My Ruperstwood Experience – 1955-1958

I was born in 1947 and grew up in Carlton in the early 1950s not long after Dad had returned from WWII. Dad was born on a family property near country St Arnaud but had already moved to Melbourne as a teenager to attend St Kevin’s College in Toorak before the war.

So, my local parish was St Mark’s in Lygon Street where I went to a Primary School run by nuns and celebrated my first Holy Communion along with many young Italian kids whose parents had migrated after the war. I don’t remember being a happy or unhappy kid, just in a kind of Limbo.

My parents had relationship troubles which I was too young to understand and so home life was a bit of a mix of good and bad times. I had pneumonia a couple of years in a row and my health became a concern. As far as I know, when my parents separated, my parish priest, Fr Tom Little, helped to arrange for me to go to Rupertswood as much for my health as for my education. Fr Little’s great friend was an octogenarian Salesian in retirement there, Fr John Cerutti. Between them they helped convince my father to send me there. This is how I have best reconstructed my early story of how I entered Rupertswood.

Fr Tom Little who ‘saved’ me when I was 8 by helping me find my way to Rupertswood. His nephew John is now a good friend and kindly gave me this pic of his Uncle Tom.

Sunbury seemed a long way from Melbourne in those days. A couple of hours in dad’s old Pontiac. I was 8 when I arrived there. I clearly remember sitting outside on the verandah of the mansion on a sunny day, under a splendid cascade of purpley wisteria, while dad was being interviewed by the Rector in his office. I already loved the place at first sight. The window to the office was open and I was eavesdropping. The priest explained, for admittance, that their grades started at Grade 4. He asked dad, What grade is Michael in? I couldn’t believe it when dad said he didn’t know. They both came outside to ask me. It was Second Term 1955, and I had just completed the first term in Grade 3 at St Mark’s. I lied bareface and claimed I was in Grade 4. I was believed and admitted and started at Rupertswood Second Term in Grade 4. I was moved up to Grade 5 in 1956 and I never looked back. As a result, I was always the youngest and the shortest in the class.

It is true to say that I flourished there. I was a happy kid. I never had another cold or sniffle, let alone pneumonia, even though we would run barefoot across the vast playing fields covered in frost, to the railway station and back, just for the bet of a Cherry Ripe. I did this many times each winter and still sneak a now forbidden Cherry Ripe to this day. There are moments when one can sympathise with Adam and Eve!

For me, Rupertswood was a city boy’s paradise. Vast open spaces, creeks, hillsides, animals, playmates and the kindness, wit and discipline of a classical education offered generously, in charming foreign accents, from the brothers and priests who had been imported all the way from Italy. And, lucky for me, there was my very first mentor, the truly Salesian saintly, Fr Cerutti.

Looking back I have had several great mentors in my life whose guidance has been priceless. But, it is easy to say that the impact that Fr Cerutti had on the formation of my life is beyond measure. I still think of him often, consciously, and the trajectories and possibilities to which he introduced me have enriched my life unconsciously for 65 years. What a return on investment my Dad got for sending me to Rupertswood!

Everything was not idyllic. No, there were tough times and those who have suffered from homesickness understand the exquisite pain of that particular torment. Especially as a young child. And, for talking in the dormitory, I once got a beating that I will never forget. Nevertheless, I not only survived but, as I say, I flourished.

I was once interviewed for a book and here’s an amusing Rupertswood flashback that I related as it was written up by the author …

For this record, I stayed at Rupertswood from Second Term 1955 to the end of 1958. It was a boarding-school for 150 boys with two departments – scholastic and agricultural. There was a mix of Melbourne city boys and Northern Victorian country lads. I was Michael Anthony Gleeson when I arrived and Michael Anthony Dominic Gleeson when I left, having picked up my Confirmation Name from Saint Dominic Savio. My locker was 138. I forget my house but it might have been Gold.

Showing off on stilts on (once-a-month) Visiting Day

I discovered gardening and had my own plot where I grew vegetables and sunflowers. As a pastime we learned to joust on stilts and I turned out to be fearless and blessed with good balance and often the only one left standing.

My grades were mostly unimpressive with a “could do better” theme running through my reports. But I would win all the Spelling Bees and I excelled at Poetry and Latin.

