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Friday, 05 August 2011 00:42

Still going strong

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If Jesuit Fr Geoffrey Schneider knew that he would still be working at the age of 98, he may just have chosen another vocation, for it was the Jesuits' fierce work ethic that put him off joining the novitiate in the first place.

'I was baptised by a Jesuit, a friend of my father's, I lived in a Jesuit parish in Hawthorn, and I attended Xavier College. And so I saw a lot of the Jesuits', Fr Schneider explains.

'I thought they worked too hard, so I didn't want to join them. Then after a while I realised that whatever work you do, if you aim to do it well you have to work hard. So I thought I might as well join the Jesuits.'

Seventy-eight years later, the capacity for hard work is like marrow in the bones of this gentle, affable Jesuit, who will turn 99 in December this year. Every school day, Fr Schneider walks from his home on Jeffery Street in Milsons Point to the St Aloysius Junior School where he has an office with his name affixed to the door. Here he works as school chaplain, a position he has held for close on 30 years.

It's a caring, pastoral role that sees him hearing confessions, saying masses and teaching religion. 'We have a counsellor at the school — a couple of them - and they do the serious jobs. I do the minor jobs', he says.

But as deferential as he is, Fr Schneider concedes that he has been able to 'do some good' over the years, and says that it is fulfilling to have watched so many boys grow into adulthood.

'[The students] seem to remember me. Some of them come back to me and say, "You see those hands? You hit those hard in the days of the strap!" I taught some of these boys' fathers and even their grandfathers.'

Many of those grandfathers would have also been young, idealistic men in 1933, the year in which the 20-year-old Fr Schneider journeyed to Sydney to join the Society of Jesus.

'The novitiate was on the corner of Greenwich Road and River Road - a very busy corner now - and they had the house next door for those who were doing their studies. The motor cars weren't so many but we saw a fair number passing that street. Coming up Greenwich Road, sometimes cars broke down, and [the drivers'] language was not suitable for novices!' he laughs.

After completing his novitiate at Loyola College Watsonia in Melbourne, Fr Schneider was sent off to teach at St Louis, a Jesuit school in Western Australia which is now part of John XXIII College.

'It was very different to the Eastern states, which was a new experience for me. There were only 50,000 people in Perth at the time. And when I went to buy some boot black (polish) the man said, "Oh, I'm sorry, we've run out, all the places have run out, we're all in the same difficulty. We've got to wait until the next boat arrives from the Eastern states so we can replenish our supplies."'

Returning to Perth after his theological studies and ordination at St Mary's Church, North Sydney, Fr Schneider felt that he would easily be able to spend the rest of his life there. Young as he was — and unaware of the longevity that stretched out before him — he even found himself approving of the relative comfort in which Western Australian souls were buried.

'When I went to the cemetery I saw that, because it's so sandy in Perth, the gravedigger put in a wooden framework so that he could dig the grave and when he was finished he just took out the framework and the sand gently rolled over the coffin. In Melbourne in those days they used to shovel big clods of clay over the coffin, which I thought was very hard!'

But it wasn't long before Fr Schneider was recalled to the Eastern states, first to Melbourne where he worked at Xavier College's preparatory school and later Sydney, where he received a surprise appointment as sports master at St Aloysius College, Milsons Point.

'I had to try and teach rugby union! I, being a Melbourne person who only knows Australian Rules! Twice they allowed me to referee, but they didn't ask me again.'

In later years Fr Schneider served as headmaster of the St Aloysius' junior school before moving into the role of chaplain in 1983. During that time he noticed a discernible change in the delivery of Jesuit education.

'In my time we were switching over from Jesuits teaching all the religion classes', he says. 'We couldn't cope with the number of religion classes, we didn't have enough men. [So] the lay teachers taught religion and I came along to supplement it.'

And as he approaches his hundredth year, Fr Schneider continues to supplement his students' rich curriculum, ever grateful that he has the eyesight and good health necessary for the job.

'When the bell rings of a morning I can come across and teach religion. Thank God that I'm fit and able to work.'

This story by Catherine Marshall was first published in the Province Express.

Pathways, June 2011