Christian Brothers
Ambrose Treacy’s DNA
Modern science has given us a powerful tool: DNA. It allows us to go to the very root of a person’s nature. In a metaphorical way the concept can be applied to a spirituality.
Modern science has given us a powerful tool: DNA. It allows us to go to the very root of a person’s nature. In a metaphorical way the concept can be applied to a spirituality. DNA is similar to a person’s eyes. To see them is to be in touch with the person. Speaking with a person who wears dark glasses is unsatisfactory; we do not see the subtle changes that tell us how he or she is reacting to what is said. DNA strips aside the non-essentials, emphasising what matters. So when we examine the spirituality which empowered Ambrose – a busy man if ever there was one – we find the power behind the many decisions he made and the way he lived his life. There are two aspects to our study, the obvious and the hidden.

The obvious

When Ambrose first met Bishop Goold in Melbourne he was deeply disturbed when the bishop said that he had no money to give to the Brothers for a residence and schools. He advised the Brothers to “throw yourselves on the people.” Years later Ambrose could see that that was a blessing in disguise because it meant that the Brothers had to meet people and fend for themselves, giving them a spirit of enterprise which has always characterised the Australian Brothers. But initially it was burdensome. Ambrose told the Brothers of the bishop’s decision. There were two possibilities: they could pack up and return to Ireland, or they could begin the task of raising the necessary money. This meant collecting, visiting people in their homes, asking for donations, an unpleasant task. The other Brothers were not keen to do this, but Ambrose without saying a word put on his hat and began the work. That was the way he led, not by giving orders but by example. Soon the other Brothers were taking part in the work after school each day, emboldened by Ambrose’s example.

When Ambrose realised that he would need much more money than the Brothers could collect around Melbourne he decided to extend the scope of his collections. He sent Br Barnabas Lynch to Bendigo to collect funds from the miners and then himself began collecting throughout country Victoria. He was a great collector. He would introduce himself as a Christian Brother, briefly explain what he was collecting for and ask for a donation if the person was able to give one. If they gave something he thanked them; if they did not, he thanked them none the less, wished them well and went on his way. One of the most touching incidents concerns a young serving girl who, hearing what Ambrose was collecting for, offered him the whole of her wage. Ambrose, of course, aware of the girl’s own needs, did not take it, but he was deeply moved by her generosity. In South Australia he encountered a bigoted Protestant. Ambrose kept talking calmly to him, the result being that the man eventually gave him 15 guineas, a not inconsiderable sum. When he returned to Melbourne from each of his collecting trips he would publish a list of all the donations he had received so that people could see that their donations were being applied to the cause for which they were given. It’s called transparency. Current governments have transparency as an ideal. Ambrose was well ahead of the field. Through collecting the Brothers knew people in all parts of the country. In fact, when the Jesuits were collecting for one of their works they found that the Brothers had been there before them. This knowledge of people was a great personal asset which a later generation of Brothers let slip, a great pity.

Though Ambrose often traveled by coach or ship his journeys on horseback show how determined and courageous he was. He told of how he would ache all over for about two weeks when he began a collecting tour on horseback. But as he became hardened to the riding it was a pleasant enough experience. There was a time when, crossing a river, he was thrown from his horse and hurt himself to the degree that it was six or seven weeks before he was well enough to resume riding. And there was the famous occasion when while snow was falling he was lost in the high country around Omeo, in Victoria. He took refuge under trees in a steep valley and spent the night there. Getting back to the top of the ridge the next day was much harder than he had anticipated, so much so that he had to let his horse loose while he clambered almost perpendicularly upwards. Then he walked for eight or nine hours until he met up with a lady and who son who were driving some horses. She loaned him one. He made his way to the nearest town and with help from two bushmen set out to recover his own horse. Which he did. And then he resumed his collecting. On another occasion he took ship to Townsville, hired a horse and set out for the mining fields of Normanton near the Gulf of Carpentaria, a journey of about 800 km each way. How did he feed himself and the horse? What was it like sleeping rough around a campfire? How did he get on for mosquitos and other bothersome creatures? Was he in danger from robbers?

Ambrose believed in quality education. He quickly saw that education was the key to advancement in the colonies of Australia. A strong case could be made that he was the father of secondary education for ordinary people in Australia. When he came to Australia, the only ones who received secondary education as we know it were boys and girls who went to the expensive colleges, and those smart enough to get a place in the grammar schools. All other schools finished at Grade 8. This continued in both Queensland and New South Wales until the 1950s. Ambrose from the beginning offered secondary education at a price that ordinary families could afford. His schools were open to all who cared to attend.

