of "the little school that could"
Mr. Alan Charlton began teaching at Notre Dame in 1964, and remained a beloved and much esteemed member of staff until his formal retirement in June 2017.
He penned the following retrospective for the 65th anniversary of Notre Dame; until now, it has only ever appeared in the 2017-2018 Yearbook.
The challenge of summing up sixty-five years of Notre Dame’s history is certainly far greater than I can meet. Apart from the fact that for over a decade after the school’s opening, I had only a passing acquaintance with the school, there is the further problem that as I think back to what Notre Dame has meant even in my limited experience of the school, far too many memories come flooding in for me to record even a fraction of them – and that, despite the reality that at 83 I know my memory is not what it used to be.
However, there is one thing common to almost all those memories, and that is the fact that they are associated with the many wonderful individuals who contributed so much to the school. As I embark on this inadequate memoir, I am conscious that, while mentioning many individuals whom I recall fondly for their work in promoting Notre Dame Regional Secondary School, I will inevitably upset some because I have omitted the names of others who were equally important. No slight is intended; It would take a far better memory than mine and a far longer account to include them all, so I ask for understanding and forgiveness if I have not included reference to anyone who deserves as much recognition as those whose names I have included. So, with all its inadequacies, the following are my recollections of Notre Dame.
I first visited the school in 1957, shortly after emigrating from England. At the time it was still decidedly pristine and quite glossy in appearance. I remember being particularly impressed by the library and recall that I was delighted to see a copy of Prescott’s The Man on a Donkey on the shelves; it remains one of my favourite novels, though I do wonder if any student ever bothered to check it out.
Most importantly, even before I arrived at Notre Dame as a teacher, I was aware of the enormous impact that the Sisters of Charity of Halifax had on the achievements of Notre Dame. Their presence made the school possible since the order treated the Vancouver Archdiocese as “mission territory”. When I started teaching at the school in 1964, there were ten sisters on staff and three lay teachers (Al Blesch, Phil LeDoux and myself). While we men were being paid a decidedly low salary, it was a princely amount compared to that of the Sisters, each of whom received $50 a month, while the Principal received $100. In fact, the entire annual school budget at that time was $65,000. With a population of 350 students, most of whom paid the yearly fee of $100, it was clear that the school only survived because a widespread faith in the value of Catholic education could keep it open.
Indeed, in those early days, what most impressed me was the spirit of sacrifice and generosity that was evinced by so many in the community. Things were so financially tight when I first came on staff, that we had to obtain special permission from Father Joe McInerney, the Executive Director of the school, to purchase an electric kettle for the “staff room” – in reality a storage room where the lay staff shared space with old volleyball uniforms and an unused tabernacle.
I remember that when mounting my first play (a one act murder story) the stage lighting consisted of two table lamps. When I mounted my first production of Our Town in 1966, I was able to stretch the budget of $100 because the private company, “Watt’s Costumes”, which had no connection with the school, and “Riverside Lighting” – again, no connection with the school - rented us all the costumes for $10.00 and the lights for $25.00, so firmly did they believe in the value of High School drama; the actual operation of the lights was only made possible because the late Bob Brassington cobbled together a dimmer board from spare parts. Later, Norbert Doyle generously contributed lumber and Louis Valente donated paint and wallpaper for sets.
It was the financial difficulties under which the school laboured that impelled Father McInerney to institute Notre Dame Bingo. Archbishop Carney, for as long as he was Archbishop, enthusiastically supported the school which he regarded as “the flagship of the Diocese”, and reluctantly agreed to the concept. Bingo was, in fact, something of a setback for school life in that it had to be held on Saturday nights so as not to conflict with parochial bingo sessions; however, everyone recognized the necessity and so for many years parent participation for countless dedicated parents (and often their reluctant Notre Dame student children) required them to come in Saturday afternoon for set-up, in the evening to conduct the games or on Sunday morning to get classrooms, cafeteria and gym back into order for school to continue.
