Like a Bridge over Troubled Water in Sydney: Warrane College and the Student Protests of the 1970s

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Like a Bridge over Troubled Water in Sydney:
Warrane College and the Student Protests of the 1970s


(Article originally published in Studia et Documenta: Rivista dell´Istituto Storico San Josemaría Escrivá, 2010, vol. 4, num. 1, pp. 147-181)


Opus Dei began its activities in Australia in 1966. Only three years later it opened Warrane College, a large independent residential college associated with the University of New South Wales. In this article, José Manuel Cerda, an historian and Vice Rector for Academic Affairs at the Gabriela Mistral University in Santiago de Chile, explores the foundation of the college, analyzes its aims and ethos , and provides a detailed account of the opposition to the college that arose as part of the student protest movement in Australia in 1971 and 1974.


The prelude to the project and the Foundation

The distinctive aims and ethos of the College

Opposition to Opus Dei, student protests and the enquiry


Abstract: This article refers to events occurred in Sydney, from 1966 to 1974, to provide some general background to the foundation of Warrane College, a university hall of residence entrusted to the spiritual care of Opus Dei and affiliated with the University of New South Wales. Primarily based on journalistic accounts, this study is divided into three main sections: first, it provides a narrative of the foundation of the college, then an analysis of the particular aims and ethos of the residence, and finally, it describes the growing opposition to the project and the subsequent protests of 1971 and 1974.

Keywords: Opus Dei – Josemaría Escrivá – Australia – Warrane College – 1966-1974

Abstract: Questo articolo tratta una serie di eventi, avvenuti a Sydney tra il 1966 e il 1974, riguardanti la fondazione di Warrane College, una residenza universitaria affidata alla cura spirituale dell’Opus Dei e affiliata all’Università del Nuovo Galles del Sud. Lo studio si basa principalmente su fonti giornalistiche ed è diviso in tre parti: la descrizione del processo fondativo della residenza, l’analisi degli obiettivi formativi della stessa, e l’opposizione al progetto sorta in alcuni ambienti dell’università suddetta, con le proteste che ne derivarono nel 1971 e nel 1974.

Keywords: Opus Dei – Josemaría Escrivá – Australia – Warrane College – 1966-1974


*I am very grateful to David Bolton, William West and Fr Joseph Martins for the comments and suggestions regarding this article. The following piece will offer no more than a reading of the events, which emerges mainly from journalistic accounts reporting the incidents of 1971 and 1974, thus inviting further—and more contextual—work, based on state and ecclesiastical records. The title relates to the 1970 song by Simon and Garfunkel.

Warrane College is a residential college for university students affiliated with the University of New South Wales in Sydney, and entrusted to the spiritual care of Opus Dei. Its prehistory can be traced to the 1950s, when the Catholic archbishop of Sydney, Norman Cardinal Gilroy, first came into contact with members of Opus Dei and a sample of their educational initiatives in Europe. The most senior figure of the Catholic Church in Australia, Cardinal Gilroy attended the Second Vatican Council (1962-1965), when he is likely to have met Saint Josemaría Escrivá. Thomas Muldoon, auxiliary bishop of Sydney, recalls that after an audience with the Founder of Opus Dei, Pope Pius XII famously said to Gilroy that Escrivá “is a true saint, a man sent by God for our times”[1].

As it turned out, Gilroy’s visit to Rome was to prove a crucial moment in the early history of Opus Dei in Australia. The cardinal was then entertaining the idea of setting up a residential college at a university campus in Sydney and the University of New South Wales—then the New South Wales University of Technology—was very short of places for student accommodation. Opus Dei must have loomed large in the mind of the Australian cardinal, not only because of the words of Pius XII about its saintly Founder, but also because Gilroy had taken note of the experience of its members in the administration of university halls in Spain, Italy, Ireland and the United States[2].


In 1963, Father Salvador Ferigle, a member of Opus Dei and lecturer at the Illinois Institute of Technology in Chicago, had been to Sydney on his way from Tokyo to Rome, and had met Cardinal Gilroy and visited the university campus. Four months later, and under the impulse of Saint Josemaría, two priests and two laymen of Opus Dei went to Australia to settle for the first time. They lived on Silver Street, in the suburb of Randwick, near the university. Several other laymen from Spain and the United States came to support the apostolic work of Opus Dei in Australia, and in 1965, they set up Nairana Cultural Centre on High Street in Randwick, also very close to the campus[3].

