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The Marist Brothers in Fiji: 1888-1988: A Book Review The Fiji Times. 30 November 2010]


(Guest speaker at launch)

MC, Brother Fergus, Francis Houng Tiy, Wadan Narsey, Bill Yee, Brother ??, Bernard Vunibobo

I am deeply honoured to have been asked to speak and launch this book compiled by Brother Fergus.

This is a fascinating book focused on all the Marist Brothers who have worked for more than a century in Fiji, supposedly from 1888 to 1988.  But if you read between the lines, this book is far more than just a biography of the Brothers.

This book is also about the evolution and contribution of the Marist Brothers fulfilling their vocation to provide appropriate education to all the children of Fiji, in the face of major challenges provided by the Catholic Church in Fiji, the Vatican in Rome, the Colonial Government’s Education Department,  and the mores of the dominant European society in Fiji.

Everyone in Fiji can learn from a better understanding of the problems the Marist Brothers dealt with, and largely overcame in their very quiet and understated, but quite revolutionary ways.

This book really ought to be two books- one about the Marist Brothers themselves as persons living, working and often dying in Fiji; and the second about the great contribution of the Marist Brothers (and other Catholic institutions) to education in Fiji. I will try to give you some glimpses into the book.

The Marist Brothers

First and foremost, this is a book about real life human beings, who in the service of their chosen vocation, left the comfort of their home countries to come to what they must have seen an extremely primitive country.  These early Marist Brothers faced and overcame enormous challenges, and left behind an unparalleled record of contribution to education in Fiji.  And the book has many an anecdote which paints a much bigger picture of their contribution to education.

Over the years that I was at Marist Primary (then St Columbas and St Felix) and Marist High, I knew many Marist Brothers: Raphael, Bertrand, Lambert, Placid, Brian, Theophane, Claudius, John (Cletus), Victor, Peter, Eugene, and many more.  I can attest that the Brothers who are described in this book are no exaggeration.

The book shows in an understated way, that it was tough being an early pioneer.  Arriving in 1844, Brother Annet was dead only four years later “worn out with privations from illness brought on by exhaustion and lack of proper nourishment”. His replacement (Brother Paschase St Martin FMS), coming via Wallis and Tonga, also died soon after in 1853, “a sick man” aged only 34.   Were these early Marist Brothers so under-resourced as not be able to even survive?  Is there a bigger story here?  One Marist Brother reflected “It is not easy for the Brothers to live on twenty pounds a year”  … they did not have what the priests had- “plantations worked by the native people” giving them food.

Marist Brothers were personally brave.  Some amongst the early Marist Brothers stood their ground even against the highest authority in the land. When Governor Thurston asked if a Brother could tutor him to read and speak French”, Brother Harvey reacted negatively “quoting rules which forbade Brothers from giving lessons in private homes” but also apparently because he thought that the Colonial Government was negative towards the Catholics.  But he was convinced by the Bishop who saw “an advantage for the Brothers who would gain prestige with both natives and whites” and soon after, a carriage used to come and take Brother Harvey to Government House.

During WWII, the Suva School was closed to allow American troops to be stationed there.  After three years, Brother Lambert protested that the education of hundreds of children were being retarded for no good reason, and “to allow the present state of things to continue any longer would be a flagrant injustice”.  The need to fight injustice clearly was more important to Brother Lambert than his patriotism.

The Marist Brothers did everything: they not only taught children English, but some also insisted on teaching them their vernacular (Fijian); they also built school buildings, churches, houses, water supplies, roads, boats and furniture.  And we can see that in addition to their normal onerous jobs of establishing new schools, they also publish books such as the one we are launching today.

They farmed, they fished, they formed brass bands, some went to prison because they happened to be Germans during the Wars; and some served longer terms because the were patriotic to their country of birth.  They worked all over Fiji:  Lau, Suva, Levuka, Taveuni, Savusavu, Lomeri, Napuka.

They faced challenges from Fijian students- boredom, rebelliousness, disobedience, and “bad spirits”.  It was not easy to convince children born and brought up in villages to go to school where they had to live disciplined lives.

And in their critical vocation of providing quality education, they also faced challenges from the Colonial Government and the State in independent Fiji, and the different priorities of their own Catholic Church in Fiji.

Overcoming Government objections to multiracialism

The Marist Brothers were first sent to Fiji to educate European children and Part Europeans “brought up as Europeans”. And indeed, during the earliest years the Suva school remained a European school as required by the Colonial Government of the day.

