Where are they now – Fr Pat Baker (SPC 1952-55)

April 1, 2019

The College reconnects with Fr Pat Baker (SPC 1952-55) who was a boarder from Colac, and has spent his life helping the poor and marginalised as a missionary around Australia and the greater part, in the Philippines.

Where has life taken you since leaving SPC?

I was born in Cobden, Victoria on March 26, 1938, so I’m now 80 years old. I began a four-year period as a boarder at St Patrick’s College in 1952. I started in Inter B and finished with Matriculation in 1955. In those days there were about 300 boarders and about 200 day pupils.

Immediately after Matric, I joined the Missionary Society of St Columban in 1956. We had seven years of training, mostly in Sydney. I was ordained on July 21, 1962 and was initially appointed as a missionary to Korea. However that appointment had to be postponed for health reasons and I spent the next 10 years working with the Columbans in various parts of Australia. By 1972 my health had improved considerably and I was given an appointment to the Philippines.

I arrived in Manila on September 18, 1972 – just three days before President Ferdinand Marcos declared Martial Law. In fact I happened to arrive in my assignment in Mindanao on September 21 – the very day of the Declaration.

There followed 14 years of dreadful turmoil very similar to Civil War with Filipinos killing Filipinos in the thousands. Fortunately I was able to join with many Columbans who had been in Mindanao for many years, so I got very good guidance and support during those difficult years. We also got great support from the local Church. The 22 Bishops of Mindanao had set up a very comprehensive program for forming Basic Christian Communities in all the parishes. They give us very clear guidelines on how to deal with the abuses of Martial Law. The Church was never more relevant than it was during those years. It was a time of great learning for all of us. It was a blessing to be there during those years.

After about 14 years of such parish work I was assigned to our seminary or Formation House for Filipino students who felt called to become a Columban priest. This was a very new program for all of us, but again it turned out to be a very life-giving experience.

In between times I worked with our Lay Missionaries. This was another new initiative from the Columbans – to recruit lay people and train them to be missionaries in the various countries where we worked. It’s was very enriching to be interacting with these lay missionaries from many different countries and cultures. Most of them were women in their 20s and 30s. They also broadened our horizons in many ways.

We also had a program for recruiting and training Filipino diocesan priests who felt called to spend some years on overseas mission with the Columbans. It was another important initiative that I was happy to be part of.

For the past 10 years I have been semi-retired, living in Manila, in charge of our Philippine Regional Archives. Columbans have been working in the Philippines for almost 100 years and altogether we would have had about 300 priests assigned there down through the years. If someone asked us what were all those men doing, we would have a hard job to describe it. Not many records were kept and those that were kept were scattered around in different places. Part of my job has been to gather these documents together and keep them in a safe place.- Also to use the latest technology to digitalise them all and make them easily accessible for anyone wanting to do research on the Columbans. I have a great interest in history, so this is more of a hobby than a job.

I have been on home vacation, staying in the Columban House in Essendon. But I expect to be back in Manila by March, 2019.

What are your fondest memories of your time at St Patrick’s College?

I do have a great sense of gratitude though for the way that St Patrick’s prepared me for my vocation to missionary priesthood with the Columbans.- It was during my second year (in Inter A) that I felt the first stirrings of a missionary vocation. I notified my two older brothers – Fr Leo, who was a Columban missionary in Japan at the time, and my other brother Fr Chris – another Columban studying in Rome. They both gave me a lot of encouragement, so I notified the College Chaplain – Dr Bill McCunnie.- In those days, any student who felt called to a religious vocation was invited to stay in a separate house over near the corner shop. I think there were about 10 of us there. We just slept there overnight, but joined with all the other students for everything else. It seemed to work very well. Dr McCunnie took a special interest in us and gave us a spiritual talk once a month.

We would not have been able to pursue our vocation if St Patrick’s was not offering Latin. This was a requirement in every seminary and Novitiate at that time. So I’m most grateful to St Patrick’s for providing that subject for the four years up to Matric even though I never got to like the subject.

The College catered fairly well to our spiritual needs. There was a daily Mass, though we had the option not to attend some mornings. We also had Rosary and Benediction regularly. Confession every week. There was a special celebration for some of the main Feastdays during the year. Quite a number of students went on to be ordained priests. There would be a great celebration when they came back to offer a Mass of thanksgiving and talk to the students. These occasions were very inspiring, especially when two of them were Columbans – Fr Frank Awburn and Fr Maurice Moloney who came back in 1953.- We had Christian Doctrine in class every day. I don’t remember it making much of an impact on me. Perhaps some classes we had in Apologetics. (Dr Rumble’s Radio Replies) were more helpful. I was a member of the Sodality of Mary, together with some of the Senior students who gave me a lot of inspiration. Most helpful of all was my membership of the Junior St Vincent de Paul Society. A group of about 10 of us used to visit the Base Hospital or an elderly people’s home very Sunday morning. We would bring some reading material for some, some candies for others and even cigarettes for some. Occasionally a smoker would need help to light his cigarette and the students were very happy to oblige. Some patients who were blind would ask us to read the newspapers for them.- Even at that young age it was inspiring to be able to be of service to these people in need. The experience has stood by me ever since. Some senior members of the St Vincent de Paul accompanied us, but gave us a lot of trust and freedom. We could observe how well they related to the patients, how genuine was their care, their sensitive and humble service.

To be one of 500 students was a very enriching experience, students from all over Victoria and beyond. A very mixed bunch. I made many new friends, some of whom I’m still in touch with. Some of the senior students were very impressive; I looked up to them and tried to emulate them.

