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Former Catholic counsellor Brendan Scarce reveals childhood spent in four orphanages

Brendan Scarce: “I used to work with people in psychiatry and I saw a lot of young people there who committed suicide … so you get to the point where you know, ‘Just be who you are’.”

BRENDAN Scarce is well known in Catholic circles around Brisbane, but he knows what he’s about to reveal will surprise many.

“This is the day I knew I’d have to be forthright, because I’ve been hiding my background to some extent …,” he said.

“I was brought up in four orphanages till the age of 12 …”

Brendan, 76 and married for 35 years to Hilary, said “I was always ashamed, for a long time, of revealing about my orphanage”.

“For a long time I would not reveal it; I would reveal it to one or two people,” he said.

“But the last 20 or so years I haven’t worried about it so much.

“I only reveal it to select people.”

Brendan did not see his mother until he was 12 years old, and he still doesn’t know who his father is.

But he insists how much he is blessed, and he counts his years in the Melbourne orphanages among his blessings.

“That was a great time for me because I learnt my faith there and I had a lovely nun (Sr Gertrude), whom I loved, in Grade 2 and she protected me somewhat,” he said.

“And because of her love of me – and in Melbourne you had to barrack for a football team, and she barracked for Geelong, so that’s why I’m a Geelong supporter and I’ve stuck with them.

“That’s been a great gift …”

Up until the age of nine, Brendan had lived in three different orphanages run by the Sisters of St Joseph and then he was moved to the St Joseph’s Boys’ Orphanage, South Melbourne, under the care of the Christian Brothers.

He was there for the next three years.

“In Grade 6 at St Vincent’s Orphanage, when I was 11 or 12, I wrote a letter (to the Christian Brothers) and I said ‘I’d like to know who my mother is … Other people seem to have their parents come …’,” he said.

“And so my mother turned up one day, and there’d been a few letters between the orphanage and her, … I’ve got copies of the letters …

“The first time I met her was in one of those sort of parlours … and I just remember being there.

“I asked my mother about my father and she could never … she would never answer.

“That would always be irritating for her when I asked that question, ‘Who is my father?’”

After his mother’s visit, Brendan’s aunts decided that he should live with one of them.

He would have the choice on who it would be.

“My aunties came to visit me and take me out … my mother was one of six girls, so four of the aunts came to visit me and they would take me out with their husbands,” Brendan said.

“But I chose the fourth place I went to – I really couldn’t say no at that stage – and in a way it was the worst decision I ever made, because it was the most unhappiest time in terms of there wasn’t any relationship with my cousin John.

“I was so happy in the orphanage, I cried when I left, because there was a Christian Brother there who really was a father figure to me – a real good father figure.

“I was taken away from the orphanage, and then went to live with my aunty and uncle who had three children, but the one cousin (John) who was close to me in age, he couldn’t stand me.

“We were so different … I was a naive, pious boy – he was about 18 months older, and he was a bit more adventuresome and I was not, and I had religion at the back of me.

“My uncle and aunty were okay, but what helped me a lot was I was relating to the Church, I was an altar boy.

“I’d ride my bike (to go and serve at Mass) and that was a great help.

“For some reason I had an interest in religion and in the faith, because of the Christian Brother (at St Vincent’s), Br Neil.”

Brendan has fond memories of his friends at the orphanage as well.

“I had some friends from the orphanage – other boys – and I kept in contact for a little while,” he said.

“So my memory, and the memory of the other boys – three or four – was that it was a positive experience for them, and certainly it was for me.

“And that’s what I maintain to people, because when you say you’re from the orphanage, they think, ‘Oh, terrible … you poor thing …’

“That’s far beyond my experience … because I’d go back, I’d send them notes, they’d send me notes.

“My contact with the orphanage and the nuns and the brothers has been positive, and I thank God for that.

“And that helped me …”

Along with the love of Hilary and their three daughters, Brendan’s grateful for the blessing of “the Scriptures, the Church, the Emmanual Community, very importantly, and menALIVE”.