It was a problem, but not only did it keep the school on a sound financial basis for many years, but, as an unexpected benefit, it also gave families a sense of ownership of the school, but It also meant that the school was able to be less of a financial burden on the feeder parishes as it no longer had to turn to them for a multitude of expenses which it could now pay for itself. Of course, the parishes still generously subsidized students (as they do to this day) to aid them in attending the school. In fact, the participation component completed at Bingo allowed many families to send their students to Notre Dame when otherwise it would have been too expensive. Eventually, of course, bingo lost its appeal – a younger generation was not interested and casinos proved to be a bigger gambling attraction. However, many former Notre Dame parents and students will doubtless recall smoke-filled rooms and bingo participation.
There was then, as now, a tremendous Notre Dame spirit – a spirit which was perhaps best symbolized by the fact that football became synonymous with the school, even though the “field” had a surface composed of dirt, rocks and the occasional valiant dandelion. The students celebrated its athletic achievements by supporting their teams; although the population was less than 400, several hundred would show up to cheer on the Jugglers, especially on Friday nights at Empire Stadium. And nothing made the community prouder than the first football victory over Vancouver College in 1968.
Nor was the students’ contribution only in the field of sports and drama. Many alumni still fondly recall the Notre Dame Film Festivals, when the entire school watched 16mm. version of classic films for two days. Not only did they have to critique them, but a dedicated few members of the student body had to black-out classrooms, move projectors around, rewind films for second showings, and splice stock together when the projectors “ate-up” the film. They worked for hours before and after school to organize and prepare for the event. In fact, in those days, for many students the school constituted most of their social lives; if something was taking place at the school, they were all there. Virtually every student, for example, attended at least one performance of a school play, and school concerts, then called “Notre Dame Nights,” commanded standing room only.
What seems amazing in retrospect is that the school gym, today the Father Joe Cuddy Auditorium, served as gym, theatre, fashion show venue, assembly hall, and exam room. In order to fit play rehearsals into the schedule, they took place at 7:00 p.m. after the last volleyball or basketball practice. Until a weight room was constructed, rehearsals could not begin until the weights had been moved from the centre stage to the wings. It was not unusual, when the school mounted three major productions a year, for a multitude of students to be involved in activity at the school from early morning until ten o’clock in the evening. I remember vividly in 1971 students came in at 10:00 p.m., after Bingo, and erected sets for The Miracle Worker, completing the work at 7:00 a.m. so that rehearsals could begin later that day. Frequently, football, basketball and volleyball players transitioned from sports practice to rehearsal. Some brought dinner to school; others indulged in a “Frank’s Special” burger at the Brig.
Throughout it all, despite the economic difficulties and the challenges posed by the rather inadequate facility, the school continued to grow in strength and size. A series of dedicated principals, Sister Alice Michael, Sister Margaret Therese, Sister Martina Marie, Sister Katherine Nickerson, and Al Blesch fostered a spirit of pride in the school. Nor can one omit honouring the contribution made by Father Somerville, the dynamic young priest who not only fostered a spirit of enthusiastic participation, but who also found time to act as an assistant football and basketball coach.
As a result of the sacrifices made by so many, gradually the building was enlarged by the addition of a cafeteria, temporary portables which eventually became so permanent that they were dubbed the Annex, and more portables. Over the years, the school population continued to increase in size. In 1966 a Grade 8 was added, and enrollment in other grades also rose.
On a sadder note, the number of Sisters on staff slowly diminished, though those who remained left an indelible mark on the students. When they get together, many of those students still fondly recall those dedicated women, among them Sister Francis Elizabeth, Sister Regina Marie, Sister Francis Xavier, Sister Cecilia Clare, Sister Cecile Marie, Sister Cecilia Rooney, Sister Madelaine Gertrude, Sister Eleanor Ballantyne, Sister Marilla, Sister Bernice Vetter and Sister Joan Butler. Of course, though she was a Sister of St Anne, none had a greater impact than Sister Josephine Carney. It was a sad day and the end of an era when the last of the Sisters, Sister Helen Stewart (“Nellie” to most), left the school in 1990.
Though they are fondly remembered, the Sisters were frequently the target of practical jokes as, for example, when a Playboy centre-fold was attached to a wall map and embarrassingly revealed when Sister pulled the map down; or when a Sister on April Fool’s Day walked into a classroom filled with an enormous tent; or when a class of students “invented” a student and dutifully passed in typing assignments for that student who thus proved to be the only one in the class who had completed all his work. But while the students played practical jokes on them, the Sisters established a cherished place in the hearts of their many students.