There were a lot of facilities for sport and a good bit of time set aside for sport, especially for the boarders. I wasn’t great at sport but I could play well enough to enjoy the intra-House matches that we had in football and cricket. We also had tennis and handball. Br Kelty introduced basketball for those who were interested. It was a much better game for the cold weather; every player was on the move the whole time whereas in the football you might play a whole game with few touches of the ball if it was a one-sided game and you would nearly freeze to death.

The success of St Patrick’s in all the BPS competitions (except the Head of the Lake) was always a source of pride. I was there when the 1st XVIII thrashed High School 45-35 to nil in 1952, with John James kicking 35 of those goals, and Brian Gleeson the ruck man. But I was also there in 1954 when we were expecting to complete 50 years without one defeat. To the shock and amazement of all we were beaten twice by Ballarat College. A little scruffy rover called Johnny Birt did all the damage. He kicked three or four goals in each game. He went on to become a star with Essendon. I was in the change-room at half-time for both games. Poor Br O’Malley – the coach – was so distraught. He suggested we say a decade of the Rosary together, a suggestion backed up by Mr Allan Killegrew – the Coach of St Kilda who was present. To rub salt into our wounds, Ballarat College had a week of celebration, just over the street from St Patrick’s, while we were in mourning. Br O’Malley tried to convince us that one of the main benefits of sport is that it teaches us how to lose, that we can’t be expecting to win all the time. Ha Ha. Did anyone believe this?

Another fond memory was the movies that we used to watch every Saturday night. Two full shows for our shilling – great value. Just as well, because that shilling was half of the pocket-money we got each week. We could spend the rest in the tuck-shop.

A few of the boarders had our own push-bikes and we were allowed to go for a ride on Saturday afternoons or Sundays. I loved being able to explore the City of Ballarat and the surrounding areas as far as about 10-15 miles away. It gave me a great sense of freedom and catered to my great desire to explore new places.

Which teacher from your time at SPC had the greatest impact on you? Why?

Most of the teachers had a great impact on me, but not always in a positive sense. In fact my four years in the classroom were four years of great tension. Most of the Brothers had leather straps that they used continually. If you couldn’t answer a question or gave the wrong answer you were most likely to get a four or a six on the hands. The whole emphasis seemed to be on memorising everything so that it could be churned out at exam time. It seemed that no attempt was made to give us an appreciation for any subject, even English literature and History. It was all just names and dates and places that we had to memorise. I suppose it paid off because we had to sit the State exams for Inter, Leaving and Matric and I passed them all. I wasn’t aware of any attempt to help us to think for ourselves, to ask questions or to make connections between the various types of learning. Nor was I aware of any attempt to identify any talents or gifts that I might have or to cultivate them. Nothing about personal growth.

I think the Brother who made the best impression on me in the class-room would have been Br Kelty. He didn’t have his strap with him at all times like the other Brothers, so there was a much more relaxed but attentive atmosphere during his classes. If one student really played up, Brother would walk all the way over to his residence and come back with his strap. By then he might have cooled down a bit.

Br Bill O’Malley was very kind and caring, with a relaxed manner most of the time in the class-room. But he also used his strap constantly, for the most minor infringements. May be not with a lot of venom or anger, but it still created a lot of tension that was not really conducive to learning, certainly not for me. I never experienced any real punishment in my family.- All the emphasis was on behaving responsibly to the trust that was placed in me. A much better formula for growth to maturity.

There were some Brothers whom I felt close to and for whom I had a high regard, not as teachers, but just as friends. Head and shoulders above them all was Br Jack Healy. He was the Principal for three of my four years. He was like a kind father to the students, or certainly to me. He knew a lot about my family because two of my brothers had gone before me. He had good control of the 500 students but only rarely did he have to come down heavily on anyone, and that was always for a good reason. He and Br Kelty and Br Coyne always had a friendly greeting if you met them in the corridors or grounds.

How has your time at SPC shaped your personal values and your family life?

It is difficult to determine just how much influence St Patrick’s had in shaping my personal values. I would have been influenced very much by my family life. I was the youngest of eight children – five boys and three girls – living mostly in a rural area. It was a very loving and stable family, deeply religious.

As one of 300 boarders I would have benefitted from the normal give and take of relating to so many different personalities, forming good friendships with some and learning how to deal with hostility from others. I think we were all influenced by the expectation of honesty, of being responsible, having respect for others.

There is no doubt that my time at St Patrick’s helped to develop my appreciation of my family life, but indirectly, by contrast. It was such a relief to go home for the various holidays. I was made aware of how much I missed my family, the love and care of my parents and the interactions with my older brothers and sisters. Knowing that some of my fellow students came from rather troubled families also helped me to appreciate my own situation much more.

If you could pass on one message to the students of today, what would it be?

I think any catholic school these days has a serious obligation to provide the opportunity for at least some of its students to have a significant interaction with the poor and marginalised of society. I’m very encouraged to see that this is happening in many of our schools. I think St Patrick’s has some outreach to our Indigenous people. Other Christian Brothers’ schools organise overseas trips to various Third World countries. Some of them have come to us in the Philippines. These trips require a lot of preparation. The orientation of the students is most important. They need to understand that they are not going there to bring help to these poor people, but to learn from them, and above all to share their faith experiences with them. It can be a life-changing experience to see just how these people cope with all kinds of suffering and deprivation and injustice etc.- Their faith sustains them. The review or the de-briefing after the trip is most important – to help the students identify their learning.- That will give the students an insight into the way that Jesus related to people like this. It will help to bring the Gospels to life, to show how relevant they still are to our life and times.- It will help the students to get to know Jesus as a person, not just as a concept. It could be the beginning of a deeper relationship with Him.

I’m very pleased to see that the Edmund Rice Foundation is active in all the Brothers’ school to promote this awareness of and concern for the poor and marginalised.-