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Development after Vatican II

The 1960's in Britain marked a watershed in popular culture and a radical change in the nature of the Catholic community in the UK. Free secondary education, which had been the result of the Butler 1944 Education Act, promoted the development of the Catholic grammar school. With their existing foundations the Salesians were in a good position to receive state scholarships and to expand their schools. What followed was the development of grant-aided, free university education, which meant that grammar school pupils could expect to proceed to the expanded universities often for the first time in their families' history. The Salesian schools became part of a major engine of social promotion for the Catholic working class especially at Battersea and Bolton, the two direct-grant grammar schools.

This presented both a challenge and opportunity to the Salesians themselves. With the growth of opportunities and freedom for their pupils the restrictions of a certain style of community life became more irksome. Where the power of the keys clung very tightly to the bursar's belt, where obedience to the minutiae of the daily horarium and 24 hour direct supervision of the youngsters became an all pervading preoccupation, this sometimes led to a crippling and infantile atmosphere in communities and was sometimes deeply resented. As a result of this and the new spirit blowing through the Church a significant number of confreres resigned and were dispensed from the Society including one retired Provincial. This was a heavy blow to the confidence of those that remained.

The Swinging Sixties were antithetical to the rigidity of this form of life. The junior seminary at Shrigley, while it was full at the start of the period, began a gradual decline as the confidence of Catholic parents in such boarding situations faded and the alternative opportunities for free secondary education increased.

When the Church at Vatican II began to move, the reverberations were felt as earth shattering in local communities where there had often been complete rigidity and a fear of asking questions.

On the positive side, in 1964 a new scientific and technical grammar school was opened at Bootle in Merseyside staffed by some highly qualified and well prepared Salesians. As part of the Salesian response to the second Vatican Council, the adoption of 'Dialogue' as a model for religious discernment promoted a new culture more open to the signs of the times.

What hit the whole educational effort of the Salesians in the 1970's and plunged them into a completely different scale of operations, if not a crisis, was the Labour government's introduction of Comprehensive education. Small boys' selective grammar schools of a couple of hundred pupils were suddenly confronted with massive expansion programmes rising to 1000 pupils involving at the same time the end of selection, the introduction of girls and the raising of the school leaving age. Where Salesian head teachers saw this an opportunity and seized it, the mission of Don Bosco to poor and abandoned youngsters was suddenly and often uncomfortably and unwillingly discovered, sitting in the desks in front of them. The difficulty of inspiring the loyalty and affection of lay staff (often from schools absorbed by the Salesians) or used to different styles of teaching, and of pupils often compelled to stay on an extra year at school, fell on the shoulders of fewer and fewer active Salesians. Despite this, what has emerged, as evidenced in the Ofsted reports is a vibrant, successful and active network of schools, more conscious of a specifically Salesian identity, led by teams of lay men and women who have identified with the Salesian charism and ethos.

In the area of youth work outside main steam schools, the closure of Aberdour, a list D approved school in Scotland, and Blaisdon, a school for maladjusted boys in Gloucester, moved the Province to search for other ways to reach the young and the poor outside the school system. A courageous attempt was made to enter parish ministry, with a distinctively Salesian ethos and the expertise of trained social workers, at St Paul's Muirhouse, a deprived area of Edinburgh, at St Benedict's and later St Clare's in Easterhouse near Glasgow, as well at St Dominic's Huyton and St James's Bootle. These parishes often tried to model new approaches to pastoral service of the poor (open door policies) and distinctive youth work projects and building up lay leadership groups. As in schools, the aging population of Salesians has meant that some of these parishes have had to be handed back to the diocese.

Another feature of the period was a renewed attempt to be involved in the Salesian 'Mission Africa' sponsored after the Special General Chapter by Fr Vigano. The mission allotted to the Province was that of Liberia in West Africa. Despite its predominantly American Baptist tradition and its political instability the Salesian work developed in some very original ways, in the Arthur Barclay Technical School, originally a post-school technical college preparing secretaries and tradesmen, and in St Joseph's parish just next to the University. Very quickly the political instability that dogged all of Africa broke into a violent civil war. The technical school was wrecked and the Salesians forced to leave. The massacre at the Lutheran church close to the technical school showed the brutality that could easily erupt.

The Salesians realised their dream for a more open style of youth work by developing the Youth Centre at Matadi and from this experience in a besieged capital city developed Don Bosco Homes, an extremely creative and flexible attempt to reach street children and ex-child soldiers through hostels, youth recreational programmes, 'junior councillors' in schools and a network of football teams, all trying to reach children who had become the victims of a dysfunctional society. Despite three bouts of looting and mayhem in the city and the problems of finding external sources of finance the work has developed and been taken on by Liberian lay staff.

The period after Vatican II presents the writer with something of an irreconcilable contrast. On the one hand the numbers and age of the professed Salesians has declined so that the Province has now only just over 100 professed members with an average age of over 65. At the same time there have never been more children in Salesian schools (5000) and we have never had such a rich variety of projects for poor and underprivileged young people.

Clearly care of the elderly and sick has had to take a new priority. The opening of St Joseph's at Bolton (1998) and Don Bosco house at Farnborough (1999) were aimed at addressing these needs, offering specialist facilities and trained care staff.

The process of change has been specifically addressed by the Province through a planning process, which aims to carefully use the scarce resources of personnel property and finance to serve the mission of the Province. This process has involved an effort to rationalise our property, moving out of Surrey House at Battersea into some refurbished houses on Orbel St, and moving from Highfield House at Chertsey to the convent on Eastworth Rd and then to the purpose built new house at Salesian Gardens (2000). It has also involved the refurbishment of the community accommodation at Farnborough and Bolton and Bootle.


Last modified on Friday, 09 May 2014 09:55