Back to the Bay

CHAPTER 15 – Back to the Bay 1978 – 83

A position for a history teacher at St John’s College in Hastings, was advertised and I applied. Aubynne applied for an English teaching position at Tenison College, in Hastings at the same time. Obviously the heads of both colleges communicated. For our interviews, we drove up to Hastings on Labour Weekend, leaving the grey skies of Pahiatua behind, and stripping off our heavy clothes as we approached the Hastings heat. We were both accepted and looked forward to a new future in Hawkes Bay – “The Bay”.

Frying Pan to Fire

And so I had arrived back home. I was a little familiar with Hastings, the twin-city of Napier, where I had returned after mother had died in 1954. The Rector of St John’s College at that time, Father Blake, had arranged for us to live rent-free in the vacant school caretaker’s house, on Jervois Street. It was on the grounds of the college, and would be surrounded on three sides by students toing and froing to class. The house faced Miller Street and away down the other end of the street in the distance was Sacred Heart Catholic Church, the residence of the Marist parish and teaching priests.

Simon entered Form Five in 1978 and Dominic started his first year at secondary school in Form Three. Clarissa enrolled in the primmers at St Joseph’s School, next to Sacred Heart. And Aubynne began her new teaching career at Tenison College, right next door to St Josephs. The family was now geographically united and immersed in a vibrant, very confident community.

We put our house in Pahiatua on the market and started planning to buy a house in Hastings. In these years mortgage finance was very hard to find, banks did not have the funds, and there were very few houses for sale, especially with four bedrooms. We would have to wait.

The Cultural Revolution and St Johns

St John’s College was a diocesan school, owned by the Bishop of Palmerston North, unlike other Marist-staffed schools which were owned by the religious order themselves. The former rector and History teacher, Father Bernie Ryan, had been appointed as Superior General of the Marists, and it was his history classes which I was to take over. Great changes had occured at the college before I arrived. From 1975 the older traditional style of Marist teaching – discipline and order, structure and respect for the “cloth” – had given way to a spirit of community, of equality between lay staff and religious, of creativity, of great trust in both staff and in the students. Some of the staff said it was the “spirit of Bernie Ryan” which had altered the whole feeling of the place. Some said it would all end in tears; while others lauded this new-found freedom.

This spirit of freedom became symbolically expressed in the previous four years in the college musicals. Some of the staff, both lay and religious, were determined to create an original musical every year, a musical which would have religious themes, modern music, and create community between the families of the parishes of Hawkes Bay, by combining with students of either Tenison College in Hastings or Sacred Heart College in Napier. These musicals were so outstandingly successful, that one, The King’s Man, became famous beyond the borders of Hawkes Bay. These musicals however had no written score, just a libretto. The musicians invented the notes, chords and the harmonies and the students learnt them as they practised. The aim was also to include as many students on stage as possible – at least 150. First XV Rugby players were expected to take leading roles by their priest-coach who was also the producer, and who had left in 1977.

A Baptism of Creative Fire

I arrived to the first staff meeting of the year, late January, 1978. Father Mowbray introduced himself, and within a minute asked me: “And what musical are you going to help me produce in May this year?” I was stunned. Apparently, the main reason I was appointed was the experience I had in just one small musical production at Tararua College.

We could not create a totally new musical for that year so we obtained a Jesuit-made script about St Francis of Assisi from England, and were given permission to rewrite our own version. We renamed the musical Poverello, and I set to writing more music and lyrics to stretch it out to 80 minutes, and to add colour by including wind and bowed stringed instruments. It was through this musical that Aubynne and I gained a friend in one of our students, Sue Guthrie RIP. I had written a new section including a leper and copied the style of music from the lepers’ scene in Superstar for the confrontation of Francis and the leper. She stole the show.

For next year’s musical, 1979, I began writing for a new, original musical, Orpheus and the Lyre, an attempt at summing up the musical traditions of Europe, contrasting Classical with rock, reggae, punk, disco, calypso, etc. Two other songs were written by Father Mowbray and Steven Nelson.

Unfortunately, again, it was not scored. I just didn’t have the skill to do it – just a motif in my head and instructions to the band on the style. The piano, bass, guitar and drum section could easily create a style from the lyrics and with a bit of imagination follow my ideas. Only a poor live taperecording of the music remains.

Orpheus was very successful. Wonderful to see Simon as a punk rocker singing like Sid Vicious: “Can’t Do Without My Mum”. Eric Young, the lead, Orpheus, became known to many as a sports journalist on TV. But I was burnt out. It was many years later before I produced another musical. Father Mowbray continued writing a series of social justice musicals for the next few years, but when he left for the mission in the Philippines, the tradition of original musicals died with him.

Teaching at St John’s was totally different from anything I had experienced.

The very first minutes of my first day in front of my form class of fifth form boys was a chance for the lads in the back row to try me out. Within 20 minutes I had caned my first pupil. After that we all got along well together.