As a man who has searched for his father throughout his life, he also cherishes the guidance he’s received from a few key male mentors in the Church and in his professional life in the public service and in the fields of psychology, psychiatry and counselling.

“And that’s going to be one of my comments throughout (the book he is writing)– the good men that have saved my life in a way,” he said.

“I was never depressed, interestingly.

“I think, in my life, I’ve been depressed for about four hours …,” he said, revealing a cheeky sense of humour that also is an asset.

“When I was teaching … I trained to be a teacher and the thought of being a teacher (was a worry) …

“One Saturday I sat down at my place and I couldn’t move for four hours.

“I’ve been disappointed and dismayed but, isn’t it a blessing, I haven’t been immobilised with depression. I’ll put it that way.

“I get almost depressed when Geelong lose the grand final.”

Having wrestled with the possibility of becoming a priest in his younger years and dismissing the idea of becoming a teacher, Brendan found his niche in social work and counselling.

Now retired, he worked for many years as a staff counsellor with the Federal and State governments, was a counsellor at the Princess Alexandra Hospital for 18 years, and worked for Teen Challenge, as well as in prisons, a psychiatric centre and other settings.

“As a social worker and being a counsellor I would be able to advocate,” he said.

“In my work, in my life, I’ve been an advocate for so many, and that’s really my gift.

“I don’t make decisions but so many people have come to me who are inarticulate, who didn’t have the courage or they were frightened to speak up.

“I’ve got letters in my cabinet from professionals who were clinically sound but would not speak up for themselves so that’s what I would do – compose a letter, help compose a letter, whatever …

“And so I saw in the end, well, that’s my job – that I’d be discreet, get on well with the organisation generally speaking – I did have some massive fights – but overall it wasn’t me seeking the person; they sought me.”

That’s how he became involved with Courage, a ministry among Catholics with same-sex attraction, and with the plight of refugees and asylum seekers.

With Courage, it was Teen Challenge who first referred young Catholics to him for counselling.

That turned into an established ministry in Brisbane archdiocese.

He was also asked to visit an asylum seeker in detention, and he became an advocate for her and then for others seeking refuge in Australia.

“I am more a mentor and an accompanier to help someone. That’s my role – to encourage,” he said.

“I still deal with people who’ve been in Courage …

“I reckon they encourage me more than I encourage them because of their steadfastness, their fidelity and the struggle they have …

“I used to work with people in psychiatry and I saw a lot of young people there who committed suicide … so you get to the point where you know, ‘Just be who you are’.

“So be who you are, be who you are, I always say that.

“And one of the things I say frequently when I’m talking to people, Psalm 139, verse 14, ‘Thank you, Lord, for the wonder of my being. Thank you for the wonder of my being …’

“What a wonderful (psalm).

“For people who have poor self-esteem, I quote that psalm. It’s so good.

“’I thank You for the wonder of my being … for it was You who created my being, knit me together in my mother’s womb. I thank You for the wonder of my being.’

“That’s a marvellous psalm, that one. I often quote that.”

On the question of searching for his father, Brendan said his mother “was just so silent on it … She couldn’t cope”.

“I would ask her early on, in my late teens, about it but that was a topic you just didn’t talk about,” he said.

“Then after (a break of) about 10 years – I hadn’t said anything for about 10 years – she came up here and saw our first two daughters, and the last thing I asked her before she left, ‘Would you be able to tell me who my father is?’ and she got so upset.

“So that door’s closed enough.

“I’m just aware that I’ve had such good father figures and if I was in front of a psychiatrist I don’t think he’d say I’m projecting or defending, but that’s been my experience.”

He said in one of his mother’s letters to the Christian Brothers “she was concerned she wouldn’t have been able to care for me”, but he thanked God for the care he received in the orphanages.

He muses on the fact he was born in East Melbourne – “the MCG’s close by, Parliament and the Catholic church too – my three big interests, sport, religion and politics”.

“But the love I had, the faith … and I was given a relative gift of patience, I think (were blessings) …,” he said.

“So, ‘thank the Lord for the wonder of my being’.

“I didn’t say that until much later, but I exist.

“I exist, God help me. I exist.”

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