My Favourite Comboni Missionary – Father Cerea

Father Cerea

Some of the priests we only rarely saw outside class. Virtually our only contact with them was when they taught us. Some of them lived mainly in the old house, which was where the Bronte sisters used to go to school and later taught.

It looked very nice and comfortable there but we generally only got in there to clean it. The library and TV room (which we didn’t get to see much) was just inside the old house as was the infirmary and Fr. Valmaggio’s surgery.

Fr. Cerea live in that part.

He taught History and Latin.

We didn’t do Latin until second year so it was only History he taught us in first year. I didn’t hit it off with him at all at first. Whenever he asked me questions I wasn’t able to answer. It was more nerves than not knowing the answer, although it was sometimes both. There were three of us, Kevin Benn was another, who were considered the dunces in the History class.

Luckily Fr Cerea had read the report from my school which was good and he frequently said that he couldn’t understand the difference in performance in his class and what he had expected from me – otherwise I might just rotted there as I had completely lost confidence.

Sent to the Front

One day, after I couldn’t answer another question he suddenly said “come up here” and he put me into a desk right at the front of the class. It was the best thing that could have happened to me. There was a sea change in my performance in History. Suddenly from being one of the dunces I was up at the top of the class.

I remembered virtually everything he said from then on and got on with Fr Cerea very well. Indeed I was sometimes accused by one boy of being his pet. He was almost like a father to me (with a small ‘f). History became my favourite subject and Fr. Cerea my favourite teacher. It pleased him a lot that I remembered everything that he said next time round.

One boy, in particular, never used to like it. He was always top of the class overall at the end of the year and was a good hard studier and it annoyed him more than a little that I avoided studying at all costs.

Extra Point

I remember one time Fr Cerea was so pleased at an answer I gave him that he said he was going to add on a full extra mark at the next test we did. I didn’t really understand about the mark. Was it an extra mark at the next class test we would get or the end of the year exams. I wasn’t sure, didn’t enquire and didn’t really care as it wasn’t a big deal to me.

However, it was a big deal to this boy. He mentioned it a few times to me saying that it wasn’t right or fair for me to be given an extra mark in a test for something I got right in the class.

He even came up to me when we were on our walk to enquire about it and whether I thought it was fair or not. I don’t think anybody else in the class cared except this boy, and I certainly didn’t care if I got an extra mark or not. What was most important to me was that Fr Cerea was delighted by what I had done and that was far more important to me than a mark in an exam.

Favourite Son

As I said, he felt almost like a father to me and I looked forward to his classes and, to be honest, he treated me like a favourite son and always smiled with great pride when I got a hard question right.

It was a very important relationship to me. I’m sure some people reading this will be thinking “I wonder if there’s something funny about all of this” but there wasn’t on either side. It was just a favourite teacher / favourite pupil relationship.

When you are living away from home at the age of eleven you need something like this. Looking back, I was very lucky. Even away from home I inherited a father. There were loads of other sad, lonely boys who never did. There weren’t enough priests to go around and many of them weren’t interested in this kind of relationship anyway.

This made it easier for Fr Pinkman, whose job in charge of the junior boys gave him close contact with the youngest of the boys in the school between the ages of 11 and 13.

Lured Into Pinkie’s Net

Perhaps if I hadn’t had that father / son relationship with Fr Cerea I might more easily have been lured into Pinkie’s net that many of the other small boys were lured into. I did want to get on with Pinkie as he was our appointed father who had to be shared by about 55 boys in the junior school. The fact that the other priests didn’t see much of us outside class made it very easy for him.

I got on pretty well with Pinkie in first year – but perhaps I wasn’t quite ready yet. The technical definition of a paedophile is someone who has sex with someone below the age of puberty. That wasn’t Pinkie as far as I know. It was under-age boys who had just reached puberty that he had an appetite for – and this fox was in sole control of the whole hen coop at St. Peter Claver College.

The boys he did lure in, many of them were very badly hurt by it even into later years of their lives. Some were never fixed.

However, there were others still who Pinkie didn’t lure but who weren’t able to have a father / son relationship with any of the priests there. The senior boys and junior boys were kept apart and led mostly separate lives, unable to talk to each other except at certain times. Some of the junior boys of eleven and twelve must have been lonely. After a while the other boys there became their brothers and so that relationship must have helped them through.

My emotions about the place are mixed but mostly positive. There were a lot of good things about it.