Throughout all these challenges of finance and resources, the school continued to thrive. Under the leadership of Principals Phil LeDoux and Mike Cooke, the size of the student body increased and, with it, the need for more and more teachers. Despite the salaries being considerably lower than those in the Public Schools, the school never failed to attract dedicated men and women who generously gave their time to the students. More and more extra-curricular activities were added to further the development of the students. Fortunately, despite the loss of the Sisters, the balance of the sexes on staff was maintained, as many wonderful women followed in the footsteps of Sandra (Pothier) Patrick, the first laywoman to join the staff in 1965.
It has always seemed amazing to me that Notre Dame could attract such dedicated teachers. When, as I often do, I meet up with alumni, inevitably the conversation turns to reminiscing about the past and I am reminded of what a positive impact those teachers had; names such as Mary Blake (R.I.P.), Joe Ferrara, Margie Collins, Connie Owen Liz Smith and Linda West are remembered fondly. The sense of loss felt by the Notre Dame community that marked the passing of people such as Don Modjeski, Connie Arcand, John Brassington, and Casey Kozdron was real and profound. They contributed enormously to making Notre Dame a school of which the vast majority of the alumni were proud.
Always, too, the generous efforts of the members of the Education Committees made school improvements possible, though just how long their efforts and the sacrifices of the parents would have allowed the school to remain open is debatable. Here again, it was the tireless work of dedicated individuals who kept Notre Dame operating, people such as Bill Birkett, Alex Gray, Rose Kamm, Rita Gowans, Irma DiTosto, Natalie Gutenberg, Connie Hughes and Elmer Proznick. Fortunately, in 1978, the Provincial Government at last started giving financial support to Independent Schools. Though at first, it was only 33% of what was spent on students in public schools, it was enough to help Notre Dame remain open and to continue to grow.
And grow it did. In the ‘70’s and ‘80’s, Notre Dame became “the little school that could”. Dedicated coaches, such George Oswald and Bill Cole, building on the firm foundation of coach Al Blesch, in football, and Don Modjeski and Mike Cooke in volleyball, made the school a power-house of sports. At the same time, the school gradually adapted to the demands of the time, most especially under the leadership of Peter Vogel, who brought computers to the school and who patiently introduced a nervous staff to these mysterious machines. He also pioneered the much-applauded Bridge Building competition, inspiring a large number of students to consider careers in engineering. In order to make such progress possible, the building at the end of Parker Street, formerly the convent, was adapted to house the school library and a computer room, where temperatures often approached the tropical.
Slowly, too, as the students forgot what typewriters were and became accustomed to Chromebooks, the staff moved from spirit masters (which left their fingers purple) to Gestetners (which left their fingers red with correcting fluid), to photocopiers (which still today leave the teachers scarlet with frustration as the machines constantly break down). In a similar vein, teachers moved from green chalk boards to white boards and eventually to “smart boards’. However, any teacher who was deluded enough to think that technology would make life simpler probably yearns for the days when report cards consisted simply of a small card for each student on which, for each subject, was recorded the percentage achieved and a four word comment – a far cry from the complexity of today’s report cards.
Of course, all of this put greater and greater demands on the support staff. Mrs. MacAulay, the receptionist who greeted me in 1964, worked only in the mornings and had to manage with a recycled cigar box for a cash register. Slowly as the school grew in size, things got more and more demanding. Bobbi Duncan, Barbara Gramuglia, and Pauline Rugge had to keep up with an evermore complex situation, This gradually metamorphosed into the four-member office staff of today, which requires not only a receptionist, but also Maureen Grant, the Office Manager, and Sylvia Martin to deal with the practicalities of an annual budget which has grown to one of several million dollars annually.
As Notre Dame continued to advance, it became clear that something needed to be done to provide the students with a suitable facility for the 21st century. The old building was beginning to show the ravages of time, despite the heroic efforts of the marvellous handyman, Viktor Perovic. It was obviously inadequate to the demands of modern education. What had been regarded in 1953 as a “state of the art” facility, designed to last thirty years, had clearly passed its “best-before” date. Though a new gymnasium was opened in 1988, relieving some of the pressure to accommodate the ever-increasing number of school activities, it was clearly not enough.
