A Sunday morning ritual of Mass and family breakfast was an oasis in each week of full-time work and study for Matthew Fernance as he embraced a career change.
The De La Salle Catholic College Ashfield Food Technology and Hospitality teacher and frequent traveller is no stranger to a journey, having made the leap from chef at a five-star hotel to teacher.
Matthew also cemented a 10-year commitment by being confirmed in the Catholic faith by his parish priest at St Thomas More’s Brighton-Le-Sands two Tuesdays before setting off for his first World Youth Day in Poland as a pilgrim group leader for eight De La Salle students.
Baptised Presbyterian, he attended public school and with shift worker parents (mum is a nurse, dad a social worker), Sunday Mass wasn’t a habit until he met his wife.
“Because I didn’t have a strong faith base to begin with and it has always been something special in their family, I joined in and I immediately felt that connection,” he said. “My own faith just grew from there.”
A change of career happened just as organically, when mentoring work placement students in the kitchens at Four Points by Sheraton Darling Harbour inspired Matthew to take up a double-degree Bachelor of Teaching/ Bachelor of Technology at Australian Catholic University in 2008.
Since he started teaching at the College in 2013, the number of Hospitality classes has grown from two to six. He introduced an early commencement HSC Hospitality course, which allows students to begin in Year 9 and complete the course in Year 11. Year 10 students who joined the first intake in 2015 will complete their Year 11 preliminary HSC exams this term.
“It’s a big thing for them as they are sitting the exact same exam alongside Year 11 students and they’ve got competition in their eyes,” Matthew said. “It’s a huge opportunity because with those two units completed boys can go to Year 12 and instead of five subjects to complete they will have four, so their stress level is lowered. Or they can go into Year 12 with 10 units, but have this secret in their back pocket – this grade there ready to be incorporated into their ATAR score.”
World Youth Day made such an impact on Matthew he had a token of it inked on his left wrist, adding the World Youth Day symbol and Beatitudes quote (Matt 5:7) “Blessed are the merciful for they shall receive mercy” to an existing small tattoo of angel wings.
“I’ve learnt more about my own faith in two weeks than I have in 10 years because it has been so real and meaningful every day, you can’t help but be immersed in it,” he said. “I sometimes felt guilty that this was connecting with me more than it may be for some of the students and told them that in one of our discussions about the Beatitudes.
“One of the kids said he doesn’t really see himself reflected in any of the Beatitudes, so I decided to show them how I could see those Beatitudes in each of them and the actions that they had shown throughout World Youth Day. It was beautiful and it was really simple to do.”
Matthew is also De La Salle’s Year 11 Leader of Wellbeing, and saw the students in his pilgrim group grow in confidence and step up to challenges. These included safely navigating the trek home from the Final Mass site amid dehydration and the crush of millions of people. Years of travel in Europe – including to Italy, England, France, Germany and Switzerland – helped when priming students for the journey ahead.
“In the lead up to World Youth Day I was preparing them for what to expect as far as packing and a culture change,” Matthew said. “I wanted the kids to experience the culture. In Venice it was very important to me that they get on a gondola. While we were in Krakow I took them on a two-hour tour on a golf buggy of the Jewish ghetto and Oscar Schindler’s factory where he was able to save thousands of Jews from the death camps.
“There have been 95 per cent extreme highs. We’ve all supported each other on the journey, and we’ve needed that because there has been five per cent that was very tough.”