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Adventurers, Emissaries and Settlers: Ireland and Latin America
27-30 June 2007, National University of Ireland, Galway

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Christian Brothers in Carrasco, Uruguay

Hugh Fitzgerald Ryan (Ireland)

Two events of considerable significance took place in Montevideo in May 1955. Firstly, the last tram of the old British transport system rattled along on its final journey to Punta Carretas and secondly, a small group of Irish Christian Brothers opened a school in Carrasco on the outskirts of the city.

To deal firstly with the British connection, bear in mind that Uruguay itself had come into existence to some extent, through British influence. For more than a century the economy was developed and dominated by British investment. The railways, telegraph service, trams and meat packing factories were owned by British companies. The River Plate Company itself was British owned. In the 1870s president Varela remarked that he felt like the manager of a great estancia, whose owner lived in London.

This influence declined after World War 1 and by the end of World War 2 Britain was in debt to Uruguay for food supplies, a debt that could not be honoured. By way of settlement all the infrastructure, much of it by then beyond repair, was signed over to Uruguay. By way of a bizarre footnote, when Uruguay and West Germany were concluding a trade agreement in the early 1970s, it was discovered to some confusion, that the two countries were still at war. Hasty phone calls between Montevideo and Bonn led to the drawing up of a peace treaty and normal business was resumed.

From the 1870s a system of public education up to and including university level, was set up on the basis that education should be both secular and free. This situation still obtains. Nevertheless, in this cosmopolitan country, denominational private schools exist in considerable numbers. More than 60% of the people of Montevideo describe themselves as Catholic, supporting 80 Catholic schools throughout 170 parishes. It was not surprising that the parents of the leafy seaside suburb of Carrasco, should want a Catholic school in their own locality.

What would have puzzled observers in contemporary Ireland was the fact that, having initially approached a group of Canadian Jesuits, they opted instead for the Irish Christian Brothers, already established in Buenos Airessince 1948. This might have been seen as preferring the foot soldiers of Catholic education to the officer class. This attitude is illustrated in James Joyce’s A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, where he compares his Jesuit teachers to the Christian Brothers in strongly disparaging terms. In fairness to Joyce, he rebukes his own arrogance, recognising the dedication and generosity of those whom he initially despised. Moreover there was no appreciable Irish immigrant community in Uruguay, unlike Argentina.

The delegation of parents to Cardinal Newman College in Buenos Aires, was impressed by what they saw and within two years, Brother Patrick Kelly received the first students into Stella Maris. Brother Kelly’s stipulations were simple and direct. The school must be Catholic; educational standards must be high, with instruction given through English; sport and physical education must be integral to the life of the school.

Stella Maris, Star of the Sea, was chosen as the name of the school. The title is taken from the Litany of the Blessed Virgin, recited each day in the Brothers’ schools at the time. Carrasco lies beside the River Plate, one of the great shipping lanes of the world. From Carrasco people could have seen HMS Bombay one of Britain’s finest ships of the line, burn to the waterline in December 1864. Onlookers in Carrasco watched the crippled Graf Spee steaming to its doom at the outbreak of World War 2. The beach at Carrasco was the first playing field and gymnasium of the new school.

The Cross and Shamrock of the school crest declare the twin origins of the school, Catholic and Irish. Former students still speak highly of the attitude of the Brothers. They see them as men who left their home, a small impoverished island, to bring the benefits of education to many parts of the world. This they did for no financial reward as they had taken a vow of poverty. They treated everyone equally and were not overawed by people of wealth and influence. Through poverty and self denial they earned the respect of the affluent.

One Director faced down the threats and blandishments of an arrogant government minister. He stood up to a similar approach from an army colonel during the years of the dictatorship, pointing out to him: "On the parade ground you are in command, Colonel, but I command inside these doors". The colonel departed in anger but returned to compliment him on his integrity.

