Brother Francis Paulinus Bowler and St. Colman’s Central School 1929-1966.

St Colman’s Central School and CBC Parade.

This year marks 90 years since the opening of St Colman’s Central School in North Fitzroy.It closed in 1966, and throughout its existence a high proportion of its graduates went on to Parade. Given its close connection to Parade and the high calibre of the scholarship holders who proceeded to Parade, it is worth recording the purpose and achievements of the school, and its contribution to Parade, under the exclusive teaching of Brother Francis Paulinus Bowler.

Purpose of the school: junior government scholarships. Soon after the various Australian colonies had established free, compulsory and secular education, they began to establish a system of scholarships to enable the most academically gifted students to transit to secondary education. However, to gain such a scholarship a student had to attend a state school. Only after many years of appeals did the Victorian Government agree to admit students in Catholic schools into the scholarship program from 1917.In that year a scholarship class was established at St Patrick’s school, Young Street, North Fitzroy, for the purpose of preparing boys for the Junior Government Scholarship examination. By the late 1920s the State had increased the number of such scholarships and the Director of Catholic Education, with the support of Archbishop Mannix, decided to establish two dedicated “scholarship” schools; St Colman’s for boys and St Ita’s for girls.St Colman’s, named after Archbishop Mannix’s alma mater in Fermoy, Ireland, opened in 1929 under Brother Francis Paulinus Bowler, who remained the sole teacher until the school’s last year in 1966. Entry to these two schools was by gaining a Diocesan Scholarship which pupils sat for in Grade 7, leading to study at Grade 8/Form 2 at the schools.

St Colman’s over the years 1929-1966: purposes, activities, successes. Although the principal purpose of St Colman’s was to prepare boys for the Junior Government Scholarship examination, as a Catholic school it had other important purposes. It was anticipated that secondary education would lead to entry into the public service and the professions, lifting lower/working class boys into the middle class and becoming leaders in the life of the Catholic community, as well as producing ecclesiastical vocations. Right from its beginning the school’s results were impressive. As early as the end of 1933, four years after its foundation, St Colman’s gained 11 scholarships, two ex-students were training for the priesthood, and five were training to be Christian Brothers. As well, the students had won prizes in outside competitions in the Victoria League, the Lindsay Gordon anniversary, the Temperance Examination, and gained 25 Christian Doctrine certificates.Over these and later years the students further distinguished themselves with their choir singing, their prowess in sports, and their performance in dramas and verse speaking.From 1929 to 1962, among a total of 1,500 students, St Colman’s won 1,100 Junior Government Scholarship. All of this was achieved under the tutelage of one man, Brother Francis Paulinus Bowler.

Brother Bowler. Affectionately known as “Percy” to all his pupils, Brother Bowler resided at CBC Parade throughout his tenure at St Colman’s, and the majority of St Colman’s graduates went on to study at Parade, hence his strong connection with Parade. Born in 1885, he was educated at CBC St Kilda and was 44 years old when he founded St Colman’s in 1929, having taught in Sydney, Melbourne, Brisbane, Adelaide (where he was Principal of CBC Adelaide) and Dunedin.

In December 1951 the Golden Jubilee of his entrance into religious life was celebrated with a Pontifical High Mass at St Patrick’s Cathedral, attended by many senior church dignitaries, brothers, clergy, nuns, boys and old boys.In his address Monsignor Fox described Brother Bowler as “unassuming, shy, kind, but a strict disciplinarian”.In answer to a question at this time, Brother Bowler responded “If I could live my 50 years over again, I would hope to do the same thing – teach boys”.

St Colman’s closed in 1966 and Brother Bowler retired, enjoying four years of retirement before dying in 1970. He is buried in the Christian Brothers’ cemetery at CBC Parade, Bundoora.

St Colman’s: a personal retrospective. Geoffrey Coyne

Brother Bowler, the principal and sole teacher of St Colman’s, sent a letter to my mother for an interview (attached), and school commenced Tuesday February 1, 1949. My memory is that we were not given homework on this first day, but it was unrelenting after then, up to three hours per night Monday to Friday nights.

