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Part 1 - 100 years young: Celebrating the incredible life of centenarian Marist Brother Vincent Shekleton

Updated: Jun 18

Being in Br Vincent William Shekleton’s company is like spending a cold winter's night by the fireplace, cradling a cup of hot chocolate, and listening to stories from the past by a master storyteller whose narration is often punctuated by a laugh or a wistful smile at a stray memory. It is an experience that is both profound and remarkable, making one feel vicariously nostalgic. His natural, childlike curiosity, crinkly-eyed smile, and infectious chuckle make one feel enveloped in a warm embrace, as if they are home.


He is a Marist Brother, after all, and his radiant presence attests to the spirit of his vocation.



A typical day for this vibrant man of faith involves poring over the latest Lee Child thriller – he claims to have read the entire Jack Reacher series –, playfully bantering with fellow Brothers at their picturesque Campbelltown home and making rosary beads – a cherished hobby since his juniorate days. But lately, one particular event seems to have dominated his mind completely: the preparations for his upcoming birthday.


His 100th birthday. 


Born on 19 June, 1924, Br Vincent will soon become the oldest living Marist Brother in the entire Star of the Sea Province. Even more impressively, he has dedicated over 80 years to the Brotherhood. For perspective, Br Vincent has lived through the Great Depression, World War II, the Cold War era, the fall of the Berlin Wall and 9/11, among other momentous global events. While one significant event after the other kept populating the pages of world history, Br Vincent's life too started resembling an epic novel.


As he gears up to join the elite ranks of centenarians – with celebrations already underway as friends and family shower him with gifts – we caught up with Br Vincent to learn more about his inspiring journey and his enduring legacy as a beloved Marist Brother. 


Even more impressively, he has dedicated over 80 years to the Brotherhood.

The boy from Concord West


Born to a World War I veteran, Br Vincent grew up in Concord West, inner west Sydney, during the economically strained interwar years. "I grew up during the Depression era. My father had sustained a few war injuries, so he didn’t work for a while. But soon the councils started hiring unemployed former war soldiers for public projects like building drains and other infrastructure. I remember bringing him food at the work site and all the men there would cheerfully shout out to my father, 'Your boy is here with your lunch!” he says, grinning at the memory. 


Soon his father changed jobs, and the family moved to Bexley, where young Br Vincent first encountered the Marist Brothers and their distinctive educational philosophy at the local Marist School. It was his innate curiosity – still as sharp as ever – that sparked his interest in joining their ranks. “One day, a Marist Brother visited our school and told us about their work. He said anyone interested in learning more could speak to him," Br Vincent recalls.

Captivated, the intrepid teenager did just that, and by the end of 1939, at just 15 years old, Br Vincent joined the Juniorate in Mittagong to begin his initiation into the Marist Brotherhood.  

A young Br Vincent. Circa 1937.

How could he make such a life-changing decision that would require him to relinquish so much at such a tender age? He responds but not before laughing his trademark carefree laugh, "I was young enough not to know what I was getting into. I just followed the mob!"


Of the 20 others from his school who initially pledged to become Brothers, many had second thoughts over time. "Some dropped off, saying 'This is not my life.' Others made their vows, taught for years, and then decided it wasn't for them either. Not many stayed the course." On the other hand, some became priests instead. "Most have since passed away – in their sixties, seventies, and eighties," he says solemnly.


After professing his vows in 1943, at the age of 20, Br Vincent's first assignment as a newly minted Brother was in Lismore, where he embarked on a lifelong commitment to the Marists' educational mission. Little did he know that this was merely the first stop on a long, fulfilling and adventurous journey that would take him from the shores of Australia to the jungles of Papua New Guinea and the bustling cities of China.


The start of a remarkable journey


Br Vincent remembers his first posting and trip to Lismore in 1944 vividly. Though the war was slowly inching towards its fraught conclusion, the reverberations were still being felt.


"There were signs everywhere advising us not to travel by trains as they were dangerous and also overcrowded with many young men joining the war efforts. I remember getting on the train to Lismore, and encountering some soldiers who were travelling to Queensland. One of them looked at me and said, 'Well, you're small. You can sleep up on the luggage rack.' The rest of the soldiers slept in the corridor!" he recounts.