Once again, it took a number of dedicated individuals to do something about it. They were led by Principal Mike Cooke, who in 2001 called together a group of alumni, experts in construction and financial management, and dedicated to the school. He challenged them to build a new school. Little did they realize how challenging the task was going to prove to be.
However, because of the many years of dedication of Bill McCarthy, who bravely undertook leadership of the project, and the continuing efforts of the members of the Building Committee supporters, including Pat Waslen, Rob Delazzari, Richard Busse, Piero Ferronato, Norm Grdina and Eva Zanatta, it was, after ten years of struggle, brought to fruition. Special mention must be made here of Father Joe Cuddy and Father Joe Ponte, Archbishop’s Representatives; their spirited support of the new building helped make it possible, while Archbishops Exner, Roussin and Miller and the priests of the ten supporting parishes gave it the financial support it needed. The result is the superb building which the students of today are fortunate enough to attend - a building which is truly “state of the art” and which will doubtless last for another fifty years.
It took fifteen years for the new Notre Dame building to be completed, though at time of writing, the glaring incompletion of the field remains as a reminder that in a real sense the school has always faced the need to grow.
It has always responded to the needs of the students. Sometimes it did this in unexpected ways, as for example when Bob Corcoran, in addition to proving to be a superb Science teacher, offered a course in gourmet cooking to enthusiastic students. Meanwhile, the school’s Athletic Department expanded enormously in its endeavours. Bill Cole fostered wrestling teams for both boys and girls, while Christine Gervais, in addition to doing outstanding work as Academic Counsellor and coaching several teams, added golf to the list of athletic teams. This list, of course, was also expanded with the introduction of Field Hockey by Tom Hawthorn and Boys and Girls Soccer teams under the direction of Harry McGrath and Frank Riccardi, while the ever-zealous Eileen Brassington ensured over many years that not only was the school tradition of athletic excellence maintained, but also that the gymnasium and all the activities taking place there remained a well-organized and well-maintained facility.
Rob Viens, in addition to accompanying school musicals, started a music program, and thanks to the enthusiasm of Mike Cooke, a band program was initiated and flourished, building on the talents of Ethan Shoemaker and especially Dr. Dean Markel. Thanks to the ongoing efforts of those who have followed them, Band is still one of the great sources of pride at Notre Dame.
In the field of Fine Arts, teachers like Mary Moore and Roberta Marghetti introduced Art to the curriculum, while Simon Isherwood added to the performance aspect of school life by considerably expanding the Choir and introducing the Show Choir to the curriculum. The former Home Economics course has been developed into Textiles and Foods and Nutrition classes by Lucia DeCotiis, Jessica Isherwood and Catrina Luongo. Andrew McCracken started an Outdoors Club, an ongoing challenge for young people to engage with the natural beauty of British Columbia.
The result is that the school today offers a formidable array of activities to the students – all under the sponsorship of a dedicated staff which superbly maintains the vibrant Notre Dame traditions of ever-increasing excellence. As ever, a staff, which now has risen to sixty in number, continues to embody the spirit of Notre Dame in their hard work and dedication.
Nor is the spiritual life of the students ignored. A series of Chaplains, a number of faith-filled teachers, and the priests of the feeder parishes have fostered the religious life of the students. It has been a privilege for me to attend school masses and to note an ongoing series of retreats, with the Religion Department continually striving to find more and more effective ways to engage the students in the practice of their faith.
Thus, the school life embraces such activities as Living Rosaries; Penitential Services; Remembrance Day Services, this latter under the direction of Richard Scott and Simon Isherwood; the Pro-Life Club, particularly for many years enthusiastically promoted by Richard Whalen; Student Outreach programmes, including supporting The Door Is Open, led by Andrew Mornin. These spiritually based activities have always been a defining part of school life. and constantly remind the students of the main reason that the school exists: to foster the Faith of the students it serves.
There is, happily, a symbolic marking of this tradition in that the beautiful simplicity of the new chapel is fittingly completed by the statues from the old chapel. Indeed, this spiritual aspect of school life reminds me of why I and so many other teachers have been privileged to be part of the staff -- to foster Catholic education and to help develop the spiritual life of the students.