It really was a “Central” school, with boys coming from the north (Reservoir and Alphington lines), South Melbourne, Eastern Melbourne (Kew, Hawthorn), and Western Melbourne (Werribee). In my case, this involved travelling to school by the 7:30 train from Reservoir, getting off at Jolimont station and walking through the Fitzroy Gardens to Young Street, Fitzroy, where school started at 8:30 and continued to 3:30. We could also get off at North Richmond station and catch a tram up Victoria Parade. In Terms 2 and 3 we also went to school Saturday morning, 8:30 to 12:00. We carried our books and lunch in a Gladstone bag which was therefore very heavy and arduous for very young boys to carry.

Half of the syllabus was new to us - Algebra, Geometry, French and Latin – but at least I had a start with Latin having learned some of it as an Altar Boy for Mass. Our other subjects were Geography, General Science, and Christian Doctrine. We also “trained” on Intelligence Tests, which were part of the Junior Government Scholarship examination.

Brother Bowler’s teaching was marked by his vigour, vitality, and attention to detail. He engaged every student, praised outstanding work, marked our work promptly – English essays, Latin and French translations – often overnight, and stood up most of the teaching day. He was then 64. He continually exhorted us to work hard to achieve success, frequently referring to the Depression of the 1930s and how a good education was the only bulwark against unemployment and poverty in those circumstances. Otherwise we might be condemned to “wheeling smoke out of a factory”. Given that classes were about 50 pupils, and the pressure was inexorably on him to achieve outstanding results every year, it is remarkable that he was able to continue to teach with such devotion and such remarkable success for 38 years.

We were constantly under pressure to pay attention. Sometimes, when he was writing on the blackboard with his back to the class, he would suddenly write a number on the board and then block it with his hand. Then we had to put up our hand to signify that we had been paying attention and knew the number – woe betide us if we did not have our hand up, or - even worse - put up our hand but “guessed” the incorrect number. When correcting our work he might mark it with BTM (Bring to me) for further discussion, sometimes not pleasantly.

In discipline, Brother Bowler was of the old school of teachers, a sort of Mr. Chips but more motivated to see us gain scholarships and get on in later life. Discipline was rigorous, based on a) keeping us busy throughout the school day and with homework by night; b) continuous assessment daily and then a weekly report to our parents[1]; c) a constant reminder that we were the beneficiaries of sacrifices by our parents, teachers and the church; d) exhortations to work and live up to the highest standards; and e) physical punishment with the leather strap for any transgressions, no matter how “minor”.

Brother “Percy” Bowler believed in Mens sana in corpore sano and, while he worked us hard physically and mentally, he took care to relieve pressure. With a whistle blast, he would announce that it was time to run downstairs, form into teams, and play tunnel ball.

Although it was a very busy year, there were some distractions. We marched in the annual St Patrick’s Day procession, which was a very big occasion in those days. I have a vague memory of some schools holding a drama day, where St Colman’s read the section of Malvolio’s downfall in Twelfth Night from our English Literature book Drama Highway Book 4. St Colman’s also had a small library of books which we could borrow, my favourites being Biggles books.

At the end of the year our class did very well. Of the 54 boys, 36 gained Junior Government Scholarships (66.6%), of whom 30 went on to CBC Parade. Of those who did not gain a scholarship and repeated the year, at least two more were successful and progressed to Parade.

Exposure to Brother Bowler and the class of St Colman’s was my first experience of what real hard academic work was. I had spent my previous six years in four different primary schools just cruising along, always in the top group of pupils, doing as little study as possible. At St Colman’s I was surrounded by boys who were bright and motivated and I had to work hard just to keep up.

Brother Bowler celebrated the diamond jubilee of him entering the novitiate in 1961. I remember attending CBC Parade for this celebration and shaking his hand – still in awe of him.

Geoffrey Coyne. Ph.D. Class of 1949.

References and Further Reading.

Fogarty, Ronald. 1959. Catholic Education in Australia 1806-1950, pp 331-341. Melbourne University Press, Melbourne.

Naughtin, P.C. 2001. The Parade Story: A 130 Year History of Parade College 1871 – 2001, pp 185-186. Parade College, Bundoora.

Newspaper records of St Colman’s and Brother Bowler obtained through a search with Trove (

[1] We had a book with a page for each week. Each subject had a numerical mark, and Bro. Bowler wrote comments in each book each week. Every page was headed “Not failure but low aim is crime”. The book had to be signed by a parent and returned on Monday to Bro. Bowler.