17 responses to “My Favourite Comboni Missionary – Father Cerea

  1. The Cerea that I remember was a small frail bespectacled man always dressed immaculately . In my time at Mirfield he taught Latin and in my early years could have taught history as well.His teaching methods were basically to bully and demean his students ,he had a cutting tongue and quick hands.The subjects he taught had to be learned parrot fashion, declensions and dates repeated and recited like some Hindu mantra.
    Cerea did have his favourites ,but only the bright lads ,he would have nothing to do with the lads who could not adapt to his teaching methods,and the constant humiliation only served to demotivate them further.Similar tactics were used in selection for the choir you were told in no uncertain terms if he thought you were not up to scratch.he would stalk up and down the chapel listening for a bum note indicating to the likely suspect to shut up.
    His 100 percent pass rate for Latin was his pride and joy, indeed if you were a border line pass or fail (like myself) you were not allowed to sit the exam!!
    I have felt the back of Cerea’s hand on several occasions,he was the only priest at Mirfield that I can remember using physical chastisement.I put this down to little man syndrome ,pick on the big lads who can’t retaliate makes you feel better,probably had a lot of hang ups from his own childhood.
    In my final years in the early 70 ‘s I remember the year below ours reducing Cerea to tears somehow they had seen through his smokescreen. I felt sorry for him, the 70’s were here the period of blind obedience was over, things were being challenged things had changed ,he no longer fitted in,junior seminaries were a thing of the past,their day would soon be done.
    I also remember sad and lonely lads ,but they never lasted more than a few weeks.What I do remember is a group of lads who were in it together, who forged friendships that have lasted decades and spand continents.
    Each of us had different experiences but we all shared a common environment .
    Great post enjoyed reading it brought back good memories .What didn’t kill you made you stronger!!

  2. My memories of Cherry are closer to Kevin’s than Gerry’s. He used fear as his main technique. He was cynical too. He also smacked me across the face on at least two occasions. It traumatized me then as it does now. He blamed his nerves. Do I have a case for retrospective abuse?…….

  3. From Jim Kirby:-
    In my opinion he was a bit of both. Psychiatrists would have had a field day. His sexuality was strange…he could be effeminate yet masculine. He shaved his arms and the back of his hands as he was very hirsute and it bothered him. He was a heavy smoker and against all priestly rules of fair play he had his favourites. Francis Locke and Aidan Berkeley were the two main ones. Gerry my memory of you and Cerea was that he picked on you in choir.

    That’s my take…..a benevolent dictator…great Latin master…i have him to thank for my knowledge which has helped on many occasions. “Familiarity breeds contempt” his favourite saying. I was afraid of him but respected him. He made a lasting impression on me to this very day. My judgement – probably a good man who meant well who had his demons but one thing he was not, definitely not, a paedo. RIP Cerea.

  4. I do remember him saying “Familiariity breeds contempt”. I don’t remember him favouring Francis Locke who was in my year. I can’t say as regards Aidan Berkeley. I don’t remember him picking on me in choir. My memories are all fond of him and they certainly wouldn’t have been if he was picking on me. I do remember him stopping me and saying that I wasn’t singing as well as normal. I said I had a sore throat. He give me a lozenge. A few minutes later I stuck up my hand. He stopped the choir and asked what it was. I said “those sweets are working” at which he and everybody else laughed. He said “I thought you were going to tell me something that wasn’t working in the choir when you put your hand up” he smiled.

  5. I agree with Deg,s post and suppose that I must have been one of “the bright lads” as I got on with him and was good at Latin.I certainly remember his sharp tongue and sarcastic manner especially with a guy called Grodetski I think whose handwriting he would copy on the blackboard to show him up.
    Deg,s,can you elaborate on the occasion when Cerea was moved to tears?
    I was in the year below you and I have forgotten.