In the 1950s, there was a move to set up a Catholic university in Sydney but it was finally decided to build instead a residential hall and add to the long-standing presence and important function of St. John’s College at the University of Sydney[4]. The Kensington Tech (or New South Wales University of Technology) was founded in 1949 and in the face of increasing student demand for accommodation in the 1950s, it became the most suitable campus for new halls of residence[5]. At the Australian Universities Commission in 1959, the Vice-Chancellor of the university and representatives of the Church met to discuss the prospects of setting up a Catholic college on campus, and it was agreed that “depending upon a suitable site being obtained, and Commonwealth grants for the triennium 1961-63, the Church would match the available finance to provide a college for up to two hundred residents”[6].

The details of the negotiations between the Church and the university concerning the building were managed by Father John Burnheim of St. John’s College. It is worth citing a letter he sent to the Vice-Chancellor in June 1963 in which he reveals a great deal of enthusiasm for the project and the Church’s confidence in the suitability of Opus Dei for its management:

I am very happy to be able to tell you that a Catholic organisation called Opus Dei is very anxious to push ahead with the project for a College at the University of N.S.W., and that the Church authorities are giving them every encouragement and support. Two of their members, Father James W. Albrecht and Christopher Schmitt are in Sydney and are empowered to take immediate steps towards making a foundation […]. In the near future I shall no doubt be handing over any negotiations concerning a college at the University of N.S.W. I know that they will pursue the project with great vigour, and I hope that they will enjoy the same very cordial and understanding relationship with you and the University that I have enjoyed over the past few years[7].

Members of Opus Dei had spent only three years in Australia and they were now entrusted with a major task for which they received unreserved support from university and church authorities. Gilroy’s letter to Albrecht in March 1964 stamped the initiative with an official blessing:

As you know, for some years now, the Archdiocese has had the desire to establish a Residential College at the University of New South Wales under Catholic auspices. I am pleased that Opus Dei has come to Sydney and is providing an opportunity for this desire to become a reality […]. While I was in Rome, I had the opportunity to visit one of your international student residences there. I was very pleased with the spirit of the people in the residence and the work Opus Dei is accomplishing there. I am happy that you plan to establish a residential college in order to carry on this work here, and I wish you every success and assure you of my blessing[8].

Michael Steuart, then the secretary of a committee set up to materialise the project, received a letter in 1968 from the Chancellor of the university praising the efforts of such a group and stating that he was “also pleased that the direction of Warrane is to be entrusted to Opus Dei, an Association which has had wide experience in this field”[9]. The contract between the administration of the college and the university was arranged as a lease for ninety-nine years with an option for renewal and with a nominal rent. In addition, “the University will not require to extend its authority into each College but will leave the responsibility for the control and discipline of students therein to the Rector of the College”[10].

The members of Opus Dei and those collaborating with its educational initiatives were not only given support and encouragement, but their future college was to enjoy some autonomy and independence from university authorities. One of the clauses of the lease established “no express restrictions upon the fashion in which the College shall be administered or governed nor does it contain in specific terms, any normative rules of discipline or conduct which the College is required to observe”[11]. In consequence, the new college at the University of New South Wales was to be shaped by the same principles and characterised by the same spirit that impressed Cardinal Gilroy of the residences entrusted to the spiritual care of Opus Dei in Europe and the Americas.

But how was an Opus Dei college different from other university residences? What was it exactly that impressed Cardinal Gilroy about the hall he visited in Rome? And now that everything was on course for the foundation of the college, how would a few members of this organisation in a foreign country proceed to imprint on this overwhelming project the Catholic spirit of Opus Dei shown to Saint Josemaría in 1928?

The college was named Warrane, and this was perhaps the very first manifestation of its affiliation with the principles promoted by the projects under the direction of Opus Dei members. Warrane is an anglicised version of Warrang which in one of the aboriginal languages of Australia means “Sydney Cove”, where the first European settlers established themselves in 1788. Some may have expected the new college at the University of New South Wales to have a “Catholic” name—after all, the Church had initiated and was significantly involved in the project.

Furthermore, an initiative of this nature could have followed the precedent of St. John’s College, set up in the nineteenth century as the Catholic college of what was then the only university in Sydney[12]. Josemaría Escrivá always practised and encouraged others to have a very intense veneration of the saints of the Church, but he had indicated that the corporate initiatives of Opus Dei would not have the name of saints, so none of these projects would be identified as officially Catholic[13].