But not too many years later, the Brothers understood that their vocation could not exclude the non-European children of Fiji, two additional schools were founded for indigenous Fijian youth: Cawaci School (Ovalau)  established in 1894 for Fijian students throughout Fiji; and Naililili School (Rewa) established in 1899.

Then in 1897, St Thomas Indian School was established in 1897 for Indian students,  later to become St Columbas under the guidance of Brother Alphonsus.

A symptom of the times, some Marist schools were side by side but racially segregated, as was St Columbas (formerly the Indian School) and St Felix. The Brothers faced huge problems when they tried to integrate Fijians, Indians and Chinese with the Part-Europeans at St Felix College.  “Word came from the Education Department that unless non-European students were dismissed, the financial grant for St Felix College would be withdrawn”.

The secondary part was then temporarily closed. What a story there must be behind the scenes. But soon after the Marist Brothers Secondary School was opened and tolerated by the Education Department, because no grant was applied for.

Some Marist Brothers paid the price: in 1937 Brothers Alphonsus and Augustine were transferred from Fiji.  Brother Fergus’ book notes “this would not be the last time that convenient transfers to satisfy the injured egos of meddling officials had significant influence on the course of the Marist Brothers educational work in Fiji”.

Nevertheless, MBHS became one of the best schools in Fiji, catering for Indians, Chinese and others, at a time when tax payers’ funds were denied to them because of the ethnicity of the students.


Coping with the Church

Outsiders would have had no idea that the Catholic institutions in Fiji were not a homogenous group always working in harmony with each other.  Of course, on most issues they would  have been.  But there were serious disagreements on issues, generally carried on behind the scenes.

Reading one chapter in this book (The Stormy Fifties) and the many other stories,  one realises that the Marist Brothers had to struggle against their own Catholic Church in order to serve their deep vocation to provide education to all, Catholic and non-Catholic children alike.

The book has the account of a Bishop who was upset with the Marist Brothers because they were quite happy to teach non-Catholics, refused to reject non-Catholics from Marist Schools; refused to insist that religious teaching must take precedence over all other subjects at all times. The Bishop was unhappy because he felt that the Marist Brothers were not useful “in the cause of Catholicism”; and even because some Brothers had built up strong rapport with the Education Department and were serving the whole country through the Colonial Government’s Education Board.

The Bishop’s unhappiness was so intense that in 1959 he asked for the Marist Brothers to be withdrawn from Fiji.  Brother Cassian eventually had to leave in order to achieve some sort of compromise.

Conducting a revolution in education

The unifying theme in this history of the Marist Brothers in Fiji is their contribution to education in Fiji.  But of course, there were contributions not just by the Marist Brothers, but also the Catholic nuns and the priests.

This contribution needs to be fully and systematically documented, as education is the most important prerequisite for development of any country.  What kinds of schools did they establish; with what resources; with what enrolments over the years; what  religious composition of students; the ethnic and gender dimensions.

The Marist Brothers recognised the need for vocational training every early on. They recognised the need for teacher training. They recognised the need to focus on rural areas. They recognised the need for teaching of the vernaculars. And in recent years they recognised the need for all religious teaching to be accommodated in their Catholic schools, even non-Christian ones.

These were all education revolutions taking place in Fiji, driven by an under-resourced religious institution, facing so many constraints, not the least of which was finance, but also the issues of quality of teachers and teaching, the relevance of curricula in keeping up with the times, and the efficient use of resources by pulling in the co-operative efforts of the different communities.  Such themes are all still relevant today.

The Marist Brothers in Fiji were indeed in the vanguard of many changes, far ahead of  what was taking place in their head-quarters and the Vatican in far-off metropoles. IN many crucial areas, it would seem that the Marist Brothers led the changes from the front, with head-quarters catching up years later.

But please include the nuns

No history of Catholic education in Fiji can be complete without a full treatment of the role of the Catholic nuns.  It is clear that the first nuns (Sisters of St Joseph of Cluny) came to set up school for Catholic girls in Suva came in 1888, the same year as the Marist Brothers.  The nuns must undoubtedly have faced many problems, I am sure much greater than their male counterparts, the Marist Brothers.

Their history and personalities surely also need to be recorded, as part of the big picture.  My wife (Joan Yee) who did her secondary education at St Josephs has as many stories about the nuns who taught her as I have about the Marist Brothers who taught me. The nuns also contributed to Fiji in many other ways such as running the Homes of Compassion etc.

While I can fully understand the practical difficulties that individual Marist Brothers might have felt over the years to incorporate the history of the nuns’ roles in education in Fiji, any future revised editions of this book must not neglect this.  In this day and age, I am sure that the Marist Brothers are also struggling to ensure that they do not display male chauvinism towards their sister orders.