And what of the future? I am confident that Notre Dame will continue to prosper. Here, special thanks must be extended to the indefatigable Joe Dardano and the generously dedicated Eva Zanatta. The former as the school’s fundraiser and the latter as the essential part of the Notre Dame Foundation have worked hard and successfully to help reduce the school debt. It now remains for the entire community to get behind the drive to finance the very necessary adjunct to school life: the planned football field.
As I believe the foregoing makes clear, the school has always tried to address all aspects of the students’ lives: spiritual, intellectual, social and physical. It must be seen, then, as essential that the field be made available for the students. I am, therefore, confident that the community will find the funds to complete the field, just as it has united in the past to meet all the challenges that the school has faced over the last 65 years. Taking as their example the dedicated efforts of generous individuals in the past, I am sure that the support of the entire community will be forthcoming.
Notre Dame will continue to be the great educational institution that it has always been and of which I regard it as a privilege to have been a small part. Society may change; educational requirements will develop; students will require different supports and services. As technology develops, especially Artificial Intelligence, it will be necessary to ensure that students learn how to develop creative and critical thinking skills; they will have to be taught how to adapt to a world in which machines replace humans, in which the complexity of a developing world will require that they know how to analyze, criticize and to embrace ever-changing realities. It will be no easy task for schools to prepare them, but undoubtedly Notre Dame will continue to adapt as needed and will continue its work as a great educational institution.
As I have let my mind wander over the past and bring to the surface so many memories, it is painfully apparent that not only have I omitted the names of many parents, teachers, and friends who made Notre Dame possible, but I have made no reference to the contribution made by specific students, who, while they attended Notre Dame, contributed so enormously to the life of the school.
This omission is deliberate as it would be impossible to name all those who, among the thousands I have known and worked with, made a special contribution to school life. Rather than name some, I have chosen to name none (unless they returned later in other roles). They know who they are, as do their fellow students. The school existed to serve them; it flourished because in turn they lived out the school’s philosophy of “Know, Love and Serve”. The school owes them an enormous debt, and I am forever grateful that I had the pleasure of working for and with them.
One group of former students I must acknowledge in a special way. A special place in my heart belongs to the Executive of the Alumni Association. Mike Cooke, shortly after assuming the role of Principal, wisely saw that a thriving Alumni Association was an important element of school life. Laurie Marconato, Bruna Pizzolatto, Mike Blackstock, Stephanie Blesch, Lana Tesan, and Diane Boroevich twenty years ago agreed to form an Executive, aided by Eva Zanatta as Representative of the Notre Dame Foundation and joined more recently by Joe Dardano, Sue Cirillo, Victor Sira, Cindy Wohl and Jeremy Wong. All these years later, they continue to publish regular newsletters and put on the annual Trivia Night (the main source of Alumni funds). They provide a kind of glue which helps former students keep in touch, organize class reunions, and learn about the school. They for me have become an essential part of the rich tapestry of Notre Dame life. In a special way they epitomize what Notre Dame means for me – a loving, caring, enthusiastic and generous community.
I cannot end this rambling memoir without expressing my thanks to the several Administrators who have so patiently tolerated my own decidedly eccentric and non-conformist approach to teaching. I have already mentioned the many patient Principals, but I must also acknowledge the part played by Vice-Principals – Tina Robinson, Harry McGrath, George Oswald, and Ralph Gabriele. The current Administration, Principal Roger DesLauriers, and Vice-Principals Dennis Pavan and John Tagulao, enthusiastically supports all of the school’s multitude of endeavours. They, together with the marvellous staff and backed by the Archbishop and the dedicated members of the Education Committee and the ongoing support of the Pastors of the feeder parishes, guarantee that Notre Dame will continue as I fondly and happily remember it – as a wonderful community of a multitude of people who have been willing to go the extra mile to make sure that the school continues to flourish and offer a well-rounded Catholic education to its students.
As I conclude, I am above all aware of the joy it has been for me to work in the Notre Dame community, the thousands of people who provided the context in which I worked for 52 joy-filled years. Truly, Our Lord has blessed me through Our Lady of Lourdes. I pray that such a blessing will continue to strengthen all those involved in the special work of Notre Dame Regional Secondary School.