ERIC HODGENS. The Fifties – Werribee’s Greatest Years.

Oct 20, 2018

Werribee’s fiftieth year as a scene of priestly training will also be its last. Nostalgia prompts deeper reflection. Our thesis is that the fifties were Werribee’s greatest years.

This article was published by Catholic View in October 2018. 


Note: Eric Hodgens wrote this piece in 1974. That year was the 50th anniversary of the establishment of Corpus Christi College,the regional seminary for Victoria and Tasmania. It carries nostalgic value now 44 years later.

The Church into which Werribee was born was one of tightly disciplined, rigid, anti-intellectual conformity. By the twenties Rome’s central control over the Western Church had reached unprecedented heights and was still growing. The policy of Rome was a “Fortress Church” policy. It saw Christianity and Catholicism under permanent siege from the forces of liberalism, rationalism, positivism and the materialism which seemed to be daily vindicated by new discoveries of science.

This “Fortress Church” policy of nineteenth and twentieth century Rome was originally engendered mainly by the political threat to the Papal States and the liberal philosophy which underlay the republican movements. The Pope was not only the leader, but, after the capture of Rome in 1870, as “prisoner of the Vatican” he became the living, enduring symbol of the cause.

Werribee would be seven years old before the Roman Question was solved by the Lateran Treaty. The Fortress Church maintained its strength by strict authoritarian discipline and the enforcement of the clear-cut specific creed of the new scholasticism. The defensiveness against new political thought, shown in the Syllabus of Errors, was matched by a suspicion of all new thought including the new scriptural and theological scholarship.

To provide a counter-attack, Rome fostered its own philosophy and theology. This was the neo-Thomism which had been born in the Jesuit school at Naples under Taparelli d’Azeglio and Liberatore, fostered under Gregory XVI and Pius IX and finally endorsed by Leo XIII as the only officially approved philosophy and theology for seminaries. Canon 1366 of the Code enjoined the method, teaching and principles of St. Thomas on all students and professors. 1923, Werribee’s first year, saw the publication of Pius XI’s “Studiorum Ducem” enjoining Thomism more strongly than ever.

The movement called “Integralism”, holding that all aspects of public and private life and all aspects of pastoral care came within the competence of the magisterium, had been a dominant influence in the curia for over twenty years. Through a type of security organization, Umberto Benigni’s “Sodalitium Pianum”, most incumbents of ecclesiastical teaching posts had been scrutinized for neo-Thomist orthodoxy.

The minority Australian Church, with its bishops leading and encouraging, was heavily oriented to Rome as a secure source of guidance in all doctrinal, moral and pastoral matters. So too was the Irish province of the Jesuits from which came the first Werribee staff. So too were the Roman schools attended by Fr McKillop (and later Fr J.S. Kelly) and the Neapolitan school attended by Fr R. Peterson.

The Church which Werribee first saw was, therefore, a stable and uniform Church, highly disciplined and tightly knit, with Rome firmly in control. Neo-Thomism was its specific creed. It was a Church which lived its own life, constantly growing further away from a world which was becoming increasingly secular. It is no wonder that these characteristics showed up in the life of the new seminary.

Four periods

Werribee’s history falls into four periods. The first three periods are those of the Power, Johnston and Mayne rectorships. The fourth is the subsequent period.

Albert Power

The rectorship of Albert Power lasted seven years. In its theology, spirituality and regimen it was similar to that of Henry Johnston’s eighteen years reign. However, a distinguishing quality seems in evidence. One senses that, accompanying the Albert Power rectorship was a strong awareness of trail blazing. The students of those early years were conscious that they were setting standards of priestliness for the future generations.

Henry Johnston

The Henry Johnston period is characterized above all by its stability. The directives of Rome were implemented and their spirit faithfully replicated.

As a result, the intellectual life of the college was poor. No academics or theologians were produced. A united front scholasticism was taken for granted as the perennial theology of the Church. Academic research was not encouraged. One manual per subject was sufficient – and it could last through generations of students. Siwek, Lercher and Genicot were still our mentors in the fifties.

The spiritual life rightly got more emphasis. The stress was, however, individualistic, introspective and inclined to be mechanistic. One senior Melbourne priest claims that Werribee spirituality was anti­ sacramental. An overstress on the ex opere operato effect of the liturgy, together with a conviction that as long as the spiritual duties are done all will be well, tend to support his observation.

The regimen was clear, strict and authoritarian in the sense that the decisions were made solely from above. “Fae aut morere” (Do or Die), was the Chirnside motto in the hall. It required no change when the mansion became a seminary. The superior’s decisions were accepted as presented, namely, as the will of God.

The discipline on the other hand was mature. Henry Johnston was not interested in pettiness and eschewed the role of the policeman. Everyone knew what he was supposed to be doing and it was up to him to do it.


The fortress Church was there. The seminary was insulated from the world which its inhabitants were preparing to win. The Catholic Australia Movement produced the Prayer for the Conversion of Australia and genuinely looked forward to the day when the secularism and irreligion of Australia would yield to universal membership of the Church.

The very isolation of the Church of the thirties and forties gave it its strength. There was strong consensus on the roles of the Church and the priest. Everyone shared conviction as to the importance of the work and the appropriateness of the structure and pastoral methods. Morale was high. The term “identity crisis” had no place in the face of this clearly defined world vision.

The stability showed in the priests who came from Werribee in those years. Only one priest who trained totally under the Johnston regime has left the priesthood. The Victorian Church thrived on their ministry. One had only to listen to Archbishop Mannix (originally an opponent of a local clergy) and observe the love and respect of the Catholic laity for their priests to see that they met the needs of the Victorian Church of the time.

