St Michael's Orphanage - Ray Aquilina - Part 2


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

On Friday night the senior boys would stay up and they’d wash the outside balconies near the yard there. The vegetables were down stairs and they had a pulley lift and you pulled the rope by hand bring the heavy vegetables up for peeling. Put them in the lift. You'd pull the rope and the kids you know we could ride it, it was terrific. Where it opened out we had a name for it where we used to wash all the dishes there was two sinks, one over here and one over there and that’s where the lift was in the middle. The kitchen was just there so you roll it out. They had a big freezer in the kitchen and as I say they used to make their own butter. On a Saturday we were given Senna Tea which was made in a leaf. It was soaked over night had about that much in the bottom of a cup and by about one o’clock in the afternoon didn’t it fire you up. Just as well it was Saturday because so many guys didn’t make the ablution block there in time and they messed themselves up a bit. We had baths on Saturday so we’d be starting to go in the process. The senior boys would be in the baths. We had about half a dozen baths we’d put four kids in at once and you’d wash them and they would get out. They used to have these little trunks on it was considered immodest to be …. Then the kids would get out, they’d dry themselves and they go and get themselves attired. So it didn’t vary a great deal. If you had events like St Patrick’s Day on the seventeenth of March it was terrific. We’d go for a picnic over the hills behind the convent over there. It was good there were disciplines. I think I still do it know when I get under a shower I still wash myself the same way. I did it for so many years.

Were there cold showers in the morning or hot showers?

No, no showers baths is all we had. Every Wednesday they’d go through your hair with a fine tooth comb to make sure that there were no lice or anything like that. I’ve got to say that whatever they did must have been good because I think only once anybody was picked up with lice.

What was Sunday like at the orphanage?

Sunday was a special day you’d probably sleep in a little longer, go off to church. There were some people just up the road there a couple of Catholics that would come down and were permitted to attend the church there when we went to church. Come back and I think a couple of things happened on Sundays. On the third Sunday of the month if anybody had any relatives they could come up and visit. On the first Sunday or the second Sunday of the month there was a Jewish gentleman he used to get a bag of mixed lollies. He’d bring them in and everybody would get a bag of lollies it was fantastic. A very small pleasure but gee it was really something in those days. That happened on a couple of Sundays for variation. There were times when we’d be taken away for a picnic by the St Vincent de Paul. They’d take us to the zoo or Wisemans Ferry for a picnic and races and all that sort of thing. So there was a break up wasn’t a great deal of activity in terms of sport when you think about it. I can’t think of any organised sport that we had there nothing. We had monkey bars, seesaws, a sort of a maypole with these rings that you swing around. But I never knew much sickness in the place. I think a couple of times people got mumps maybe half a dozen and they moved them to the isolation wing. But other than that the guys were pretty healthy, pretty healthy sort of guys.

Party on verandah at St Michael's Orphanage Baulkham Hills

In some of the material that I’ve read about the place they mention that at meal times no one was allowed to speak. Was that still the case when you came there?

That’s probably right, yeah, that would be right. You didn’t, while you ate you didn’t speak. You had to eat your meal and concentrate you can imagine some people…..they had to move us along everything was regimented. I suppose when you think of it in practical terms if people were talking they wouldn’t be eating so things couldn’t move along at the pace they were required to.

What about the clothing that you wore was there a uniform or what sort of clothing was worn by the boys?

On special days we’d have a khaki uniform that we’d wear. But generally I can’t really remember. I can remember after the war we had toothpaste that was provided to us from the American services. That Kolynos toothpaste and we’d have our own tube of toothpaste to clean our teeth. But as far as uniform goes I think we would have all been dressed much the same.

Ray, tell me the story about the dairy?

That involved a good mate of mine in fact I was talking to him about it last Sunday up at Westmead. As I mentioned before it used to be cold and we only had cold water to wash the bails down. We always keep a shovel handy and if a cow came in and it was going to drop a cake on the floor. Rather than do that we’d grab the shovel and try to catch it so that there wasn’t too much of a mess and it didn’t take too much washing in the cold water. This particular day this friend of mine Don Winning we saw the cows tail go up and sang out “Winnie get the shovel”. He looked around and by the time he got the message you could see it was already starting to happen so he raced over and he tried to catch it in his hands. I think the cow had diarrhoea it nearly buried him there. To this day we talk about that day laugh my self silly.

