Home Away from Home
50 Years of Helping Students Pursue Their True Purpose
50 years ago, when boarding a plane in Spain, Father Francisco De Las Heras had no idea what "Hong Kong" was like. Dedicated to fulfilling his mission as a priest, Father Francisco only realized he was sent to Hong Kong to become a teacher upon landing. Half a century has gone by, Father Francisco now calls Hong Kong his home city, and Rosaryhill School his home. He feels proud when seeing his students achieving higher places in the society after graduation.
Growing up in a big family
Father Francisco was borne in a rural little village in Spain. There were 11 children in the family and he was the third. Apart from going to school and doing homework in the childhood, he also had to help his parents to earn a living by doing some simple jobs. “We have to allocate the time well in order to have more time to play with our friends. Sometimes we helped each other with the tasks assigned by our parents, so that we can go wherever we wanted to in the village afterwards and play together,” he recalls.
The childhood memories of Father Francisco were joyful, but the academic part was not that easy for him. “In the first year of my secondary school, I failed in Mathematics. I needed to get it passed before starting the next school year. Therefore, I cycled 7km every day in the summer vacation to the nearby town to have private classes. Finally, I passed the make-up exam with great effort,” he says.
With his endeavor and the help from his brother, Mathematics turned out became Father Francisco’s favourite subject. He obtained good results and went to the university in Madrid, studying in philosophy and theology.
Embark on a journey into the unknown
Because of his own background growing up in the village, Father Francisco showed empathy to the needs of kids from the deprived areas. He was very keen in the college time to serve the grassroots schoolchildren. As he graduated at the age of 25, a senior suggested he work in Hong Kong and he happily accepted. “I didn’t know I was going to work at a school. My senior simply said that the job would be ideal for me since I could get along with teenagers,” Father Francisco says.
The plane took him from Madrid to London, then through the Middle East and Bangkok to Hong Kong Kai Tak Airport. Father Francisco recalls: “Father Emiliano Perez who joined the school a year earlier than me came picked me up from the airport in the school’s private car. Back then, the construction work of Cross-Harbour Tunnel was not even finished. We boarded on the vehicular ferry to get our car across the Victoria Harbour, and slowly drove to Stubbs Road. I still remember it vividly as if it were yesterday.”
He was soon assigned by the school to look after non-Chinese students and to teach them Spanish. Never been a teacher before, he soon realized this is what he desired. “I enjoy being a teacher. I like interacting with today’s youth to witness how they shape society’s future.”
Connecting with alumni
He later went to the United Kingdom twice for further study to improve his English proficiency and to learn the teaching and tutoring skills. “My goal is to help students find the right path in life, realize their values, and gain satisfaction. As a sizeable school, we have so many students, but not everyone is a top academics achiever. It is an excellent opportunity to let students learn that they do not need to compete with each other blindly. It is more important to find the right path in life, pursue their development at their own pace, and learn to treat others respectfully.
Over the years, he is very proud of the close relationships he has built with the old students. “Compare to other schools, Rosaryhill alumni are especially united. Their strong support for the school’s operation is very precious.”
With years of observation, he is amazed by how students’ sense of belonging is closely tied to the school bus. “I was once in-charge of the school bus operation. An alumnus urged the school to keep the appearance of the school bus, even the dark grey colour does not look cheerful and some even criticized it as ugly. Nonetheless, it is very prominent. Our alumni would feel proud when they see it running on the street.”
Promoting change for a better tomorrow
Father Francisco served as the School Principal and Supervisor of the Secondary Section since 1993, and gradually stepped down from the roles since 2006. During the years overseeing school administration, one of his most unforgettable challenges was the reduction of classes arrangement in the1990s. “Back then some grades in Primary Section had Class L. The whole Secondary Section reached 56 classes in total, but there were only 43 classrooms. To meet the demands, the school had to utilize laboratories and convert part of the attic into temporary classrooms.”
Overcrowding had triggered disciplinary issues. Father Francisco explained: “Since playground space was limited, some classes needed to stay in the classroom during recess. When students were trapped in the same room for too long, conflicts were inevitable.” As the School Principal, Father Francisco decided to gradually reduce the class number so that all classes later could have an ideal classroom environment. “Yet there was still a large number of students, school activities were still limited. To facilitate crowd control, Secondary Section teachers could not use detention as penalty, as the departure time of these penalised student would clash with the finishing time of Primary Section afternoon class.”
Almost at the same period of time, Father Francisco pushed forward another major school reform - the abolition of separating boys and girls between the Form 1 and Form 3 classes. At those age, Primary Section and higher form classes were conducted in co-educated classes, only lower form classes were not. Maintaining a 50/50 ratio of male and female classes during admission was not easy. Father Francisco then decided to push forward the reform but he faced some oppositions from staff. “It took a lot of effort to persuade them. The new class structure also prompted the need to reconstruct the male and female toilets. In the end it took 3 years to complete.”
Joining hands and looking forward to tomorrow
Throughout his 50 years of school service, Father Francisco is thankful for all the wonderful people around him. “My success belongs to many people in the school. There are good teachers and panel heads that advised me well. I have good mentors to teach me and give me confidence. For the frustrations and failures that I encountered were often because I have disregarded good opinions and comments from colleagues.” As he looked back, interpersonal relationship and team spirits have been the key to his success in management as well as the most precious reward over the years.
He hopes the society could soon return to normal from the epidemic. The children could then enjoy the time getting along with other people. “In fact, due to the epidemic and the previous social movements, students have been affected by the class suspension for three years. Their social life has been greatly impacted. Everyone truly understands the importance of group life to students' growth. We all hope that students can restore campus life as soon as possible, so that they can have fun together, study together, and breathe the fresh air on the hill together again.”
Favourite spot in the school
Spending 50 years in the school, the Little Chapel is Father Francisco’s favourite place. “The aesthetical interior is mesmerizing. The Little Chapel is also full of beautiful memories. Graduation masses are conducted there for graduates. It is a symbol of completing an important stage of life. Praying at the chapel also allows me to feel the love of God.”
He especially mentioned the 6/F of the school, where Fathers and Brothers live. Mysterious to students, 6/F is an area with a little chapel, a small quaint library, living room and dining room. It used to be opened for high form students for scheduled visits, but the arrangement was later suspended so Fathers and Brothers would not be disturbed often. For decades, Father Francisco has been living there with other priests, and over time he has developed a habit. “After dinner, I would go downstairs and stroll around the campus. Occasionally, I would do some light exercises. I would keep walking along the Primary Section’s garden towards the Fatima Shrine, then the school hall, then down the slope. I like to listen to the sounds of the city, and embrace the comfort of being in an urban oasis.”
Is he an athlete?
Rosaryhill School has always been dedicated in promoting extracurricular activities. Father Francisco told us that he was never good at music, visual arts or sports. Being a regular participant of school’s Cross Country races and Sports Day, his only reason was to interact with the students. “The only sports I would do is running, but I never won a race. I like to join long-distance race with the students because when I see them slowing down, I could encourage them to run together towards the finishing line.”
Away from his home country for 50 years, Father Francisco feels he belongs to Hong Kong more than Spain, yet he would go back to visit his mother every year. “My mother is 104 years old this year. When I first arrived Hong Kong, I wrote to her at least 3 times a week. International calls were too expensive then, therefore whenever I felt homesick, I would sit in front of the type-writer and start writing letters. My father would also write to me every week.” Even after years of separation, he remains very close to his family.