My great consolation was the liturgy. We had Mass every morning and twice on Sundays and weekly Benediction. Sung in Latin. There were lots of Rosaries, litanies and the many Feast Days of Saints. And Easter. Oh my God. It was surreal and ecstatic and a total immersion of continuous Paschal events, dazzling to behold.

The great chapel was architecturally lavish, as the Clarke mansion’s former ballroom, but not kitsch. It was painted in pastel hues and protected by a huge icon of Mary Help of Christians overlooking the main altar. It was simply a place of serene beauty on these occasions and filled spectacularly and extravagantly with tons of candles and flowers. Flowers that ran all the way round on a narrow ledge. I’ve never seen anything like it since. I always wondered who did the loving work of decoration because we kids did not. But, yes, I was an altar boy and was intimately involved in these ceremonies. I often worked the incense thurible. (I was once disciplined for doing a 360 smoke ring, to amuse the boys, when I thought the priests were not looking).

I was always the shortest kid. That’s me front right.

The Salesian liturgy at Rupertswood, no doubt imported from Italy, was, as I say, an authentic consolation, something I still miss with a great sense of loss. I’ve never encountered it anywhere, even in Rome which I visit every year. The vestments were simply magnificent. Such a range of handcrafted styles encrusted and ornamented colour themes. Never a hint of polyester. The celebrants – priests and deacons – were deeply engulfed in exemplary devotion. The altarpieces were of gold and precious-looking gems. The Monstrance was like the beaming Sun. The Latin prayer and chant and song filled us all with inspiration. The endurance. The mindset. The senses. The shared transcendence. Even then I knew it was a unique privilege that may not last forever.

But I was 10 then now I’m 74. Scanning back, in my own experience, everything changed in Australia rather too suddenly in the sixties: much of our heritage in the arts, architecture, liturgy and theoretical science all took a swan dive since then. Even Vietnam vets were betrayed and marginalised on their return home in spite of the legendary ANZAC goodwill that Australians still love to draw down on. A great deal of historic intellectual capital and hard-earned, stored-up, darwinian value was tossed away and squandered in the sixties with a disappointing return on investment.

Since the Eucharistic Festivals at Rupertswood it seems to me there has been a great diaspora. Why are the chapels empty? Where are the People of God? Perhaps they have voted with their feet. Does anyone care? Big problems that may need to be solved.

In Victoria there is still way too much animosity between Communism, Catholicism and Freemasonry. This goes back 60 years to the days of Bob Menzies and Bob Santamaria and Jim Cairns. Even, in 2020, in Pell vs The Queen, the High Court of Australia had to chastise this absurd brawl in the courtrooms of the State of Victoria. We may need to fire these narrow and negative ideas, withdraw from these tiresome and costly ideology wars. Perhaps it’s time to think outside our box.

Dear oh dear. Having got that off my chest and to balance these musings, as a scientist I know that evolution is experimental. It doesn’t always go in a positive direction. It proceeds by trial and error. It does not care about my nostalgia nor my impatience and so we can lose things along the way. But one can never go backwards. One must keep moving forward.

Today I think the two living popes may be real evidence of the Holy Spirit and the enduring Catholic quintessence evolving over time. I expect when Benedict leaves us that Francis could become a pope emeritus and then a new pope will reign. The two living popes and their range of wisdom and experience could be an example of a positive evolution going forward.

Although I never went back to visit the famous Sunbury Pop Festivals in the 70s I did go to the amazing Eucharistic Festivals held at Rupertswood in the 50s. They were the biggest events I had ever witnessed. Apparently, the biggest religious event in all the State of Victoria. We had a week of preparations and then days of cleaning up and Emu Bobs after 20,000 people descended on Rupertswood.

The legendary Dr Mannix, Archbishop of Melbourne, would arrive in his big black convertable Mercedes-Benz with a 4 motorbike police escort. He would proceed through the crowd with an entourage of Knights of Malta and there were thousands of prelates and the faithful all in a festival mood. Not to mention our own family and friends who would come to visit us boarders for the occasion.