The form roll consisted of a list of Irish surnames sprinkled with one or two Italian names. The class also was required to clean the room thoroughly and sweep the immediate area before leaving school. The school did not have the money to pay for cleaners. There was no gym, no music room, no AV suite, no workshop. During these of my early years at St John’s the college was not integrated into the State system so the parents had to pay for everything except the teachers’ salaries.


Since we had no gym nor hall, we had “ranks”. At “ranks” the whole school would line up in form classes on the concrete basketball quadrangle, facing the upper balcony of the old classroom block, the staff sprinkled around the perimeter. From the railing stood the rector and vice-rector and Head Prefect. First a prayer by the rector, then the notices by the Head Prefect, a few quick announcements from the late Fr Mark Beban RIP who then would eyeball the whole school as if to say “don’t be silly little boys”, and then he would firmly tap the balcony rail and tersely command: “Right, men.” All would then disperse to touch rugby and handball. And although the students were ranked into forms at ranks, at lunchtime all such formal divisions disappeared. “Touch” Rugby (but more like League at times) before school, midday, and after school, in sun or rain, on cold days or hot days, consisted of two teams of countless students on each side stretched across the fields: big seniors to small juniors fighting their way through a network of out-stretched arms, all played like the 19th century origins of football in English public schools.


Traditional teaching style dominated classrooms. The priest-teachers had not gone to training college and so taught they way they learnt – as lecturers. Most regarding teaching as a mission to the boys, an environment for all to learn virtue. The lay staff were a mix – none but two of us had teaching diplomas, the rest non-professionals and immigrants from overseas. And yet, the exam results were as good as any of the surrounding State schools.

In 1979, the St John’s debating team won the prestigious New Zealand secondary school championship. The final debate was against Christ’s College and the previous rounds forced Christs to debate away in little Hastings. And there I saw John Taylor, the teacher in charge of their team from Christs, and who had demonstrated the traditional English public school discipline to his class while I was being trained in his classroom, frustrated at the total dominance by our debaters (all of whom were involved in the musical that year): Paul Foley, who is now a corporate lawyer; Vince Moody RIP who had become a priest; and the leader, Mark Duley, became the chief organist at Christ Church, Dublin, and later a famous choir director and organist in Europe. Time and time again I was to see St Johns box well above its weight.

The traditional notes system helped to create a systematic improvement in the progress of the boys. Each day a mark was given in each subject to each boy. The rector would then interview each boy through the week about his daily notes. Although the system created a lot of pressure on staff time, the competitive pressure on the boys created a sense of progress through the year. Those boys in trouble were picked up quickly.

There was no real departmental structure in the school. Heads of areas were mainly expected to control their resources budget. Most teachers taught to their own strengths, and from their own notes. The school had a “hands-off” approach to the staff – it trusted teachers to teach. Each staff member seemed to be a lord unto themselves.

The boys came from two distinct areas: Napier and Hastings. Napier boys dominated because the main feeder school was Marist Brothers in Marewa. While the brothers were there, the boys were skilled in speech, in manners, and in the basic skills of reading and writing. Some of them had copperplate-like writing. The Napier boys became the Head Prefects, the Duxes, the First XV and XI captains, while the Hastings boys took second place. There are many today who denounce the Marist Brothers and Christian Brothers educational systems for the abuses of a few, and also because of current beliefs about corporal punishment, but I knew not one boy who did not respect the grounding by the brothers, although some grumbled about having their knuckles often rapped.

The St John’s Family

But the most noticeable difference being here at St Johns was being part of a family. The boys themselves were not only part of a large united Catholic community, but they were also conscious of also being in and playing a part in that community. They treated my family and me as part of the “family of St Johns”. We met the boys, their sisters or their brothers, or their mums and dads, everywhere we went: downtown in Napier or Hastings, at Mass, at St Joseph’s Catholic Tennis Club, at Ocean or Waimarama beaches, at the pub, at the Hibernian Club, at the Catholic Credit Union. There they were in different combinations at parent-teacher meetings at either college, or on the Rugby sidelines cheering for my team. The boys would cheerily wave and approach us just as one would to an uncle or aunty. There was no escape even on holiday! At our “getaway” at Mahia Beach there they were at the opening of our tent – “Hello, Mr and Mrs Phillips. Having a nice holiday?”

On a hot summer’s day in January on Ocean Beach, there would recline dear mathematician Tony Burns, Senior Dean, with wit as dry as the day, reminiscing with the previous year’s seniors, their successes and their ambitions while the new seniors would hope to be noticed. And noticed they were with a Burnsy reminder: “Ah, yes, John, I taught your father. Hope you’re better at Calculus than he was.”

And I remember with much fondness, the sight of quiet, saintly Latinist, the late Fr Pat Minto RIP, strolling the grounds of St Johns, reciting his daily office, with youngsters sidling along questioning him about his “mind-reading” skills; the sight of Fr Alec saying lunchtime Masses lost in the love of his Father; and the late young, dear, gentle haemaphyliac Fr Terry Malone RIP, who saw no evil.

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