Sometime a Brother who spoke no Spanish, would receive instruction from his pupils. Roberto Canessa, in explaining "the mystery of Christians", maintains that the education in Stella Maris was a two way process. To explain the synthesis of Uruguayan and Irish that produced a spirit of loyalty and mutual consideration, some maintained that there was a natural affinity between the Irish and the many Uruguayans who traced their descent from Celtic Galicians- perhaps a somewhat far-fetched theory. Pupils from many countries, often the children of diplomats, gave the school a cosmopolitan outlook. A former student at university in Philadelphia, was amused to hear his tutor remark that he was the first Latin American he had met with such a broad world view and an Irish accent to boot.

Daniel Etchegorry, a former pupil and member of the present board of governors, maintains that the easy-going and mercurial Uruguayan temperament combined well with the doggedness of the Irish Brothers. "The Uruguayan is laid back. He is inclined to throw in the towel too easily. The Brothers taught us to struggle, to fight for what we want and never to give up." To an Irish observer, more used to comparing ourselves with Anglo Saxon attitudes, this can come as a bit of a surprise. Compare the adage: The Englishman says that the situation is serious but not hopeless, whereas the Irishman sees it as hopeless, but not serious.

Rather unusually, given their support for the national games of Ireland, the Brothers decided to make rugby the main school sport-and this in a country that boasts of twice winning the soccer World Cup. Futbol is the great sport of South America. In 1955 Pelé was the rising superstar of Brazilian soccer. It was for this very reason that the Brothers chose rugby. They did not want a game that produced superstars, where the team existed merely to serve the star players. They maintained that rugby encouraged solidarity and teamwork, all striving together towards a common goal. In this they succeeded. The past pupils formed the Old Christians Rugby Club, closely associated with the sporting life of the school. A painting by Iturria, a former pupil and a leading Uruguayan artist, hangs over the fireplace in the clubhouse. It depicts a "generic" Christian brother, looking down benignly on his former charges. The shamrock flourishes on the club crest. However the passion for rugby by no means excluded the cultivation of other individual talents and interests among students in the fields of art, sport, music (including traditional Irish music and dance), literature and many others.

This amalgam of influences is seen nowhere more clearly than in the aftermath of the plane crash in the Andes in 1972. A plane carrying a team from Old Christians, crashed on its way to Chile. The story is recounted in the book, Alive and in Death in the Andes, by ‘Nando Parrado. The 16 young men, some as young as nineteen years of age, who survived the crash and the subsequent avalanche, subsisted for 72 days on the flesh of the 29 bodies preserved in the snow. Rescue was effected by helicopter after Parrado and Canessa undertook an astonishing journey over some of the highest peaks of the Cordillera.

Their account of this ordeal excited incredulity and condemnation in some quarters. Stella Maris became the focus of attention for the world’s media. Significantly the survivors, on returning to Montevideo, consulted their former teachers before speaking to the media gathered in the school gymnasium. They told how discipline and their religious faith had kept them from giving in to despair. Canessa said that if he had died it would have been while walking forward, one agonising step at a time. Alfredo Delgado asserted that they felt very close to God on the mountain. They awaited His intervention. They anticipated the eagerness of the media for a story of shock and horror. They asked the brothers what they should say. The Director, Brother John McGuinness replied simply: "Tell them the truth."

The Brothers waited outside. The young men gave a frank account of their experience. They said that they prayed together and made a pact that if anyone should die, the others could use his body to keep themselves alive. Delgado took the microphone. He compared their action to that of Jesus Christ, who gave His Body and Blood to nourish us all.

There were no further questions. The Brothers outside in the corridor heard the spontaneous outburst of applause from the hard-bitten representatives of the world’s press. In that moment they knew that they had done their work well.

The school, now co-educational, goes from strength to strength. It occupies a central role in the life of Carrasco. Canessa remarks that he has been asked about eating human flesh everywhere in the world except in Carrasco. Carrasco draws together in solidarity. Its graduates have taken leading roles in Uruguayan life and have represented their country in many fields throughout the world. The last brothers left Stella Maris in 1998. At a time when the Order has suffered many vicissitudes and has seen a decline in numbers, they can take great pride in their achievements in Stella Maris and the indelible mark they have left on their adopted country, where they are remembered with enormous affection and respect.

To leave the last word to Roberto Canessa: "We think we don’t need God nowadays because we are too comfortable, but when you are on the mountain, it’s a different story."    

Online published: 24 April 2007
Edited: 07 May 2009

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