It is more than a 100 years

Contrary to the title, this book by Brother Fergus is covering far more than a 100 years between 1888 and 1988. The first Marist Brother (Brother Annet Perrol) started work in Lakeba, Lau in 1844.  I believe Lakeba was then still part of Fiji, although the Tongan Maafu might have had other ideas. This book is therefore covering 145 years to 1988.

It is now 2010, some 167 years from the arrival of the first Marist Brother to teach in Fiji, and if the Marist Brothers wish to celebrate a “neat” milestone, it will be 170 years in 2013.

If the Marist Brothers wish to celebrate a “neat” milestone, then in 2013 it will be 170 years since they first started working in Fiji.  Three years is long enough for the Marist Brothers and their friends, to take on board the recommendations I make next.

A better history

I would suggest that those responsible for  Catholic Education in Fiji consider a project which brings out two volumes, building on this solid one by Brother Fergus, with additional studies undertaken to complete the picture.

One volume should rightly focus on personal histories of all the Marist Brothers who have served with dedication in Fiji- expatriates and locals alike- as a tribute to their lives. Included in this must also be all the eulogies given over the years for the departed Brothers. I have circulated today an article I wrote on Brother Theophane at his passing in 1999 (so that I do not need to cover the same ground in my review of this book).  In academia, if you want accurate assessments of teachers, the best KPI is what the students think of the teachers, and what better than their assessments years after they have left school, and had time to digest what the teaching of the Brothers meant for their lives.  This study might also wish to include prominent lay people who also side by side contributed significantly to Catholic education in Fiji.

The second volume would then be a solid history of the role of the Catholic institutions in education in Fiji- all the Marist Brothers, the nuns, the priests, and indeed many of the lay persons who have long been associated with their education systems in Fiji, like my old teacher Francis Hong Tiy.

I would think that such an exercise should be conducted by all the religious organisations- the Methodists, the SDAs, all the various Hindu organisations, and the Islamic organisations.  It is important for all of Fiji to recognize the role of religious organisations in the education of children in Fiji.  It is a pity that the history departments of USP have not been able to take the dynamic proactive role that should have been taken in ensuring that such studies are not neglected.

I have no doubt that these histories will throw up all kinds of commonalities between the religious institutions, which will serve to strengthen the unity of the multi-cultural Fiji of today, in the midst of our obvious diversity.  This is so important when internationally, with the association of terrorism with Islamic fundamentalism or the Muslim-Christian-Hindu conflicts, one can see that religions may increasingly divide our people rather than unite.

Such unity of purpose, may also help religious organisations to tackle common education problems of today.
Relevance for today

Many religious organisations who manage schools in Fiji face a current and common problem- the School Zoning being planned by the Ministry of Education, whereby schools will be required to give preference to children living within 2 km of the school.  There is no doubt some economic sense behind this initiative in that throughout Fiji, many school children travel long distances to schools of their choice, when there are schools nearby.

But Marist Schools have been specifically set up to provide not just education in general but also Catholic education to Catholic children, many of whom live further than 2 km from their chosen school.

The same problem is faced by schools managed by other Christian denominations (Methodists etc), Hindu, Islamic and ethnic/cultural organisations (such as Yat Sen).  And they also do not exclude students of other religions.

Current discussions indicate that Marist Schools will be free to enroll whoever they want, except that poor pupils coming from further than 2 kilometers will not receive the transport subsidy.  This is a very similar problem to that faced by Marist Brothers who were told by the Colonial Government that their grants would be removed if they did not dismiss Fijians and Indians from their school at St Felix!

Here is a common issue on which the Catholic education authorities could get together with the other religious organisations to ensure that their poor school children can receive the same transport subsidy from tax-payers’ funds.

A commendable book

I commend Brother Fergus for going to all the trouble to publish this compilation of the history of the Marist Brothers in Fiji, a fascinating kaleidoscope not just of the great personalities, but also their revolutionary work in Fiji’s education.

There must have been an enormous amount of work Brother Fergus had to do not only in getting all the material together, but also ensure that the lovely old photos came to life in the book, with the assistance of Brother Fergus’s newly acquired skills with photo-editing software.

While I thank the organisers for asking me, a Marist Old Boy, to launch this book, I would like to request my distinguished seniors at Marist Brothers High School who are here today– Messers Bill Yee, Bernard Vunibobo, and Francis Hong Tiy, and Brother Sam to do the honours.

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