"Anyway, I got to Lismore and met the Brothers there; I knew a couple of them from before. They were not much older than I was, but they mentored me. That’s the Brotherhood for you – you are always learning from one another,” he says, an unmistakable tinge of pride in his voice. 


"That’s the Brotherhood for you – you are always learning from one another.”



The Solomon Islands:


Br Vincent spent a considerable time in Australia, working in various schools across the continent, including in NSW, and Queensland, among others. Though he loved all his postings, Br Vincent’s eyes sparkle more when recounting his international ventures. Hearing him reminisce about those visits makes one feel like they are stepping into a time machine, journeying decades back in history.


Br Vincent's first passport.

For example, his first international trip to the Solomon Islands is replete with interesting historical anecdotes. "In 1951, our Provincial sent out a notice asking if any Brothers wanted to work in the Solomon Islands. I said Yes! In those days, before modern cruise ships, we had to travel by an old steamship. The vessels had to stop at various small islands like Lord Howe and Vanuatu to pick up copra (dried coconut) from the local villages. The copra would eventually be taken to places like Australia and then shipped to Europe to make oil. It was a slow journey with many stops, but it didn't matter as everything was new and exciting for me!" he says.


Upon reaching the Solomon Islands, Br Vincent taught at a small school that had previously served as an American army hospital. "The school was on land purchased by the bishop, surrounded by huts and overgrown vegetation. The Brothers taught the students in the mornings and in the afternoons, together we would clean, organise workshops, operate tractors – which we taught the children how to use – and do other maintenance work.” 


He was also in charge of the farming operations in the Brothers' compound. "I learnt farming quickly,” he laughs. “We used to grow corn, potatoes, and the kids would help out.” 

Profession of vows. Br Vincent, second back row, second from left - 2 July 1943.

Br Vincent's tales are replete with insights that one can’t find in many books. "An interesting project was underway before I joined. Many of the existing huts had been built by the Americans, but they were uneven, with wooden posts that had been chewed through by termites. Not far from our campus, there was a large American military center comprising graves of soldiers who had died in the area. A decision had been made to exhume the bodies and repatriate them to the United States. The concrete blocks that had covered the graves were no longer needed, so the Brothers asked if we could have them. The authorities agreed, and we were able to use those concrete blocks to strengthen the foundation of the huts on our campus," he explains.


"The Brothers taught the students in the mornings and in the afternoons, together we would clean, organise workshops, operate tractors – which we taught the children how to use – and do other maintenance work.”

Br Vincent initially spent three years in the Solomon Islands till 1953, then returned in 1974–78, and later in 1996–97.


Papua New Guinea:


After his time in the Solomon Islands, Br Vincent was assigned to Rabaul, in Papua New Guinea, where the Marist Brothers taught at a school established by the local Chinese community.


"The Germans, who had settlements in places like German Samoa, used ships to supply their territories and likely traded in copra to sustain these operations. When the Germans decided to build coal storage facilities in Rabaul to fuel their ships, they recruited Chinese workers from Hong Kong, offering them two- to three-year contracts,” he says.   

 

Many of these Chinese workers chose to settle permanently in Rabaul and established businesses like boats and cloth trading with the locals, and buying up copra which gave the indigenous population a source of income, adds Br Vincent. 


  1. Br Vincent with students in Rabaul, PNG, 1957.

  2. (From left) Br Vincent Flanagan, Bishop Wade, Br Vincent, Br Kevin Murray


It was this Chinese community in Rabaul that built the school where the Marist Brothers, including Br Vincent, taught. "The school consisted of simple hut-like structures with thatched roofs, reflecting the humble origins of the Chinese settlers,” he says.


"I really enjoyed my time there; it was a calm and peaceful setting. Also, getting to know the families and being welcomed into the vibrant Chinese community was an incredibly enriching experience for me,” Br Vincent recounts.


The school and its people clearly left an indelible mark on Br Vincent, adding another vivid chapter to the rich repertoire of experiences he managed to collect over eight decades as a Marist Brother. 


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