    • Hi Peter
      AsI remember it I think that Ched had started to mellow a bit and was trying to improve his image with the lads.After all he had to compete with Hicks, Murtagh, Mculagh ect.I think that Dono and one or two others had ripped it out of him.I was not present but remember him scurrying tearfully down the corridor passed the study rooms and was told that he had a bit of a breakdown in class
      Hope that you are keeping well and that we may catch up at a reunion

  6. From Bede Mullen:-

    Jim, you’ve just brought back memories of the back of Cerea’s hands, like a werewolf’s! Very unpleasant. My recollection of him is as a severe unfriendly man who could be cruel to the boys who appeared dim and didn’t pick things up quickly. I include myself in that category. I suspect his didactic teaching style didn’t suit the learning style of a lot of the boys. His limited pedagogical understanding meant he was a one trick pony when it came to teaching. To be fair this applied to most if not all the priests who taught us.
    He was a strict disciplinarian. I remember being thrown out of choir for laughing because we couldn’t get some phrasing right after many practices.
    The only time I felt at ease with him was when I used to work in his garden round the back of the old building. I enjoyed the work and it instilled a love of gardens and gardening I have to this day.
    No, he probably wasn’t a paedo but he was a smart man and must have known what was going on.

  7. From Jim Kirby…

    Of course Bede – yes, the garden. ‘Cherry’s’ (his nick name) rose garden which is now that wonderful cemetry.

    I forgot about him as a gardener. Yes he gave me a detestation and hatred of weeding, digging and general gardening.

    I do love to sit in gardens, especially our own one when the sun shines and love colourful flowers, bees and so on – but I hate gardening and my wife does what she can. Wepay for the rest to be done and it’s a pin to get good gardeners We go through a new one every bloody year. I’m much better in the kitchen. We won’t discuss the other rooms.

  8. Of course, there was the goldfish pond. I was delighted to see that it is still there on my last visit there. Getting to go do work in Cerea’s garden rather than one of the other tasks was always one that was well liked.

    Most people had much rather do that than clean the dormitories. Some people liked to do work on the farm but I was less keen. Polishhing the corridors and dormitories wasn’t great either – but working in Fr Cerea’s garden – that was the dream for me.

  9. From Martin Murphy:-

    Well Jim (and everybody else) if I as a teacher behaved in a similar manner today I’m sure I’d be drummed out of the profession. It’s a sad admonition that in my career as a teacher I used the experiences that Cherry brought to the classroom as a blueprint of how NOT to go about the teaching/learning experience.
    Research shows that when you are frightened in the learning situation the reptilian section of your brain takes over and you just don’t absorb anything. But there was no real motivation, just fear of punishment and retribution.
    Jim you should be congratulating yourself on your Latin success. It all came from a book and he scared you into learning it all parrot fashion. If you see how present-day languages are taught you’d recognise what a poor deal we got.
    I’ve got to be careful here, as my memories of Mirfield are 90% happy ones…if not more. But the standard of education we received, in retrospect, was truly poor. It would never have survived an OFSTED inspection. How many were trained teachers?
    The education didn’t bother me then.

  10. From Jim Kirby:-

    True Martin…it wouldn’t stand todays strictures but then how different were they from other schools at that time? One thing was instilled in me though was what could be learned from books and I have been learning and reading from thence. I am sure if we had proper laboratories for sciences (physics, chemistry and biology) we would have learned a lot more as we were all fairly smart and very challenging with each other. No one wanted to be seen as a dunce…or stupid…We always challenged each other..oftentimes cruelly, showing up the one who didn’t know, miss-pronounced or miss-spelled or just miss out on a certain knowledgeable fact. It was competitive though…I remember the 4th year when there were only 9 of us…I know who was top of the class but I also know that I beat him in two subjects…However I floundered…was abysmal at maths, so my overall score came down. I thought I was totally incapable of understanding geometry and algebra and although I could add, subtract etc., I was a hopeless mathematician because of lack of understanding of what Stenico was trying to teach me about geometry, trigonometry and algebra . I changed my own self belief as I got older…One was helping my daughters with their maths homework and two was work where I became an excellent statistician of necessity working in airline fares, pro-rates, revenue apportionment, logistics and so on. The hunger to learn in these areas was instilled in a certain fear of failing mixed with ambition to be as good as my peers, if not better…I learned the basics of that at Mirfield from the like of Cherry, Gracie and my fellow in-mates. Those were some of the good things I got from there.

    • Ah Stenico,another name that brings memories flooding back.I think that Stenico was more suited to life in a closed order he never seemed to interact with anyone.He had the features of Musalini with a face that seemed incapable of any expression .The pride and joy of his life was his bike, which was coveted by most of the lads,campagnola everything!!.Where did he go on his frequent excursions?
      In class I got the impression that he wanted to be there even less than we did !!.Each word that he uttered was forced out through teeth that seemed to be wired shut,that together with a thick accent made it almost impossible to understand him.
      Asked one day to demonstrate my unrivalled knowledge of maths to my fellow protégées he threw the contents of my desk into the bin declaring that my time would be better spent sweeping the streets.I was obviously to advanced even for him to understand. Needless to say this was another o level I did not sit.
      A nice enought bloke who’s time would have been better spent on constant retreat.