Ray Aquilina 2nd back row 2nd from left with other boys dressed for
a concert at St Michael's Orphanage Baulkham Hills

Now what about musical training. Did you have any musical training or singing?

Didn’t have any training Paul had a natural flare he was very often picked for singing solos in the church or in the concerts that they organised there. We didn’t have any training there, no. We had a bit more later on up at Westmead. But what we did learn through Sister Marie Therese was when we’d be up in the night time she’d get on the piano and she’d teach us the Irish songs. We learnt a lot of Irish ditties while we were there.

Apparently there’s a song called “The Boy’s of St Michael’s” did you ever hear that one?

That’s a song yeah.

You know it?

I know some of the words yeah, yeah.

Can you give us an idea what it sounded like?

You don’t want me to sing it.

Can you try?

It goes something like this:
We are the boys of Baulkham Hills
Our hearts are free from care
We work and play with such a will 
Da da dadada dum
St Michael’s boys will soon be men 
But men who never stray
God bless the hearts
God bless the hands that guide them on their way.

Something like that.

Classroom of younger boys at St Michael's Orphanage Baulkham Hills

It’s very beautiful?

It was.


They would sing that when they had the gymkhanas they would get us out on the stairs and we’d sing it.

How did the group identify as a whole with being in an orphanage all the boys? How did they react to that? Were there different responses from different boys to the regime? How did some of those boys react to being in this orphanage and exteriorise their feelings?

At the time or after they left?

Let’s talk about first at the time?

At the time... look one thing you realise about life is that we’re all very different. For one reason some people might want to tear themselves away from it but would be afraid. Where do we go there’s nothing out there, just farms and roosters and cows and where would I go? Some people did run away. There were a minority two or three and they’d get brought back. Others may have wanted to but were afraid. Others just complied and went along. But as you became accustomed to the order there was a togetherness about it. I know that when I saw that these places were broken up I thought that was the biggest thing that was lost. I watched these Orders now looking after people that come from dysfunctional homes when things are going bad and people are free to come and go as they want. So they don’t get the ability to know how things work and get some sort of function into their life. So what happens they go back and become dysfunctional again? We at least were there for a period of time where we learnt how things worked and we worked together. You learnt to work together and to work with other people. People that you may not have liked but you had a job to do and you put your head down and you did it. Then in your own personal moments that could be a different kettle of fish altogether.

Car Drive at St Michael's Orphanage Baulkham Hills

How did the Catholic Church finance this orphanage? Did they have any fund raising days or that sort of thing?

Yes they developed what they called a car drive. I’ve never understood the word car drive but they’d have a car drive up at Baulkham Hills. The area that I said was just south where they played the football. They’d set up stalls and the local craft people. Craft was a big deal in those days people still made a lot of hand craft. Craft and they donated bags and boxes of goodies. They’d have a chocolate wheel which was one of the main features and I gather they had raffles. I don’t know whether they did. Certainly the chocolate wheel was a big thing they’d spin around and you’d win things on there. They’d make a few bob.

When you think about it. It was a wonderful thing that the Catholic Church did in looking after so many boys for no money at all?

I don’t how the finances were raised to be perfectly frank with you. I know that they didn’t have a real lot. The grounds were big but of course things were a lot cheaper to maintain. I gather they got government assistance in some respects. Considering what they had they did a fantastic job in maintaining the grounds. Probably on the other side where the convent was the rose gardens were beautiful. We’d have a religious service at Easter time and they’d have a procession. I saw a photograph on the top there. With the boxes we’d have rose petals in there and as the priest procession came round these kids would strew the petals on the ground in front.

Now you were sent to the Marist Brothers, St Vincent’s Boys Home in Westmead. So tell me how do you think St Michael’s Orphanage prepared you for life after fourth class?

I didn’t realise this until my late thirties probably. You learnt to be tolerant, you learnt to live with people, you learnt how to work with people, you realise that everybody is different. That you’re not going to get on with everybody and so the people you get on with you work with. But other people tolerated you and unless they forced themselves upon you, you didn’t have to be aggressive. You can always learn something you can always learn something from them. No matter who the person might be. Somebody who you thought you were a little bit better than. There was always something that you could learn. I think a lot of the fundamental human traits were bred into you when you didn’t know it. You learnt that and you learnt just by the experience of life itself. Living that way.

St Michael's Family Centre Baulkham Hills group cottages

Now later on you became a board member of St Michael’s Orphanage tell me about that?

