St Michael's Orphanage - Ray Aquilina
Interviewee: Ray Aquilina, born 1939
Interviewer: Frank Heimans,
for Baulkham Hills Shire Council
Date of Interview: 29 Nov, 2007
Transcription: Glenys Murray, April 2008
This interview represents the personal recollections, views and opinions of the interviewee
Now what were the circumstances of your going to St Michael’s was it that your father was working night shift he couldn’t look after you and he felt that perhaps you and your brother should be in care?
Yeah that’s right and he wanted us together I gather because I was really too young. They used to take kids from foundling homes when it was unacceptable that children were born out of wedlock. We would get kids from institutions but they would come in at about five years old and older. Obviously they took me as a special additive because Paul was there and Dad didn’t want to separate us.
Now your father was a Maltese originally wasn’t he?
Oh yeah until the day he died he always had that very strong Maltese accent and always considered himself a dinky di Aussie at that stage.
Was he a religious man?
Not overtly but he was very strict about us going to Sunday church and all that sort of thing.
Because you were put into a Catholic organisation?
Yeah well obviously there must have been an inherent belief in doing the right thing and what was expected. But of course religion in Malta was far, far more endemic and entrenched than it is in Australia.
Now can I take you back to the very first day that you arrived at St Michael’s do you have any memories of that day?
I can remember it in detail.
Bus outside Kellyville Post Office on corner of Acres & Windsor Roads Kellyville 1930s
You were only three and a half? Tell me what you remember?
In those days it was almost a day trip to go out to Baulkham Hills. You caught the steam train out to Parramatta and then you caught one of these old buses that you see in third world countries now. That chug out along the Windsor Road out to the “Bull and Bush”. Some of the buses would divert at the “Bull and Bush” and go to Castle Hill but we had the ones that went through to Kellyville. Now of course out at Kellyville there were market gardens and there were very few people. There were more at Castle Hill than there were at Kellyville so they were probably rarer than the buses going up to Castle Hill. But this particular day because I’d had a medical a week or so before which was an unusual thing. I knew there was something going on that my little mind couldn’t really get it’s thoughts around. We’re travelling all this way out and it was like going to another world because out there it was just farms and everything around there. Hardly like it is today. We got out of the bus and I needed to go to the toilet and I remember Dad taking me up the side road there and into the paspalum. Which is something again that I’d never seen paspalum and I relieved myself there. We walked down and I looked at this building and I thought “we’re going in here”. I just had something in the back of my mind that told me this was going to be a fixture.
We went in and it was the biggest building that I’d ever seen in my life. I suppose it was like somebody looking at a castle it was just so big. We went up the front stairs and we pressed the bell and a nun came out. We went into a little room there we talked for a few minutes and I gather they were busy because it didn’t take too long. Then come on we’ll take you round to the rocking horses so we walked around into the refectory where all the kids ate. There were two rocking horses there. There was a little one and there was another one with two baskets on the bigger one. Paul got on the bigger one, I was on the little one and then Dad said “I’m just going to get the coupons” The war was out and there were coupons for butter and whatever. I knew at that stage he’s not coming back. That’s how it turned out so he left and it was shortly after that the kids came in for their midday meal. I remember the rations at that stage because they didn’t have too much at that stage there wasn’t much money there.. But we had this minced gruel with mashed potato it was all right. I’d never eaten anything like it before in my life. Dad always fed us and he was probably one of the best cooks that I’ve ever known. Yeah that’s how it all started. For about the first I’d say two weeks if it wasn’t every night it was every second night somehow or another. I don’t know how he worked but he managed to get up there and he was over the back fence enquiring how we were, a couple of times they didn’t see him other times they did. But it didn’t help the parting if you know what I mean.
Eastern side of St Michael's Orphanage Baulkham Hills
How did you feel at three and a half being left in an orphanage?
It was terrifying. I’d never had so many people around me all the kids. I’d never run to a regime. You had one nun with one hundred and twenty to one hundred and fifty kids and when you went in of a night time to wash. You’d stand at your basin and you’d wash you right arm, soap it up, wash it off then you’d dry it and wash your other arm then the left leg and everything was done to direction. After that the area where we went to class and school was out an end door and I don’t know what I was doing trying to do up a sandal or something or other. Everybody disappeared and suddenly I was stuck in this big wash room. Where did everybody go to? I had no idea and I remember wandering through the place crying I didn’t know where I was. One of the women thought it was one of the cutest things she’d ever seen I think. Picked me up in the kitchen there and I stayed there until the kids came. They kept an eye on me after that to make sure I knew which way I was going.
So that was still on the very first night was it? That you were wandering round the place?
Well if it wasn’t the first day it was certainly a day or two after. You quickly learn the routine and which way to go and that sort of thing. The classes were built in a separate block and they were in a newer area at the end of the washroom. There was one door and I probably couldn’t reach the latch anyway. They went out through there and they had a little oratory where the kids said prayers, evening prayer and then some of the kids did studying and the rest would go and have the evening meal and then go to bed.
In your later years did you ever do any research on the history of St Michael’s? Something about how it was set up and so on?