The price of stability

The price of the stability of the Fortress Church, however, was an absence of real intellectual life, a deadening of personal responsibility and moral maturity, a failure to stimulate and draw on all the creative resources of the clergy (and laity) to implement the Church’s mission, and an ever­ widening gap between the Church and the secular world to which it was called to witness. In the first half of the century sectarianism had cushioned contagion from the non-Catholic world. Post-war growth in speed and openness of communications, the universality of education, with a heavy scientific stress, and the lessening of sectarianism made the challenge of really living in a pluralist society inevitable.

Charlie Mayne.

The genius of the Mayne rectorship was that he saw this in advance and tried with an undying perseverance in the face of constant sniping to prepare his students to deal with it. It was a period of opening up. With the limitations of the Roman seminary regulations and the speed of external critics to note any departure from custom, there was heavy restriction on the content of the philosophy and theology courses. In any case, the college lecturers were all the products of purely neo-Thomist training themselves. But we got whatever new thinking there was, even if this meant going outside the college.

As a result, we had the visits to the college of Fr Hoffinger and Fr Clifford Howell. I am sure that I was not alone in finding them the most exciting theological experiences of the Werribee years. Excitement was not an experience one associated with the theology of the manuals. Other instances of this introduction of a broader view on theological matters were the visits of Jack Little to a moral theology lecture and John Moloney to give us the latest thinking on the theology of the lay apostolate. Jack Little, well known on radio, was a member of Alcoholics Anonymous and expounded a different view from Genicot to an amazed student audience.

Another regular visitor who kept us abreast of current theology was John F. Kelly who kept us informed of contemporary European catechetics.

John Moloney’s visit was, of course, simply one moment in a long programme of introduction to the importance of lay apostolate. Charles Mayne actively added drive and insight to the growth of Melbourne’s lay apostolate and it was this broader view of the Church’s mission which he passed on to us.

Social justice, too, was a devouring interest which he communicated. The duty of the Church to see the needs of the whole of mankind and to be a prophet of justice and human dignity was constantly kept before our eyes in his own classes and conferences, and by visiting speakers who came at his invitation.

Under this there lay the conviction that we had to come to grips with the world and the times, not avoid them. It was this conviction which explained his encouragement of broad interests. Month after month the procession of visiting speakers came. Bishops from near and far, lay apostles, architects, politicians, university academics, artists.

Music and film

The first night our year ever spent in the hall was listening to Robert Speight. The Young Elizabethans performed for us. And Carlo Briglia brought his band of top Melbourne musical artists to warm our souls in that freezing hall.

Music, of course, was one of the artistic and sensual delights to which we had easiest access. Sid Lennon really worked for us. One of the most educational activities at Werribee was his weekly evening lecture on the classics, open to those who were interested. And Bob Peterson’s soirees were both musical and old world as we sat up on the Chirnside antiques under the chandelier listening to 78 rpms. on the equally antique gramophone. Bob’s major contribution, however, was a feel for diction and words which we picked up as an accompaniment to our beef and sinker in the dining room.

Again, for those who were interested, Sid Lennon possessed and communicated a knowledge and love of Gregorian chant. I suspect that more often than not it is today’s strong protagonist for a vital, vernacular liturgy who also appreciates the cultural and mystical price we had to pay with the loss of the chant.

We learnt so much more in that hall than elsewhere. There the history of the art form of the film was another Mayne project that unfolded for us. “Battleship Potempkin.” ”The Last Laugh,” “The Birth of a Nation” – all of the early classics we saw. We were introduced to the social sciences. Psychology, so feared by many of the scholastic tradition, was a staple diet fare for us.

The anecdote was told of Sid Lennon claiming that Charlie Mayne was twenty years ahead of his time because he introduced High Mass before breakfast. At the time we were not over-impressed with the radicality of this move. On reflection, however, there was a readiness to modify the regimen, despite custom, when common sense demanded. Lectures were shortened and permissions to go out were easy to get. And if a student looked under strain it was the alertness of Charles Mayne’s observation that often sent him off for a fortnight’s break to relieve the pressure.

Preparation for change

The rigidity and unnatural stability of the moral and intellectual life of the typical Australian seminary of the fifties would have been a poor preparation for the adaptation required in the sixties and seventies. It was the vision of Charles Mayne that produced a decade or more of priests well prepared to withstand the shock. If many of the Melbourne and Victorian clergy have coped reasonably painlessly with the post-conciliar changes it is due largely to one man.

“Et in Arcadia Ego” was the title of Evelyn Waugh’s chapter on Sebastian’s student days in “Brideshead Revisited.” For us, too, those years under Charles Mayne were balmy, unpressured years. They were years of good friendships, long conversations on walks and at illegal doorways, nervous chicken-broiling vigils in the chook house, games of dodge-the-dean and clandestine mugs of cocoa. The river was yet unpolluted, and the “club” provided refuge for those who, though under edict to be outdoors, found tree chopping too strenuous and gardening too dull. I was one who unashamedly enjoyed the Mayne years at Werribee. But – panta rei.

An era ends

On 8th September 1958, the notice board carried news of Father Mayne’s retirement as rector. Within a matter of days another regime ended with the death of Pius XII. Ironically Werribee went into what seemed to me a period of retreat and defensiveness as John XXIII began the four and a half years which was to bring the Church irreversibly face to face with the pluralist twentieth century. The Mayne policy was vindicated. Werribee would never be the same again. Only sixteen months were to run till the theologians left forever and the decade ended. The fifties – Werribee’s glorious period – was pre­ maturely over.



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