History of SRE

Brief History of the Development of Catholic SRE in Australia

Reformation: Around the time of the Reformation there was little in the way of religious instruction. In 1536, Castellano de Castellano established a small group of men and women in Milan which eventually developed into schools of Christian doctrine for children, youth and illiterate adults. Between 1555 and 1559 the graded catechisms of Peter Canisius appeared for use in this instruction. When Charles Borromeo became Archbishop of Milan in 1565, he set about formalising the structure of the schools. He established the Confraternity of Christian Doctrine and set out its objectives and structure. A central office was established and a graded form of instruction.  Each group had a director, coordinator, teachers, helpers and home visitors called ‘fishers’.1  In 1560 Marco de Cusano, a Milanese hat-maker established a group of catechists in Rome and they instructed children and adults in the truths of the faith on Sundays and holy days. The Confraternity was recognised by succeeding Popes. In the Constitution, Ex debito (1571) Pius V recommended to the bishops of the whole church that they establish a similar society in all parishes of their dioceses.


Pius X: In 1905 Pius X decreed, in the Encyclical Letter Acerbo nimis, that "the society known as the Confraternity of Christian Doctrine… be canonically established in each and every parish." This injunction was later incorporated into the 1917 Code of Canon Law. Pope Pius X urged that "classes in religion be organised to instruct in the truths of faith and in the practice of Christian life the youths who attend public schools from which all religious teaching is banned."


Early Australia: In early Australia the state was responsible for basic schooling and general religious teaching. The clergy were responsible for specific religious teaching. The Irish Scripture Readers were commonly used as a text.


'Following the establishment of the catholic school system religious instruction of Catholics in state schools lost its importance. The directive of the bishops, that no catholic parents should have their children educated in state schools, meant that no encouragement was given to those who disobeyed. In general, priests were not allowed by the bishops to take advantage of the period allocated to visiting clergy, though as time went on a growing number of departures were made from the rule.'


Sydney CCD: In 1958, at a meeting of the Sydney Education Council at St Mary's Cathedral, Cardinal Gilroy was 'shocked' to find 18,000 Catholic children in state schools. He yielded to pressure to reverse the policy of prohibition against religious education in state schools in a tentative way, asking Fr Kevin McGovern to do something. In November 1959 Auxiliary Bishop James Freeman called a meeting of the priests and announced that the Confraternity was to be revived with Dr Duffy as Director and Fr R Davey as Secretary.


Motor Mission: The motor mission had its beginnings in the Barossa Valley in SA. It was first established in Blacktown in 1958 by the Sisters of St Joseph. The sisters drove around to the schools and children in this fast growing outer Sydney suburb. They later became involved in the training of lay catechists.


Diocese of Maitland-Newcastle: For many years, in the Diocese of Maitland-Newcastle, each parish priest was responsible for religious education of children in the parish. The parish priest usually was responsible for the pastoral care of children in the Catholic school. The teaching of Catholic children in the state schools was usually assigned to the curates. In country areas, often they spent the day travelling from school to school.  Monsignor Simms reflected:


"In this diocese, Religious taught in the Catholic school, and were not encouraged to go to the state schools in case people thought ‘the nuns go to state schools’ and would end up not sending their children to Catholic schools. Parents, who did not have a good reason for not sending their children to Catholic Schools, were not allowed to receive the sacraments."


In the country areas, sometimes the only school available was the state school. In the city, usually families who were not attending Mass sent their children to state schools.


In the mid 60's, Fr Driscoll began classes for lay people to train them as catechists. Many of these people were in the Legion of Mary. The Legion of Mary also sometimes ran classes for children in the state school after Mass - especially for preparation of the sacraments.


In the mid 80's Fr Paul Mulconry and Sr Rita Petherbridge had oversight of the state school apostolate as part of their role in the Catholic Schools Office. Mgr Phil Wilson interviewed Sr Rita in 1979 regarding working in Religious Education. In 1983 Rita went to a Joint Denominational 'train the trainers' program in Sydney and became involved with JDEAG (Joint Denominational Education Advisory Group) and eventually in the local ICCOREIS (Inter Church Commission on Religious Education in Schools) Committee.


Sr Rita became actively involved in the organisation of joint-denominational training of SRE teachers. Fr Paul helped run courses in faith development for Catholic SRE teachers. Sr Rita represented the diocese as a member of the ICCOREIS committee and Fr Paul as a member of CCRESS.


In 1996 Bishop Michael Malone, concerned that SRE teachers in this diocese did not have the support of a diocesan structure, engaged Sr Pauline Burg to conduct a survey into religious education of Catholic children in state schools. In 1997 he appointed a diocesan director to the state school apostolate. Consideration was given to the name of the diocesan office. It was decided, rather than use the term Confraternity of Christian Doctrine, the term Special Religious Education would be used as it was understood by the schools and other denominations. In 2003 Regional Coordinators were appointed to oversee SRE in two of the deaneries of the diocese. 


(Content on the Diocese of Maitland-Newcastle came from the reflections of Mons Cotter, Mons Simms and Sr Rita Petherbridge RSM).


City Schools Apostolate:  In 1970, Monsignor Cotter saw the need for parishes in the Newcastle inner city area to work together in state school SRE. "The clergy and their faithful band of helpers went to the schools each week; each parish doing the best they could". Monsignor Cotter called interested parishes to meet together and work out how best to share resources and support.  Parishes from Newcastle, Merewether, Merewether Beach, Broadmeadow, Mayfield, Mayfield West, Hamilton, and Tighes Hill agreed to work together and share resources. Sister Joseph Mary was appointed as the first catechist coordinator.  Each parish contributed towards the stipend of Sister Mary Joseph and the resources. A room at the Junction, where Sr Joseph Mary could meet with the catechists, became the catechists’ resource/meeting room and the City Schools Apostolate was born. Sr Joseph Mary was a pioneer in the development and coordination of lay ministry in the state schools. 


CCRESS: Catholic Conference for Religious Education in State Schools was established in July 1987. This committee is made up of diocesan directors from each state in NSW. The group meets for two days twice a year in a different city and country diocese each year. CCRESS is a support group sharing ideas, resources and programs as well as dealing with issues of concern. Three members of CCRESS are on the state ICCOREIS committee. Training for SRE teachers in the Diocese of Maitland-Newcastle is based on guidelines developed by CCRESS.