Opus Dei had gone to Australia to serve the Church and, as we shall explain, the ethos of Warrane College was to be closely associated with the principles and values of Catholic doctrine. However, it was made clear from the beginning that the college was not run by the diocese, nor was it in any way dependent on directives suggested by the hierarchy more than any private initiative run by ordinary Australian Catholics. Cardinal Gilroy, who seems to have understood this aspect of the spirit of Opus Dei, celebrated the work of the Warrane College Development Committee in a letter sent to its secretary, Michael Steuart, in October 1968: “it is especially pleasing to know that you have the co-operation of men of different faiths who have the common desire to establish Warrane College in the knowledge that its benefits will be extended to students of all faiths”[14]. Residence in the college was open to non-Catholics just as much as membership of its management and administration. As Owen F. Hughes remarked in “Tharunka”, the newspaper of the Students’ Union, as with all residences of Opus Dei throughout the world, “Warrane will be open to students of all religions, races and nationalities. The College will, in fact, make every effort to have the greatest possible diversity among the residents and tutors”, and quoting the words of Saint Josemaría, he continues: “In Opus Dei pluralism is not simply tolerated. It is desired and loved, and in no way hindered”[15]. This was not mere university diplomacy. When the college was officially opened in 1971, The Sydney Morning Herald informed that “its resident population will include undergraduate and postgraduate students from every faculty at the university, and will represent more than twenty countries, mostly in the Pacific area. Open to students of all faiths, the college has residents of many denominations”[16]. In 1972, for example, 72 per cent of residents at Warrane were Australian; 24 per cent from Asia; and 4 per cent from other continents, and since its foundation, the college has hosted students from over forty different countries. This multicultural interaction was so prominent a feature in college life, that it was noted and celebrated in 1972 by the Minister for Immigration[17].

But if Warrane was not run by the Catholic Church, neither did Opus Dei own the college. In an interview with the Students’ Union’s newspaper, the Master of Warrane clarified that it is owned “by a non-profit company called Education Development Association, the constitution of which provides that should it ever be disbanded, its assets may not go to any of its directors but must go to charities”. In the same interview, when asked about the relationship between the college and the university, the Master explained that “the college is built on land leased from the University and is thus legally distinct from the campus. On the other hand since it is an affiliated College, there is obviously a great deal of co-operation between the College and the University, and so we feel very much a part of the campus and we are very proud of it”[18]. The relationship between Warrane and the university community was deemed so essential an aspect of its mission, that college facilities were open to non-resident members as well as lecturers affiliated as academic fellows or visiting tutors[19]. Warrane was then counted among the very few student halls entrusted to the spiritual care of Opus Dei in the world which enjoyed official affiliation with a university, an important feature considering the apostolic objectives of such initiatives[20].

The lease of land which allowed the construction of Warrane was signed on 27th March 1967. One half of the building costs was provided by the Commonwealth Government, one quarter by the State Government of New South Wales, and the rest was obtained by the Warrane Development Committee by means of a bank loan, the payment of which was raised by contributions from individuals and local companies. Construction of the college began in January, 1969, and the building was ready to accommodate students for the third term of the academic year of 1970.

It was an imposing structure of dark brown bricks which dominated the skyline of Kensington with its tower of eight floors elevated over the south-east corner of the university campus on Anzac Parade with Barker Street. The building was equipped with single bedrooms and facilities to accommodate 204 students, resident tutors and other senior and domestic staff. The first two storeys included the chapel, a number of offices, a common room and snack bar, a library and music room, as well as a large dining room adjacent to the entrance hall and reception room. Next to the dining room were the premises reserved for the household administration, managed and directed by women of Opus Dei in collaboration with some others. For the standards of the 1960s, Warrane College was indeed a large-scale structure which impressed the neighbouring community and was the subject of an extraordinarily detailed description in the Sydney Morning Herald[21]. Opus Dei was barely starting its activities in Australia and its members would have surely preferred a much smaller building in order to offer a more personalised attention to residents in accordance with the principles that inspired this type of project in other parts of the world. The Work, however, had gone to that corner of the world to serve the Church, in the words of Saint Josemaría, “as she wants to be served”[22]. In this case, a particular model of residential education, so successfully tested in several countries, was naturally adapted to local circumstances, not without difficulties as we shall see. More in the traditional style of Opus Dei residences was Creston College, a university hall for women with capacity for thirty students just outside the northern bounds of the university campus, on High Street[23].

Joseph F. Martins was appointed Master, the highest authority in the residence. A member of Opus Dei, Martins had migrated from the United States after obtaining a doctorate in physical chemistry from Harvard University and having directed a small residential hall in Boston[24]. The dean of students was Owen F. Hughes, also from the United States, and then a lecturer in the School of Mechanical and Industrial Engineering at the University of New South Wales. In the administrative and academic management of Warrane, they were assisted by a number of staff, among them twelve residential tutors, divided between the six residential floors, several lay members of Opus Dei, and two Catholic chaplains, also in residence[25].

Warrane was officially opened on Sunday 13th June, 1971, by Sir Roden Cutler, Governor of New South Wales. The ceremony was also attended by David Hughes, Minister for Public Works; Sir Kevin Ellis, Speaker of the New South Wales Legislative Assembly and Deputy Chancellor of the University of New South Wales; Rupert Myers, Vice-Chancellor of the university; the members of the Warrane Development Committee, and more than two hundred guests, among them the college residents[26].

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