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From the Principal

A warm welcome to the final term for 2018.  It is good to be back after my time in South America over the holiday break.  

At the core of a Principal’s role in a Catholic school, is that of faith leader.  During my time at Siena College, the Board has supported periods of enrichment leave, most recently, my participation in an immersion program in South America organised by the Principals' Association of Victorian Catholic Secondary Schools.  The program was called ‘Çross and Resurrection’, and throughout my travels in El Salvador, Bolivia, Peru and Chile, there were confronting, moving and inspirational encounters with both the cross and the resurrection.  It was a most privileged experience.  

I spent a night in the home of a family of ‘Campesinos’ in the province of Suchitoto outside San Salvador.  The Campesinos are Salvadoran refugees who fled the impacts of war and guerrilla incursions.  They settled in abandoned haciendas to build up communities and to secure a future for themselves and their children.  

In San Salvador, I listened to the stories of people searching for traces of family members who have tried to cross borders to reach the United States and I heard how the trade in human lives is now more profitable in Central America than drug running.  I celebrated Mass with religious and lay people working in areas that are scarcely habitable.  I met people like eighty year old Sister of Charity, Peggy O’Neill who intentionally seeks to link her life and her mission to the poor.  I learned the stories of martyrs like Australian Josephite Sister, Irene McCormack who was murdered in Peru in 1991 by members of the ‘Shining Path’, a Maoist rebel guerrilla organisation.  

I felt I walked on ‘Holy Ground’ in many places, including the church where Archbishop Oscar Romero was assassinated in 1980 and his simple home in San Salvador.  When Archbishop Romero celebrated Mass and before his homily, he would read the names handed to him on all kinds of paper of those who had been killed or disappeared. Archbishop Romero was canonised on October 14 but it was obvious that the people of El Salvador had proclaimed him a saint a long time ago.  

I came across Dominicans in the places I visited and heard again the stories of Antonio de Montesinos who preached against slavery and servitude in the 16th Century and Bartolome De Las Casas who started out as a slave owner but later felt compelled to oppose the abuses committed by colonists against the Native Americans. He gave up his Indian slaves, entered the Dominican Order and advocated on behalf of rights for the indigenous people. I lit candles and prayed for the Siena community at the shrine of Rose of Lima, a third order Dominican who is the Patron Saint of South America.  

I visited remote missions in Bolivia with beautiful indigenous artwork gracing the walls of adobe churches, combining elements of 18th Century European and indigenous Indian architecture and decorative styles.    The earthy ochre, orange and yellow colours of the painting on the walls and facades glowed in the gentle light of these churches.  I encountered the Holy Spirit in the faith of the people and in a small string ensemble of local children aged twelve to fifteen in a Mission called Santa Ana.  These children came from simple adobe homes in a village of no more than a few hundred people.  They played Vivaldi and Mozart and Bolivian sonatas on cellos and violins in a church built by the indigenous people after the Jesuits were expelled in 1767.  The Jesuits’ legacy of the previous eighty years persists in these beautiful churches, in the music of the children and in the faith of the local people.  I was immersed in a theology of ‘God as friend’ who accompanies us, and an incarnational theology of encounter with the Divine when we ‘walk with’ the poor and the marginalised’.

In Cochabamba in Bolivia, I visited the Mayknoll Institute where many Australian missionaries have been trained or learned Spanish or indigenous languages prior to their ministry in South America.  I met Gustavo Gutierrez, ninety year old Dominican Priest and theologian who is considered by many to have written some of the most significant theological texts of recent times.  I also experienced the extraordinary beauty and splendour of the Andes mountains and the Inca legacy in places like Mach Picchu.  I have returned with much to ponder, deeply moved by all who I met on my travels and the conversations with my fellow pilgrims.

It was lovely to hear students perform at the Cabaret Night held in the Susan Alberti Auditorium in the first week of the term.  First time performers appeared along with some of our most accomplished music students, much to the delight of all who attended.

An enduring feature of Siena College is the strong sense of community.  I am so very grateful for the contribution of parents and the generous and committed members of the Siena Parents’ Association, in particular, President Carmel Morabito for her leadership, her tireless efforts and regular presence at the College.  I thank retiring members, Vice President Judy Bainbridge, Treasurer Linda Burton, and Mary Bohan the Uniform Shop Coordinator.  In 2018, the Association raised more funds than ever before, an extraordinary effort for a group of volunteers.  The Association hosted many events to welcome new parents or visitors, wish the Year 12s well as they commenced the year, support students and staff, and fundraise.  I look forward to working with the new Committee to continue the invaluable work they do.

Next week we will farewell our Year 12 students and wish them well as they prepare for their final exams.  This is a time of mixed emotions as we say goodbye, the enormous pride in seeing the extraordinary young women they have become, the memories of the girls they once were and the excitement of moving on to forge new pathways and new independence. I thank them for their contribution to the College over the past six years.  

Gaynor Robson Garth

Image captions

  1. St Rose of Lima
  2. Father Gustavo Gutierrez
  3. Adobe Church at San Miguel Jesuit Mission, Bolivia
  4. As above
  5. String ensemble at Santa Ana Mission 
  6. Mission bell tower
  7. Decoration on Mission wall
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