Yes, Sister Janet called me one day and said “we’re setting up a board for St Michael’s”. I asked if I could have overnight to think about it. I wasn’t sure that I was qualified enough to handle such a job. I accepted and I was quite flattered with the offer. I became a member of the first board of St Michael’s Orphanage.

As a board member were you able to initiate any positive changes to things?

To me what was very important was the fact that they needed finances. You see they’re between a rock and a hard place. Once upon a time the nuns used to do a lot of the work and they weren’t paid by the government. Now as the nuns have pulled away and gone into other areas they’ve had to bring people in. They’ve relied on the good faith and generosity of people to give work, to do work or to give their services for free. In the current world there’s no such thing as a free lunch anymore. I could see that they needed money and that’s what I was trying to suggest to them. Tell the community what you’re doing and show them what you’re here for. What benefits their getting from you and then when you run… Well they ran one prize giving night. They turned people away I forget how many people they had there but in that one night they made about thirty thousand dollars. The incredible thing was and I don’t like to be critical of other people but somebody said “we should aim for about twenty” and I said “you don’t go to people and say we need twenty for this, tell them you’re doing this, this and this and you’re doing something for the benefit of the society and say we want a hundred grand to do this”. Because if you go back and say “we want another twenty grand”. People are going to say “oh you want twenty grand all the time”.

Now St Michael’s ceased to function as an orphanage didn’t it? When did it actually stop doing that?

It was gone by 1970 certainly it was pulled down. (The land was sold and a private hospital was built on the site).

Why was it actually pulled down, the house? Was there no more need for an orphanage?

I suppose attitudes have changed. I think certain benefits to kids without parents were lost by losing the advantages that I say I myself and others have obtained by living with people and learning to live at a young age. Not only that being regimented and taught things that one would say they really aren’t significant but it’s an orderliness in your life that you look for. Attitudes change putting people together in an orphanage was considered wrong and big institutional thing like that people become institutionalised. Don’t agree with that. Now what’s happening and I saw it at Westmead as well as at Baulkham Hills. Don Winning built a couple of cottages for the Brothers there but one of the cries of the brothers were “we can only try to counsel them”. But they consider it a lot of balderdash well they just get up and walk away and you can’t stop them. See we were there we were there for the long haul. Kids can come in now and according to their flight of fancy or mood they’ll go out. It was very difficult to inculcate into them the things… It’s the same in the cottages. Sister Magella will tell you that she was in charge of one of the cottages. (St Michael's Family Centre, a charitable sponsored work supported by the Sisters of Mercy, Parramatta, now operates on the Convent site). I don’t think the nuns are in there anymore. I think they’ve got adult couples that look after these people.

Ray you were there during the heyday of the place. Tell me what happened after you left to St Michael’s?

I left in 1950 and I think it was in the late 1960’s that the orphanage was disposed of. But there was a big transition going on in society and of course social welfare became an issue here. A lot of people felt that living in an institution turned out people that had something wrong with them I gather. At least that's from an outside point of view. There’s no question that in my particular case that the emotional attachment that one would have with a mother and a father in the early ages I didn’t have. But what was the benefit? The benefit was I think greater than the loss as you get older. Because you pick up so many other attributes. The reason for the demise was simply that attitudes changed and they didn’t believe that kids should be put into an institution thrown together like that. I bet pennies to peanuts that there would be nobody that has lived in an institution like that, that was consulted too much. It’s true I know a couple of my friends who don’t want to know about those days. Obviously they cut a lot deeper into those people than they did with me.

But the majority of people, I say the majority we go back and we get together during the year. There’s no persona it doesn’t matter how you’ve risen in life. Whether you’re a judge or whether you’re a garbage truck driver everybody’s the same. That’s the sort of homogenous society that living together like that breeds. But of course people don’t think about that or they’ve never lived that. It always shocks people when I say I went to an orphanage. But the life wasn’t that bad when it was all said and done. Little bit of hunger that never hurt anybody. Probably more discipline than one would get in a normal home. That didn’t hurt we were formulated into decent human beings. Probably the crucial thing is this of all the people that I know that left school a number have finished up in gaol. They are a very small minority but I can look at the successes of people that knew there were things to strive for. There’s far more successes than there are I wouldn’t call them failures but corrections that had to be made in some people’s cases. However that’s the way society changed. Somebody had a wagon to push, got there pushed it and everybody believed them. I can understand them believing that, they haven’t lived it.

St Michael's Orphanage Baulkham Hills Reunion June 2008