(St Michaels began in 1902 as an orphanage for small boys, founded by the Sisters of Mercy, Parramatta. For more information see "Across The Decades: St Michael's Baulkham Hills 1900s - 1990s, by Sophie McGrath"). Well I know a little bit about it. Particularly about in 1919 they lost about twelve kids to the flu that raged through Sydney at the time and everybody was wearing medical masks. The kids there had to take the bodies up to Castle Hill and they’d put them in the horse and cart and they’d take them up and bury them in the Castle Hill cemetery and then come back. After that they built an additional wing onto the school which was an infirmary to separate kids. They had an infirmary upstairs off the bedroom if kids had to go and have their tonsils out or something like that. They would come back and they’d recuperate in the infirmary there. The infirmary was next to the main dormitory and the nuns were on the other side. When you think they were very well organised the sisters. How they did things and there were so few of them to look after so many it was just an incredible job that they did.
Infirmary St Michael's Orphanage Baulkham Hills
So that flu pandemic was the 1919 Spanish Influenza?
I don’t know what the name of the flu was but I know it was pretty bad.
It had a dairy farm as well didn’t it?
Dairy farm there, yeah we had twenty four cows and we would bring them over in the morning. In those days we didn’t have shoes at the time. This was in the early days and we would go over and bring the cows in and then milk them and then hose the bail down. There was no hot water laid on so we always used to try to keep them as clean as we could to avoid splashing around in cold water at that time of the morning. It was a bit ordinary but we didn’t know any different. When we got rubber boots on it didn’t take us long to realise that there were comforts beyond what we were accustomed to.
I imagine in the winter time with bare feet?
It was freezing. We supplied milk to Our Lady of Mercy College at Parramatta. Ten gallon drum of milk each day. We’d send that in. With the milk that we had we’d make butter for the school and all of us had jobs to do when we were there. We’d have breakfast in the morning and then we all had jobs to do.
Did you milk the cows as well?
Oh yeah, I loved it. I loved the life it was terrific, it was really good. You don’t realise how strong they are Jack Keogh one day he said to me they were branding the calves. He said to me “do you think you can hang onto the calf Ray”? I said yeah it’ll be all right”. Anyway I was hanging onto its legs there and I watched this hot iron getting put onto its hide. Your little mind is thinking “gee there’s smoke coming up”. I looked at the face of the calf and it’s almost like it could smell it and not feel. Moo and off it went. Well my pride had me hanging onto the back of it. It took me half way down the hill and threw me in the creek. There was that there were a couple of guys there Jack Keogh and Tom Noonan I think his name was. They had quite a lot of gardens plus they had an orchard up near the old church and the convent. They grew things. They also would grow potatoes in there. But a lot of produce from the market gardeners we’d find in bags rolled off the trucks on their way to market. They’d just roll them off outside the college. It didn’t mean too much to me then the generosity of Australian people never failed to amaze me. Looking back I just think how fabulous people are.
Dairy cattle St Michael's Orphanage Baulkham Hills
Now can you describe what the buildings looked like at St Michael’s? The layout of the dormitories as if you’re walking in there because the building doesn’t exist anymore?
OK the dormitories probably if I use dimensions I’d be a bit out because it always seems bigger than not. We had balconies. The dormitory itself was a rectangle with another area which was a smaller rectangle off that. So it was a big T shaped rectangle. The bottom part not so big as the top. Let’s say Kellyville was north on the south side there was a balcony there now the senior boys would be out there. The boys that went over to milk the cows got up at four in the morning, four thirty were on that balcony. We used to think Jack Keogh was the strongest man ever. He used to get half a house brick and he’d throw it up and it’d land on the balcony sometimes and wake us up. If he called out and we didn’t answer. Then on the eastern balcony there were kids who had trouble with wetting their beds in the night time. They were put out there it was pretty ordinary. Because outside there sometimes if it rained we had to bring the beds inside because the water had come across. It was pretty open, big arches as you can see from the photographs of the building. Off the bottom part of the square that was the infirmary about the same size again. I think only one nun used to stay there in the night time Sister Marie Therese mainly that was it. Over on the east side near the kids that had trouble wetting their beds there was the toilets. About six or eight toilets there so that was about the extent of it. There was a clothes room on the east side as well where they kept all the sheets and everything like that. As I say everybody had chores. When we got up in the morning we’d go to church, have breakfast and then people had their chores to do before they went into school. Some were up in the dormitories making the beds. Others were cleaning the dishes from breakfast. Others were cutting the lunches, various chores around the place to keep it clean. It was very much a community situation.
Boys outside back of St Michael's Orphanage Baulkham Hills
Was there much polishing of floors?
Polishing that was normally done on the weekends. We used to love that. Why we used to like that particularly in the dormitories. The polish that they used was very easy to put on. Then guys would get onto these, they’d have rugs or cloths and they’d sit on them and guys would drag them around the floor and polish it. In the old days back from the wall they used to have what they called skirting boards about nine inches back so that the beds wouldn’t bang up against the plaster wall. One poor fellow Johnny Lynn(?) was sailing around on this and he copped a sliver in his backside. Yeah ouch! These sort of things didn’t happen too often but sometimes we’d get carried away as kids do.
