Br Mark Needham 60 Years a Marist

 

Mark Needham 350
“The great rewards of being a Marist Brother,” says Br Mark, “are the many connections that I’ve made with the kids I’ve taught; the parents and staff in different places I’ve been; the many fantastic times immersed in community life; and the times when I could see that I’d made a positive impact on a young person’s life.”
 
“Professed life,” he says, “has opened doors to a diverse range of opportunities and experiences.”  As a Marist Brother and trained teacher, Br Mark has worked in remote Australian communities, such as Broken Hill and Alice Springs. He has also worked in education in Papua New Guinea and Marist formation in Fiji and the Philippines, which he recounts as deeply rewarding learning experiences.  
 
“Being a Marist has given me those experiences where, for example, I was confronted by poverty, it spurred me on to try to do something to make a difference and it challenges one’s own lifestyle. Religious vows offer the freedom to go anywhere as needed, often where others can’t go,” says Br Mark. 
 
Brother Mark also appreciates the educational opportunities he has had by virtue of being a Marist.  He has a Bachelor’s and Master’s degree in Education, two Graduate Diplomas in Religious Education and is accredited in Clinical Pastoral Education.
 
“The high point for me professionally,” says Br Mark, “was my time as Principal of a small, disadvantaged school in Broken Hill (1983-1987).  Traditional approaches to learning weren’t working, so after much research, we decided to vertically stream Years 8-10. Students did courses according to interest, need and ability. A unit was one period a day for ten weeks, and students were consulted about which courses they did. The result was that in two years, morale greatly improved and students achieved at a much higher level. Doing large scale musicals also helped as students made the set, did the marketing were able to control the lighting for example, so a real community activity.” 
 
Brother Mark’s parents were staunch Catholics; he would often accompany his father to morning Mass before school. He was an altar server and was involved in Parish life, yet it was the life of a Marist Brother that he was drawn to.  “I felt a calling, of course, but there was that influence from the Marist Brothers themselves,” says Br Mark.  “The brothers who taught me were inspiring wonderful men; they were interested in us, kept us active and engaged, they were dedicated and happy, and this had a strong impression on me. I dreamed of becoming a Marist Brother.” 
 
It was his strong commitment to this dream that helped Br Mark work through the rigorous Marist formation regime.  “I look back at it now and I wonder how I survived!” he quips. But times have changed.
 
MarkNeedham 1962 novices Profession
Br Mark says in the early days, formation was “very tough going” because it demanded conformity rather than imagination.  
 
“We worked hard.  The bell went at 5.25 each morning and we were in the chapel at 5:50 for morning prayer and meditation, then Mass. Then we’d come back for breakfast – off to school – and away we went. Fortunately, this monastic style has, over time, been replaced by something more apostolic.”   
 
Br Mark left home to join the Juniorate at Champagnat College Wangaratta in 1957, the year he turned 13, following his elder brother who had entered the College two years prior.  “The College had day students, boarders, and Juniors, (boys who expressed interest in becoming a Marist Brother). As Juniors, we were only allowed to go home at Christmas,” recalls Br Mark. 
 
For Br Mark one of the most difficult aspects of the Juniorate and later the novitiate was conformity.  “My parents encouraged their children to participate in sport and community events, to explore their world, to be imaginative and creative and think outside the box and be a self-starter,” he says.  “As a kid, I would make my own way to the tennis courts, make my own way home, head up to the park, muck around, go to the swimming pool, go to the pictures …” he recalls. 
 
Br Mark says he went from thinking for himself and making decisions to a heavily structured life in which many decisions were made for him.  During this time, sport became his respite, “It was sport that kept me going,” he says.  
 
Despite the structured days Br Mark says community life was rewarding. “We did a lot of things together and had a lot of fun,” he says. 
 
In 60 years, Br Mark has seen great advances in the way education is delivered in Australia. When he first started teaching, in 1968, there was no such thing as a ‘’free period’’ and the curriculum was limited. In his first year out, he taught classes before school, as it was the only way to fit them into the timetable. In his second year out, in 1969 at Marist College Bendigo, he taught four Year 12 subjects and at one stage had a Year 10 Geography class of 76 students.  
 
Speaking of the brothers who taught before him Br Mark says, “Many Marist Brothers went out as young men into schools where they taught students not much younger than themselves. They worked long hours, with little specialist training in education, large class sizes of up to 100 kids, many combined classes and very little financial resources.” 
 
