A SPORTS injury that blocked his road to the Rome Olympics, a Christian Brother who offered him a “free ticket to Heaven” and a persuasive aunt all played a part in Br Chris Pritchard’s vocation story that’s spanned 60 years.
Br Chris, a key man at St Patrick’s College, Shorncliffe, was well on his way to representing Rhodesia (modern-day Zimbabwe) as a swimmer at the 1960 Olympics in Rome when injury ruined his dream.
Now into his 70s, Br Chris has been keen on sport all his life, but he said swimming would have to be his favourite “in the sense that I was knocking on the door for the Olympics (representing Rhodesia) in 1960”.
“My time would’ve given me possibly a third or a fourth at the Rome Olympics, but I got injured just before the final (selection) trials, so I didn’t go …,” he said.
“And so it actually happened that eventually I went to (join) the Christian Brothers (instead).
“Maybe the Lord said, ‘We’ll take you this way and not that way …’,” he laughs as he considers what might’ve been.
“I mean, who knows what would’ve happened if I’d have gone to Rome …”
Back in the classroom, instead of in the pool in Rome, it was a Christian Brother who was to change the direction of young Chris’ life in just two weeks.
“One of our brothers, the RE teacher, got sick and so he disappeared for a few weeks, and we had a Brother – his name was Valentine Johnson – and he came and gave us lessons for two weeks,” Br Chris said.
“He really was good, and he had hundreds of stories … I don’t know whether he was following any syllabus or anything.
“And then he finished up by saying, ‘To be a brother, is a free ticket to Heaven …’
“And I thought, ‘Free ticket to Heaven? … Nobody else can promise you that …’
“I was riding home (that afternoon) – and I can almost see the spot; it was an S-bend – and I went around the S-bend, and it sort of clicked …”
That was the moment he started thinking seriously about becoming a Christian Brother.
“Dad was sort of non-committal (on the idea); (and) Mum was very much against it because ‘men are not teachers …’
“And I said, ‘Well, I’m in a school with all men, you know …’
“And then my aunt came (to visit), luckily, just for a holiday and she talked (to them) and that changed it over, and then I got interviewed (about joining the brothers), and they said, ‘You’re off next year (to start training with the brothers) – in two or three months’ time …’”
That was the decision he made in his last year of school and he left to join the brothers at the age of 18.
Br Chris said it was “that carrot – (being told) ‘if you want a ticket to Heaven, if you want a free ticket to Heaven, join us’” that made it “click” in the decision-making.
“I thought, ‘oh well, I’d seen the brothers around (at school in Bulawayo, Rhodesia) for a number of years and they didn’t seem to be too bad, and some of the brothers were good at coaching and sport and all that type of thing’,” he said.
“My knowledge of the brothers’ life was almost nil but I think in my final year there was one of the brothers there – Berrick Maher – and he was a very good man, a very holy man, and he was sick and I used to go up to the hospital to visit him on my way home – maybe three or four times a week.
“I think that might’ve triggered it off. Who knows?
“I was a regular altar server so I presume that might’ve built things up as well.”
Whatever it was that lured him, he was called into a way of life he came to love, and now he is one of few Christian Brothers still serving in schools in Queensland.
He’s the only brother at St Patrick’s College, at Shorncliffe, on Brisbane’s northside, and is in his 22nd year there.
His journey across the globe began when he left Rhodesia at the age of 18 and headed off to Stellenbosch, 50km east of Cape Town, to begin his training with the Christian Brothers.
It wasn’t all smooth sailing from Stellenbosch to Shorncliffe though.
In 1979 he was appointed principal of St Bernard’s, Bochabela, outside Bloemfontein, in South Africa.
The following year there was a student uprising and all the schools in the area closed from May till the end of the year.
“As I was the principal, I was there subject to being shot, so literally from May to the end of the year every day was a challenge to get in alive and get out alive,” Br Chris said.
He managed to lead the school through a turbulent time before his eventual transfer to Australia.
“I would say I really got through it purely on prayer … lots of it,” he said.
“The Lord was good … There were three distinct occasions when I could’ve been killed, but He was there.”
Br Chris arrived in Australia in 1982, and his first posting was to St Laurence’s College, South Brisbane.
He went on to teach at Christian Brothers’ schools around Queensland – St Teresa’s Catholic College, Abergowrie, near Ingham; St Mary’s, Toowoomba; St Brendan’s, Yeppoon; and then-Mount Carmel College, Charters Towers.
That took him to 1998 when he was appointed to St Patrick’s, Shorncliffe, and he’s been there ever since.
Br Chris said that, as a Christian Brother, he’d been “very fortunate living in good communities”, including the eight-man community he was part of today.
“They’ve been good men everywhere I’ve gone,” he said.
“I really believe that. They were prayerful people, and I became more prayerful and so on.
“I’ve had very good example all the way through, so that’s been a big advantage.
“As a religious, you’re dedicated to God – so that’s the first thing – and, with God, you’re dedicated to the Church; and, with the Church, you’ve got the spreading of the Kingdom and so that brings this whole aspect of the Liturgy, and the brothers say the Office and then there would be prayers and inspiration.
“I’ll be truthful, I’ve never really questioned why I’ve stayed (in religious life). It’s just that I’ve stayed, and the Lord is good, you know …
“Yes, there’s general contentment, and I must confess, like Pope Benedict XVI said, ‘I’m never alone …’
“I’ve never felt lonely, … over the years, I haven’t felt lonely.”
Being the only religious left at the Shorncliffe college doesn’t bother Br Chris either.
“I don’t question it as such,” he said.
“The students and the staff know that I’m a brother, and it’s always ‘Good morning, Brother …, Yes, Brother … Three bags full, Brother …’
“So, like St Francis of Assisi said, ‘We’re going to give a sermon …’ and his companion said, ‘Well, we haven’t said anything …’, and St Francis said, ‘But we’ve given the sermon by our presence …’
“And a number of years ago, that was one of the big things they were pushing (in the brothers and at St Patrick’s) … about the presence in the place (and it’s importance).
“So what effect it has I don’t know but I do know there is an effect, and I leave that to the Lord to work out …,” he said.