Sister June Peck
(St John the Baptist Church/School in 1942, then St Columbanus and San Clemente in 1950)
Sister June Peck was born in 1938 in Toowomba. Her family moved to Newcastle when she was three as her father’s mother lived here, and her father could find work in the BHP Steelworks. They lived near Hanbury St, and as her father was Catholic (though her mother was not), she and her siblings went to Catholic Schools.
They all attended St. John the Baptist Church/School in Hanbury St, Sr June starting in 1942. St John’s was built in 1937, and consisted of a hall which could be partitioned into two rooms, with a curtain at one end which covered the altar during the school day. It was colloquially known as Snake Gully, and catered to the Infants classes of Kindergarten, First Class and Second Class. After that the children went to St Columbanus. The Kindergarten and First Class classes were combined, and June “promoted” herself early to First Class, as she found the work on the First Class side of the blackboard more interesting. The school was initially referred to as in the gully as it was below San Clemente and St Columbanus which were up on the hill. From there it became “Snake Gully” either because there were snakes in the field behind the school, or after the radio program “Dad and Dave” which occurred in the mythical Snake Gully. Children who lived closer to St Columbanus attended Infants there, and St Columbanus was referred to as ‘The Big School’.
As well as serving as a school and a church, the hall was used for Housie until it was demolished. The students regularly moved aside all the furniture of chairs and desks and opened the partition so that it could be used as a hall, then swept it and moved the furniture back.
Students used chalk and A4 sized slates with wooden borders, then graduated to pens with inkwells. Sr. June recalls that if ink were spilled on the floorboards, it would have to be scrubbed with a rock until clean.
The Sisters teaching at the school came from the Convent at San Clemente by taxi each day.
This was during the Second World War, and the BHP Steelworks made Mayfield a target. Newcastle had been shelled by a Japanese submarine in 1942, and there was genuine danger still. There was an underground air-raid shelter at St. John’s, and the students practised air-raid drills. Sr June remembers the boys hiding in the shadows of the shelter and trying to frighten the girls. There were blackouts in Newcastle, and the tops of the windows of the homes were painted black to prevent light escaping. Her family practised for air-raids at home as well, hiding under tables.
In Third Class Sr June went to St Columbanus. Her teacher gave the pupils a star for every time they went to Mass, and Sr June used to ride her bike to St John’s every day for Mass – her aim to get 6 stars every week, because mass on Sunday didn’t earn a star. This began a habit of daily Mass that continued all her life.
The St Columbanus and the public primary students clashed on the way to and from school, with the Public school pupils calling out ‘Catholics get back into your kennel’, and the St Columbanus’ pupils calling ‘Catholics, Catholics, ring the bell, while the Publics go to hell’.
After attending Primary Classes 3 to 6 at St Columbanus, Sr June started First Year at San Clemente in 1950 as a Day girl. The day girls were discouraged from associating with the boarders, but of course became good friends.
Day girls brought their own lunch and the boarders ate in the dining room. There were boarders from a very young age who went to St Columbanus, and there was a covered walkway from the San Clemente Convent to St Columbanus for them and the Sisters in the rain.
The girls played ‘basketball’ (like netball) on the big playing field. The Sisters kept cows for milk, and grazed them on this field, which made the games more interesting – needing to dodge cow pats and having the cows eat unattended lunches! There was also a large vegetable patch.
Sr June was part of the typing class which was in the basement – it was 6 pence extra. She remembers learning touch typing with a cloth over her hands. Her favourite subject was history, and she had an inspirational teacher. Whenever out of school the students wore hat and gloves, but often removed them when out of sight – they could be sure not to meet any Sisters while out, as the Sisters considered themselves an enclosed order. This meant that they rarely left the grounds, only when absolutely necessary and then in pairs, in a car or taxi. The Sisters that taught at St John’s in Hanbury St had a special dispensation to do so, and wore a black cloak to cover their headdress and habits.
The students took part in the St Patrick’s Day march in Maitland, and practised in Havelock St, with a Sister standing inside the school gates banging a kerosene drum to keep time. The students travelled to Maitland in the care of the Prefects.
Sr June was influenced in her vocation by participation in the YCS – Young Catholic Students- action group. This movement started about 1951in the Diocese, and had a branch in each of the secondary schools. There was a Sister in charge and they met once a week to read and discuss the Gospel, which was only recently available in English. Different priests attended the meeting as chaplains, and the groups from all the schools met together as well.
Sr June remembers the beautiful lawn out the front of the Convent leading to the grotto, and the lovely flower beds leading down into Fairy Dell. Very few homes had such lovely gardens at that time.
There was a small building that was a music room and a disused tram which served as an art room. St Columbanus had bought two trams to use as a tuck shop around the same time.
After sitting the external Leaving Examination at a venue in Union St., Sr June left San Clemente in 1954 and the next day began a course in Librarianship working in the Newcastle Public Library and at Mayfield library which still stands.
Sister June writes:
“While loving work, enjoying the beach, dancing at the Palais and Mayfield Catholic Social (one of the best in town) the call to religious life became very strong and persistent. So in 1957 I joined the Dominican Sisters in Sydney did, Formation (Novitiate) and then Teacher Training. As a Primary or Secondary Teacher, often as Principal, I was stationed at Strathfield, Canberra, Maitland, Tamworth, Wahroonga, Hobart and Tamworth again. During these years, I gained Arts/Education degree and Theological, Biblical Studies.
“Leadership in a Team for the Sisters came next, after which I was fortunate to become Chaplain in the women's prison. These days I am retired and am a volunteer assistant to the RE teachers of a secondary school in Sydney.
“The Centenary of San Clemente leads me to reflect on, and be grateful for the early education I received at Hanbury St, St Columbanus and San Clemente. The resources were few, the students had great spirit and the Sisters were dedicated and believed in us. All good reason to say ‘Deo Gratias’"