  11. It has to be pointed out that not one of the priests who taught at Mirfield had any qualifications to teach. Many of them wouldn’t have received them either. Stenico would certainly never have been allowed to teach Maths with the standard of his English.

    He did not understand enough English to answer questions in it. He would angrily jab the board and say “Teez so”.

    Depsite all this it was quite a decent standard fo education that the Boys got at Mirfield. Results were pretty good at GCSE level compard to other schools.

  12. I have to say that as soon as his name is mentioned one of foreboding and anxiety come to mind. I don ‘t remember him being kind. His communication style and engagement with me was one of putting you down where you were left in no doubt of his feelings towards you.

    I always remember having to audition for the choir and from that early age you felt the cold winds of rejection. Then there was the strange time where your voice broke and instead of it being a celebratory period where you transitioned from boyhood to man you were met with you can’t sing so shut up.

    We once held a fancy dress competition in the recreation hall and I in my wisdom dressed up as Father Cerea. On the night I was awarded first prize but I still remember seeing his twisted smile. which I do not think was one of appreciation.

    Yet at the same time I can still recite smatterings of Latin which he burned into my brain – Amo, amatis etc.

    Score out of ten 2.

    • By the time I got to Mirfield (1979) Ched, as he was then known, in my really taught Latin and Italian, took the choir and tended to the garden. He had a fiercesome reputation. However, in Form 1 we didn’t get Latin or Italian so initially I only encountered him at Choir and in the garden. Its fair of say he seemed to take an instant dislike to me. As I only saw him a couple of times a week it wasn’t really an issue. It soon became one when after another lad was suspended I started to work in the Fathers’ refectory. He seemed to relish talking down to a stupid boy. That he had never taught me and was in no position to form an opinion did not seem to occur to him.

      Onwards to Form 2. In the first month ago or so he saw no reason go change his already formed opinion. To the extent that he slam dunked my head with a Latin (it might have been an Italian) dictionary when I misheard him. Given his accent not an uncommon occurrence. That I now have hearing aids might also have been a contributing factor.

      However, as boys started to drop like flies out of his classes and as I had no issues with his work he soon changed his view of me. Having said that he lambasted me and another boy in front of all the students in the chapel towards the enpersonified, when we had the temerity to shout at Fr Hicks. Looking back it was totally uncalled for and I think went some way to convincing the other lad to leave at the end of Form 2 – that and the fact he didn’t think the education was top notch.

      Still he went on frightening students. However, his attitude to me had changed as he realised I was a diligent pupil albeit one who constantly played football and didn’t take shite from others my age (amazing I was never like that in Govan either before or since)

      Towards the end of Form 3 my other died and I had to leave. I returned three times over the next two years for various reasons and the first priest I ran k to was always Ched. He was kindness personified, more so then perhaps anyone else I encountered (and that is no criticism of anyone else) anywhere. He always asked after my father and reminded me that he would be grieving too.

      I last ran I to him when I passed the VF house in Ardrossan when I was about 18 – less than 4 years after I left Mirfield. By then he would have been about 73/74. He couldn’t remember me and I think he was suffering from dementia. I might be wrong and I wasn’t as mdmrablda pupil as I thought. However, I don’t think he was the sort of person to forget someone HD saw every day for 2.5 years. Sad.

      Overall he was fierce but I can’t say I look back with anything but fondness about Ched. Still hate gardening though.

      • Hallo Donald.
        I was at Mirfield from 1969-1974 and what resonated in me about your post was when you wrote about how he was when your mother died, My father died in early 1971 when i was just 12,,,just before some Latin exam as i remember and Ched cornerd me in the corridor just before I was to go home for the funeral(not far away -we lived in Bradford) and was very kind and asking about my mother.He basically told me not to be a silly billy when i mentioned the upcoming exam.He did that typical Italian gesture…a mixture of turning your face away with an expression of having smelt something rotten,combined with a hand gesture that the Queen does when she is driving
        I have fond memories of the old bugger and I always got on with him,I remember when he threw the blackboard duster at me for something i,d said and I threw it straight back at him…
        All the best

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