Dr Mannix gives benediction to the crowd from the huge outdoor concrete altar

One year, although I was in the choir, I lost my voice (probably nerves) so I was appointed page-turner for Fr MacDonald who was Rector and played the spinet piano that was setup on the grass next to the great outdoor altar. Towards the end of the performance the piano which was already at a precarious angle just fell over and broke Fr McDonald’s big toe. Guess who got the blame! The kids teased me about what I ‘did to the Rector’ but Fr McDonald seemed amused and never said a word.

Crowds of 20,000+ would gather for the festival

At another time Bro Laws gave us boxing gloves and taught us basic boxing. It was not my strength at all but my mate, Johnny Famechon, took it up and became a great Champion, like his French father.

Fr Fedrigotti was the Provincial and we looked forward to his visits as he would spend time with us for hours and tell us the most spine-tingling ghost stories. They would give me nightmares they seemed so real.

He once said story-telling was an ancient tradition. Jesus told stories because his father, Joseph of Nazareth, used to tell him stories when they worked together as carpenters. He said Jesus never wrote things down but always used the oral tradition to build his church and it was still the job of his priests to go around telling stories. I knew that was an important lesson at the time and I tried never to forget it.

Recently I read where Pope Francis recounted his own experience in a Salesian school as a boy in Argentina when he and his younger brother, Oscar, were enrolled as boarders at Colegio Wilfrid Barón de los Santos Ángeles run by the Salesians at Ramos Mejía. Francis said, he found a “climate of joy and family” and the Salesians trained him to appreciate beauty, work, and cheerfulness. On a visit to Turin to celebrate Don Bosco’s 200th anniversary the pope told the Salesians, “Commending the spirit of joy of Don Bosco is your vocation.”

Don Bosco with his boys

In 2004 I heard that Rupertswood had been run, for period of years, by a group of failed Salesians and child-abusers. I publicly denounced them. It made me very sad for the boys who were molested and furious that the charism of Don Bosco and the Salesians had been desecrated. This wicked deviation was soon corrected and the good name of the college was diligently restored. But not without a great scar.

What I can say is that my Rupertswood experience was a happy and authentic one. I was lucky, at such a young age, to enjoy not only the beautiful geography but also to absorb the classical and sophisticated Salesian pedagogy that was so ahead of its time. I may not have realised all this at the time but I have had many years to reflect and benefit from the experience. It ranks as one of the two peak educations of my life. The other was the Scheyville experience which came a decade later when I was called up for the Vietnam war.

I finish this story with more of an account of my mentor at Rupertswood, Fr John Cerutti. When I was 8 he was 84. He was a dear and kindly white-haired smiling old gentleman, an Italian Salesian priest, who had been one of Saint Don Bosco’s original boys. He was like a living saint to us. I believe he was one. He did lots of magic tricks, mind-reading, lateral thinking puzzles, word games and he carved from wood and gave us his ‘Jacky’ – a multi-forked stick with little propellors that turned when you vibrated the etched wand with another stick.

A space in my library for a blackened bust of Don Bosco I found in a junk shop in Manhattan and for the broken relic of Fr Cerutti’s ‘Jacky’.

He had a walking stick with a duck head that could predict rain. He radiated the Don Bosco spirit. My great break in life came when he made me ‘his little magician’, his sorcerer’s apprentice.

He taught me the techniques and the tricks then would send me away from the crowd of boys while they huddled and settled on their secret sentence. Maybe “The train went over the bridge”. Then I would be recalled and as the boys recited a variety of options, to their amazement, I could always pick the correct one. Mind-reading! Magic!

Fr Cerutti’s not so ‘little magician’ still doing the mouse trick after all these years. The grin on the kid’s face is the happy reward. I don’t know, but my fantasy is that this mouse trick was once taught to John Cerutti by his mentor, Don Bosco, around 1880 when he too was a boy.

His ultimate trick was to make a mouse out of a white handkerchief. The kids would be impressed at first but then screamed in delight when the ‘mouse’ actually jumped on them. He taught me the trick and I’ve entertained many kids and adults ever since, here in Australia, in New York where I lived for many years, and in other parts of the world. I’ve never met anyone else who knows this trick. What fun!

My dear friend and mentor, Fr John Cerutti, is buried in the Rupertswood Cemetery and I visit him, unannounced, from time to time over the years.