“Catholic education in Australia has been built on the back of those Religious who lived off the smell of an oily rag; they were martyrs really.” 
 
“When the Marists started the school in Bendigo in 1893, they used the St Kilian’s Hall.  There were four classes in there, with no dividers.  One of the ways they got a bit of extra money to live on, was that they had someone who taught music, on a Saturday outside of school time, so they could charge a fee.”
 
“Government funding has changed Catholic schools dramatically,” says Br Mark.  “When I first came to Bendigo school fees for Year 12 were $90 a year!  We had no other funding. Back then, we really needed the community to back us.  There were so many community fundraising events to buy resources for the school; walkathons, bottle-drives and so on.  It was very social and great for building relationships in the wider community.”
 
Br Mark says that the efforts of the Marist brothers and their circumstances weren’t unnoticed by their students. “The Bendigo Old Collegians, they formed up to support the Brothers, not the school.  All those fellows are now in their late 70s and 80s,” says Br Mark. 
 
Over the years the formation system for Marist Brothers has also changed and Br Mark is all for it.  
 
“Back in the day, when you entered religious life, in a sense, you were cutting yourself off from the world, even to the point where you would take a religious name and leave your given name behind you.  I was in the last group of Brothers to receive a religious name, in 1962.  We were given a list of possibilities, chose three and then someone else chose our name.  Mine was Paschal. In 1967, the rules changed, and we were allowed to revert to our Christian (given) name. I chose to use the name my parents gave me −Mark. I did this as soon as I could.”  
 
Given that for Br Mark one of the most rewarding aspects of professed life is the bonds formed with people and community, it makes sense that being constantly moved from one place to another, without any choice in the matter, was one of the most difficult aspects of Marist life.  Brother Mark’s move to Bendigo in 2014 was his 24th move!
 
“In the early days, before my time, Brothers would go to Kilmore for retreat, later summer school, then their Provincial would read aloud the appointments for the next year.  We had to attend the retreat with all of our belongings in one bag; we were only allowed one bag, and we would move straight from the retreat to our new posting.  If you were moved, you didn’t have an opportunity to say goodbye,” says Br Mark. 
 
Br Mark has lived in Bendigo for nine years, “It’s the longest I have lived anywhere,” he says.  He returned to Bendigo in 2014 to be part of the staff of Marist College in Maiden Gully; his third appointment as a Brother in Sandhurst. 
 
Br Mark’s first appointment in Sandhurst was at Marist Brothers College Bendigo (1969-1971), where he taught Year 12 subjects, coached the U16 football team to 2 premierships and a runner-up and was heavily involved with with Maristians Cricket Club, St Kilian’s Tennis Club and YCW football and was secretary of Bendigo English Teachers Association.  
 
He was Religious Education Coordinator and Sports master among other responsibilities at St Colman’s College Shepparton (1976-1978), where he also led the Youth Group and Parish Prayer Group at Mooroopna.  At this time, he was also involved with Marriage Encounter outreach programs such as “Choice” for 18–25-year-olds.  “Fr Des Welladsen was a part of this along with Mike and Nan Lawlor and Brian and Jenny Walsh. The highlight for me was the weekend we ran for the over 30s and we had every form of singleness present. It was a powerful experience,” he said. 
 
He was Director of the Marist Retreat Centre at Macedon from 2000 to 2002.  Retreats were held mostly for Year 12 students from across Sandhurst and other dioceses. 
 
Br Mark is now retired and living in a community of Marists in Bendigo and has replaced tennis with golf.  
His main ministry now is volunteering for Lifeline, a phone service for people experiencing crisis in their life.  “It’s not enjoyable but it is rewarding. It’s serving a need.  With every phone call, you never know what’s going to happen. We aim to empower the caller to see a way forward for themselves.”
 
Br Mark is an accredited Spiritual Director, an area in his life which he finds to be tremendously rewarding.  His views on religion and spirituality are constantly becoming enriched as he pursues his interest in this area.  Relating religion to the secularisation of Australian culture he says, “One of the big changes is from institutional religion to spirituality. We are all spiritual; we all have a spirit, our innermost self. We are spiritual before we are ever religious; the key is to work out how they connect.  Spirituality is about how we live out our spirit authentically, building a personal relationship with our God”
 
Br Mark is now Chaplain to the staff at Marist College Bendigo.