Ambrose was a practical, no-nonsense person who got on with what had to be done. He wrote in a letter, “I am the sort of person who, when I see that something has to be done, can see no value in delay.” When extensions at Terrace in Brisbane were being built, the builder was declared bankrupt. Hearing of this, Ambrose came up from Melbourne, took over the job, employed an additional 40 carpenters and completed the work. His practical sense is also seen in the building of Nudgee. Since boarding accommodation at Terrace was overtaxed Ambrose realised that a separate boarding school was urgently needed. At the time he did not have money for the work but, trusting in God, he signed the contract and then set off collecting to help defray the cost. Nudgee was built and paid for within three years.

The hidden

The enterprise and commitment which Ambrose showed rely on qualities that cannot be seen but which influence the way he lived. Coming from a good Catholic family Ambrose had a strong faith and a good supply of values. But in his case there were some additional elements. Important among these was the experience he had which led to his becoming a Christian Brother. As a young man in Thurles he seemed to have the qualities which would lead to a religious vocation. Br Larkin, his teacher, spoke with him about this in the parlour of the Brothers’ residence. Though Ambrose could see that there was much good in what Br Larkin was saying, he did not think that he had a strong calling to embrace the religious life. Suddenly the situation was taken right out of his hands. On the wall of the parlour was a painting of Mary, the Mother of God, under the title of Mater Amabilis. In English this means Mother most loveable. Ambrose believed that Mary spoke directly to him saying, “If you do not become a Christian Brother I will be very disappointed.” Ambrose heard the message and immediately agreed. We know that people who hear voices can be mentally unwell. But it is an undoubted fact that God can speak and has spoken to some people. An outstanding example is that of Samuel in the Old Testament and Mary at the Annunciation in the New. The difference between God speaking and the voices coming from a mental illness is when God speaks he speaks clearly; the person to whom he speaks is free to say yes or no; the person spoken to receives the power to carry out what is asked of him or her; and the experience is never forgotten. Blessed Mother Teresa of Calcutta was called in this way. And so was Ambrose. He had within in a powerful incentive which never left him.

While speaking of this experience Ambrose had of Mary, it should be said that she saw him as a gift to the Australian church. When he began his life as a Christian Brother he did not know what lay ahead of him but God had a mission for him and that mission was to be in Australia. All his life Ambrose had a special devotion to Mary, his mother. The painting of Mater Amabilis became a treasured possession which he kept with him. As Brothers we should celebrate each year Mary’s birthday, 8 September, a feast which Blessed Edmund Rice selected as the Brothers’ special day but a feast and its significance which were forgotten as the years went by.

Additional to this experience was the formation Ambrose received as a young novice in the Christian Brothers. He was taught that the spirit of the Brothers was that spirit of faith which sees God at work in all that happens and embraces the faith of Job in the Old Testament who said, “The Lord gives and the Lord takes away; as it has pleased the Lord, so be it done, blessed be the name of the Lord.” I have underlined the word “that” because it draws attention to a particular spirit of faith, namely total dependence on God. Ambrose who lived this spirit learned to sacrifice his ego and, free of any distractions that might divert him from his course, make himself totally available for whatever God asked of him. This is a powerful source of motivation.

Depending on God does not dehumanise a person. Rather it makes a person more authentic, more available to help others, unselfish and prayerful. Especially when the prayer the Brothers say so frequently each day is “Live Jesus in our hearts forever.” Freedom of heart is a wonderful attitude to have for “putting on Christ”, as St Paul said. Ambrose who lived this way had a powerful motivation to be true to his calling.

Among Ambrose’s many other qualities, two particularly stand out: his care for others and his humility. Should a Brother become ill, Ambrose was the first to care for him. On one occasion a very ill Brother had to be taken from Melbourne to Sydney. Ambrose travelled with him, performing all the work that nurses do for those who are seriously ill. This was not a one-off. His concern for others and his willingness to help them was well known among all the Brothers. As was his humility. He never sought recognition for anything he did. The Brothers who lived closely with Ambrose and worked with him all agreed that humility was an outstanding characteristic of the man. Humility does not mean a low sense of one’s worth. It means that one recognises God’s help to get things done.

Br. Regis Hickey cfc
September 2013


Additional reading
Patrick Ambrose Treacy; Christian Brother, Enterprising Immigrant by Brother Regis Hickey cfc, published by Custom Publishing, University of Queensland Press.

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