Now for those people who don’t know where St Michael’s Orphanage was located tell us the street it was on and where?
It was on Windsor Road. To get a location, if you go out there now you’ll see the old stone church that we used to go to which is now heritage listed and the convent. It was directly opposite - (now the site of) the private hospital there. It was set back from the road about a hundred metres back from the road.
So that’s Windsor Road at Baulkham Hills is it?
Oh yeah, yeah it’s right on Windsor Road there.
Nuns and boys in the grounds of St Michael's Orphanage Baulkham Hills
And what were the grounds like of the orphanage?
The area around the orphanage itself was always full of flowers a lot of roses. From the orphanage down to the south boundary that was a big open area and if people came up to see kids there they’d go out under the trees or out around that area. There generally weren’t too many but I can remember Western Suburbs football coming up and playing a game of football there to show us what Rugby League was all about. So it was certainly big enough for a football field.
Who actually maintained the gardens? Were there teams of gardeners or was it the children?
We had workman, Tom Noonan and he would also in the morning get the…..It was like a big steam engine get the furnaces going for the building and the cooking.
Get the boilers going?
The boilers going that’s right yeah. We did our own washing. Kids in fourth class had turns at coming up and wash all the sheets and everything every Monday and then run them over in barrel loads through the playground and across to an area between the main building and the dairy and we’d hang them on these toggle lines that were…
Now you said that there were nuns who were in charge of the orphanage, how many nuns were there do you think altogether?
I couldn’t truthfully answer that. They didn’t all work in the orphanage. Generally the superior, Sister Superior handled the elder boys the fourth class. Fourth and third class were together. There was second class, first class and kindergarten. So we went up to fourth class from kindergarten to fourth class at which stage you were ten years old and you’d move onto St Vincent’s Boys Home Westmead or wherever. But the number of nuns to answer your question there would have been a dozen or more.
Classroom of boys at St Michael's Orphanage Baulkham Hills
And two hundred odd boys you say?
Yeah but there was never ….there was only a couple of nuns that stayed in the main building there. As you got older you would stay up until nine o’clock. The other kids would go to bed at six o’clock. At around about nine o’clock you’d walk a couple of the nuns up to the gate see them across the road and then come back.
Now what was the Mother Superior’s name? What name did she have?
Well there was Sister Boromeo was one, Sister Cyprian was another Cyril or Cyprian no I think it was Sister Cyril. They’re the only two that I recall. (Actually Sisters Cyril and Cyprian were two different people).
Who was your favourite nun?
Without question Sister Marie Therese Roche. Sister Marie Therese as she was known. She was Irish and very much so. She was just wonderful. In terms of a relationship to a female she was the closest to a mother that I’ve known. She was very good it was good fortune that kept her there. At one stage she went away and then she came back. She wanted to be there. She loved the boys, she could be stern but there was a tremendous amount of compassion in the lady. She was very good. She gave me that little bit of emotional support that one didn’t get in a crowded environment like that.
Let’s talk about a typical day that you might have had at St Michael’s? What time would you wake up, what would you do? Give me the whole day?
Boys from St Michael's Orphanage ready for church at St Michael's Baulkham Hills
OK You go to bed at six at night you wake up at six in the morning. Then you go down, dress, then you’d go over to church and towards the end of church some of the senior boys would go over and get the breakfast ready and start cutting the bread for during the day. Then you would go back go to the refectory, you don’t hear the word now, but that’s what it was called refectory where we all ate. Everybody would sit down and have their meal of cereal and a glass of milk and maybe a bit of bread. This was Monday to Friday you’d do this. You’d then have a job between the time you finished breakfast until it was time to go to school. Generally you finished the job in time so you had a bit of time to play around. One of the nuns if anybody had any sores or abrasions or cuts they would go up to the nuns and the nuns would dress them and make sure everything was OK. Then we’d go in to our classrooms and you’d come out for lunch at eleven. Nine o’clock to eleven and you’d have half a slice of bread with some jam on it. Have a break go to the toilet and then go back into school and I think you’d come out about twelve o’clock. I think the times I’m not absolutely sure, you’d come out and have your lunch, play around for a little bit then go back into school again. I think it was three o’clock that we finished school in the afternoon. Now after that that was free time to play except on a Friday. You would come out and there was organised physical culture that you’d do exercises and one thing and another. I’m not sure of the time you’d go up and…..you didn’t play for that long because we were in bed by six and we’d generally go up wash ourselves as directed and go in. They’d say a rosary and here I’m a bit vague I’ve got to say. I thought we all ate together in the night time but I’m starting to think that maybe the younger boys went and had their evening meal and went to bed. But I’m not sure about that. We would have our evening meal and then off to bed. The older ones would stay up with the nuns and as I say and generally one would stay there and a couple would go back. So the older boys the ones that stayed up would walk them up to the gate from the school when they were across the road there they’d come back and then we’d go to bed about nine thirty.
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