When collating a history of a school such as Blackfriars, one might generally think that the place to begin would be the constituency of the school and the sequence of events in the inaugural years. However, in doing this, one would overlook one vital area; those people who were responsible for initiating and developing Blackfriars – the Dominicans.
The Dominican Order
The Dominicans possess a unique history of their own and, therefore, it is appropriate that the history of Blackfriars not begin in1953 with its opening, but with the founding of the Dominican Order in1216, and especially its establishment in England not long afterwards.
St Dominic was someone who trusted in God and in the new members of his Order. While still few in numbers, he sent them out in twos and threes to preach the Gospel in the university towns of Paris and Bologna. Thus, the first Dominican educational centre was started in 1218 in association with the University of Paris. The early growth of the Order was phenomenal and indicated the great need for teaching and preaching based on the truths – veritas – of the Gospel. By the year 1221, there were 60 Dominican centres of learning established; this increased to 400 in 1270 and to 580 by 1303.
The Black Friars
The Dominicans established a House of Studies teaching within the University of Oxford early in the 13th century. It was in England that the Friars, who wear a black cloak over their white habit, became known as Black Friars. Their houses, and sometimes the districts where they lived, were called Blackfriars. In England, quite apart from modern Dominican foundations, the name has survived with notable historical associations in several places.
The London Blackfriars, which gave its name to a district and to a bridge over the Thames, was built in 1278 at the end of Fleet Street and the boundary of Ludgate. Two General Chapters were held at London Blackfriars in 1314 and 1335. Parliament was held in the great hall of London Blackfriars Priory under Edward II in 1311, under Edward IV in 1471 and under Henry VIII in 1523. In 1529, the tribunal for the examination of the marriage of Henry VIII and Catherine of Aragon was held in the same Priory. Shakespeare has Henry choose Blackfriars with these words: “The most convenient place that I can think of for such receipt of learning is Black-Friars.” (Henry VIII 2.2 129-130)
Dominicans in South Australia
The Dominicans arrived in Australia in 1898, and were entrusted with the parish of North Adelaide/Prospect. The community consisted of five priests with the first superior, Fr Robert W. Spence O.P., later becoming the Archbishop of Adelaide. From Adelaide, houses were established in most of the capital cities and then in New Zealand. In the 1950s, the Dominicans undertook mission work in the western Solomon Islands.
In the early 1950s, the Provincial at the time, Fr Mannes Cussen O.P., had spent some time as a member of the Dominican school community in Newbridge, Ireland. He was keen to see the Dominicans involved in the education of the young. Coupled with this was the need for more Catholic schools for boys as the population of Adelaide grew after the World War II. The task of finding a suitable site for a school was given to then Prior of St Laurence’s, Fr Jerome O’Rorke O.P.
A New School
In 1911, the substantial St Catharine’s property (named after his wife by Mr James Angas Johnson in 1880) at Prospect had been purchased for £4,000 by the Lewis family, who renamed it Comonella, after one of the family’s many pastoral holdings. After the death of Mr John Lewis, a generous benefactor of the Dominicans, the property passed into the ownership of his three daughters, Miss Lena Lewis, Mrs Olive Kirchner and Miss Margaret Lewis. Fr O’Rorke negotiated for the purchase of the property on behalf of the Dominicans at the end of 1951.
Fr O’Rorke then set about preparations for the new school. He sought the assistance of a builder, Mio Tosolini, Fr Bonaventure Leahy O.P. and Mr John Nelligan, with members of the local Young Christian Workers (YCW) group, who were called upon to assist in the heavier lifting and moving. The greatest expense was the construction of a toilet block and outside stairs to the newly created classrooms upstairs on the southern side of the main building. Stables and out-houses around the property were reconditioned and renovated to be used as classrooms.
On 25 January, 1953, Blackfriars Priory School was blessed and officially opened by Archbishop Matthew Beovich. Early the following month, the school opened to students on 10 February with approximately 45 boys in five classes from Grade 4 to First Year and the original staff of five Dominican priests and one brother.