Australia has long acknowledged a debt to the religious men and women who have sustained Catholic education in the country for 200 years. Now a new project will reveal the lesser-known influence of lay people as well.
The Biographical Dictionary of Australian Catholic Educators (BDACE) will publish the lives and works of people – lay, ordained, and consecrated – who have contributed to the country’s Catholic education history since 1820.
Australian Catholic University will host the BDACE, with Dr Jo Laffin (Senior Lecturer, Faculty of Theology and Philosophy) appointed as General Editor.
The BDACE was launched at ACU’s Peter Cosgrove Centre, North Sydney, on July 20 at 12pm with guest speaker, historian Rev. Edmund Campion, Emeritus Professor at Catholic Institute of Sydney.
Executive director of ACU’s Faculty of Theology and Philosophy, Professor Dermot Nestor said ACU was delighted to host the BDACE.
“As the leading provider of graduate teachers into the Catholic education system and, as a university that derives a rich historical tradition dating back to 1867 through a continuous line of Catholic Teacher’s Colleges, ACU is delighted to host and support the BDACE initiative,” Professor Nestor said.
“Our support affirms ACU’s commitment to the traditions that have formed us and, the shared future we contribute to.”
There are already 43 published biographies on the online resource, modeled on the popular Australian Dictionary of Biographies, with a further 50 awaiting review and publication.
In 2008, a few years after finishing her service as Executive Director of Catholic Schools in the Diocese of Parramatta, ACU Honorary Professor Benjamin approached Dr Brian Croke, then Executive Director of NSW Catholic Education Commission, about the gap in academic literature around the history of Catholic education. Dr Croke, a historian, had already conceived several strategies to address this gap, one of which was the idea of a biographical dictionary on Australian Catholic educators.
Professor Benjamin developed the idea of a biographical dictionary into a proposal, later involving former Director of Curriculum at Catholic Education Office Sydney Seamus O’Grady. When Mr O’Grady joined the NSW CEC in 2014, the project gathered momentum.
“Catholic education has played a major role in the development of Australia and not just within the strict confines of education,” Professor Benjamin said.
“It is incumbent on us to capture the contribution and stories associated with this role, to compliment the participants but more importantly, to provide information, inspiration and guidance for future generations.”
Professor Benjamin and Mr O’Grady have spent the past eight years commissioning short biographies of the lives of deceased people in the history of Catholic education. The first 30 biographies curated by Professor Benjamin and Mr O’Grady were published in a book, Not Forgotten: Australian Catholic Educators 1820-2020, released in December 2020.
While religious institutes and congregations make up a significant proportion of the BDACE project, the research has uncovered the surprising and significant involvement of lay people in the early years of Catholic education.
“We have gathered a lot from the religious because they all have archivists and are well organized with their records, but outside the religious congregations, we suspect that information on lay educators might be less systematically recorded,” Professor Benjamin said.
“We are well-used to appreciate the contribution of religious women and men to Catholic education in Australia. What is less well-known is that in the early days of colonial settlement, there were significant lay men and women stepping forward to educate the children of Catholics.
“Then of course the lay people come back into their own about 100 years later.”
An interesting feature of the BDACE is the collection of ‘Living Legends’. Initiated by Mr O’Grady, Living Legends is a collection of video and sound interviews with advocates of Catholic education who are still living in Australia. There are approximately 45 of these first-hand interviews that could be used for future research, under certain conditions.
Professor Benjamin said hosting the BDACE through ACU would sustain the project into the future and give the project national scope. She hoped it would become a valuable resource for scholars but also the country’s future teachers.
“It will be an ongoing research tool for scholars, but I hope also for new young teachers entering the profession, that they will get to hear from some of the giants who paved the way,” Dr Benjamin said.
The BDACE comes one year after Australia celebrated the milestone of 200 years of Catholic education.
“That was coincidental, the anniversary just caught up with us,” Professor Benjamin said.