at the Eureka Pool because it was so close to the school. l remember also the heated YMCA pool as well on occasions – no doubt the winter months. Fr. Pell would always be doing his laps as we mucked about.
l loved footy. So being in Fr. Pell’s team was great because the games were played in school time. At training doing circle-work, l can still see the big man in his daggy looking trackies and high over-the-ankle boots. All of us would be madly trying to get a hand pass from him. After footy training one afternoon when the day kids were getting picked up – my mother tells me how Fr.Pell would take the boarders back in and catch up with the nuns. She found him with boots off and feet in front of the stove in the kitchen. The nuns liked to spoil him – she would say. When speaking to past students we all have our own special memories of Villa. l even spoke to a boarder recently and he said they were a tight little group with only good memories.
During these years my parents – but mainly my mother had good contact with Fr. Pell. His parents had the pub on our street so he often walked past and dropped in on her. l had a brother two grades above me and a sister two grades below. Those two went through teachers college in Ballarat (Aquinas) – with Fr. Pell in charge there as well. Around that time, he celebrated another sister’s wedding so he continued being in our lives until he moved to Melbourne.
My brother tells the story of the Aquinas College “20 year Reunion” party being crashed by the Archbishop of Sydney. Everyone was happily surprised and someone asked what they should now call him, “Your Eminence” or “Father” or just “George” like they used to. His reply was you “call me whatever is comfortable for you.” That is how it was with us as kids or later as adults. He just wanted you to be comfortable around him. For me he will always be Father and that’s how he signs his letters still today. l am the contact now for mum as she cannot write anymore.
The description of George Pell in Louise Milligan’s book certainly doesn’t fit the George Pell the people from St. Francis Xavier College and Aquinas College knew then and still know today.
The only thing l like from this book is the front cover. As a kid, if that was Fr. Pell standing there in front of you – you were safe and protected.