Brother Columbanus Pratt FMS, 13 December 1924 - 19 February 2011
I learned on Holy Saturday from a friend in Adelaide, Australia, of the recent death of a man I had known and loved for many years, Brother Columbanus Pratt FMS. I have always had the deepest respect for religious brothers, a group whose vocation is not always understood, having been educated for ten years by the (Irish) Christian Brothers in Dublin.
Brother Columbanus - his baptismal names were Neil Richard - had a great devotion to St Columban and knew more about him than most people. On at least one occasion when he was visiting our formation house in Cebu I asked him to share his knowledge with our students. He was also a keen astronomer and spoke to the students about the stars and planets.
In the late 1980s when Brother Columbanus, or 'Brother Col', as he was known, when he was principal of Notre Dame School, Shepparton, Victoria, he brought small groups of students to the Philippines after Christmas, during the long vacation in Australian schools, where the academic year runs from Feburary to November. They attended classes in Notre Dame de Marbel in Mindanao where Brother Col had worked from 1980 till 1987 when he went to Shepparton.
A eulogy by Brother Julian Casey FSM, Provincial of the Melbourne Province of the Marist Brothers, gives one side of Brother Col:
He didn’t have much of 'a bedside manner' with students. He expected them to pull their socks up, to behave themselves, to study and work hard. The schools Col led were well ordered and organised. His assemblies were well planned, and had an almost military precision about them. At times, he would even refer to them as 'addressing the troops'. But he would encourage the student group, indicate what he was delighted with, challenge them and sometimes correct them. The externals of the school - prayer, attendance at Mass, equipment, grounds, student uniform and behaviour - were of high importance. He would brook no deviation from the standards he set. Unruly students, untidy groups, teachers not wearing a tie, careless bus-drivers and latecomers were all the subject of his censure and nobody could issue a reprimand like Col could. Not even the Brothers were exempt from his exacting ways and, from time to time, his disapproval.
I didn't see this side of Brother Col, at least not directly. The students from Shepparton whom he brought to the Philippines spent a few days at our formation house in Cebu and I saw there the great love he had not only for the students but for their parents. I saw his great pride in them and his desire that they would fulfill their potential. I visited Australia after Easter 1990 and Brother Columbanus drove to our house in Essendon, near Melbourne, to take me to Shepparton for a few days. There he took me to the homes of the students who had stayed with us in Cebu.
Brother Julian noted about Brother Col's first assignment in the Philippines: Filipino students responded so positively and in a way unlike Australian students. This brought the best out in Col: he taught with more energy; he cared for those from poor families and organised financial assistance for those who struggled. Enough, you might say. But, in fact, with up to 3000 students to choose from, Col could not resist indulging his passion for singing by starting up a choral group, the Tambuli Singers. He had them singing at public events throughout the area.
As it happens, I have two friends who were members of the Tambuli Singers and I know the love and affection with which they remember Brother Col and I know how deeply he respected and admired them. One, Asteria Pocon, lives in Lianga, Surigao del Sur, where I was parish priest from 1993 to 1994. He spent a few days with me there while on a visit to the Philippines and we had dinner with Asteria's family, all of whom are Methodists. The other mutual friend is now Sr Mary Anthony MC, a member of the contemplative branch of the Missionaries of Charity.
Brother Col was to return to the Philippines some years later as Dean of Students at the Marist Asian Center where young Marist Brothers from all over the Pacific Region continue their studies and formation. Another great friend with whom I had studied in Toronto in 1981-82, the late Brother Luke Pearson FMS, an American of Scottish and Irish parentage, had also spent some time there.
The last time Brother Col and I met was five or six years ago in Cebu City when he stayed for a few days at our house and I flew over to be with him. We had many cups of coffee, chats about cricket and religious life and many other things.
I had great affection for Brother Col. To me he was a fatherly figure. His outstanding characteristics for me were the joyful way he lived his life as a religious brother and his great love for our Blessed Mother. Brother Julian spoke of the influence of the Filipino people on Brother Col's spirituality and how he expressed his love for Mary: The affective Filipino culture helped Col to recognise and express more of what he felt: matters of the heart. It was a wonderful gift to him, attested to in his correspondence. His devotion to Mary was enlivened by his contact with the Filipino people, uninhibited and exuberant in their devotion. It touched his heart, affirmed him and he brought back to Australia a confident and explicit devotion to Mary and a positive means of expressing this. This was particularly noticeable on his return to principalship at Notre Dame in Shepparton.
Brother Columbanus was a true Australian gentleman who never lost his zeal as a Marist Brother. May he rest in peace.