Theme Catholic Schools
Written by Deborah Towns, Swinburne University
In the earlier years of white settlement in Australia, small Catholic elementary schools were established with lay women teachers (Lettrell & Lourey, vi). One of these pioneering teachers was Eliza Cahill, who headed All Saints Primary School, Liverpool, New South Wales, from 1839 to 1848 (Lettrell & Lourey: 10). Another was Rosanna Quin, who managed a Catholic primary school in Portland, Victoria (Blee, 46). Portland was also where Mary MacKillop (Thorpe, ADB; Lemon, AWR) taught in 1861, before she and Father Tenison-Woods founded the first Australian religious order, the Sisters of St Joseph in 1866, in South Australia. The Josephites established and maintained schools throughout Australia in the 19th and 20th centuries.
The first Catholic women religious who travelled to Australia were the Sisters of Charity, an order founded by Mary Aikenhead. Led by Mother Scholastica Gibbons (Duffy, ADB; Henningham, 'Gibbons', AWR), they arrived in Sydney in 1838 and taught in local schools and established St Vincent's hospital. Over the next century, the Sisters of Charity established and maintained schools in New South Wales, Queensland, Tasmania and Victoria. The Sisters of Mercy, led by Mother Ursula Frayne (Palmer, 'Frayne', ADB; Henningham, 'Frayne', AWR), aged only 29, and inspired by their founder, Catherine McAuley, arrived in Perth in 1846. They immediately established a primary school and the girls' secondary school, Mercedes College. The college continues on the original site as Western Australia's oldest continuing secondary school and Australia's oldest girls' Catholic school. As a fee-paying institution, it supported the women religious and set the pattern for the development of Mercy education for decades, which was to establish a 'select' fee-paying school that provided for a Catholic and non-Catholic clientele and a free or low-fee primary school. Over the next century, more women's religious orders established schools.
From 1872, the Australian educational landscape was transformed. Beginning with Victoria, 'free, compulsory and secular' education was gradually implemented in all colonies over the next decades. Simultaneously, governments ceased funding denominational schools for a century. Until the 1870s, most Catholic schools were staffed and administered by lay teachers. But increased salaries and new opportunities in the expanding government school system meant large numbers of these teachers left Catholic schools. Catholic schooling faced a doubtful future but its problems were quickly solved; from the latter decades of the 19th century and for most of the 20th century, women religious in ever-increasing numbers staffed, established and administered Catholic schools. Frugal, unpaid and dedicated, these religious women grew in number from 815 in 1880 to 11,245 in 1950, and most of them were teachers (Fogarty, 305). During the same period, the numbers of priests and brothers increased from 100 to 1,656 (Fogarty, 305). Catholic schooling thrived because thousands of women religious supplied most of the principals, almost 80 per cent of the teachers, and founded and administered teacher training colleges into the 1970s. During this same period, women in government schooling had few leadership opportunities. As historian Anna Barbaro found, 'religious sisters experienced the teaching profession differently from their lay sisters' (Barbaro, 249).
Government funding for Catholic and independent schools was restored from the 1960s, and new opportunities were created for Catholic religious teachers by Vatican II. Women religious gradually left their teaching missions. With increased salaries enabled by government funding, lay male and female staff took over teaching and administrative roles in the Catholic sector. In the Sydney Diocese, lay numbers increased from 31 per cent in the 1960s to 99 per cent today (Luttrell & Lowrey, ix). However, despite numbers of women teachers remaining high in the Catholic system, fewer women than men now lead schools and fewer women than men are leaders in senior educational decision-making bodies such as the National Catholic Education Commission. The following is an historical account of the leadership shown by women teachers in Australian Catholic schooling in the pioneering years and over the previous century when women were the majority of principals in Catholic schools and teachers colleges, where they showed remarkable leadership in educational developments.
After Mother Ursula Frayne set up Mercedes College and other schools in Perth, she travelled to Victoria where her Mercy sisters were the first women's religious order to establish schools. They founded the Academy of Mary Immaculate in Fitzroy in 1857 with Mother Ursula as the principal from 1857 to 1884. As with other women religious who founded schools, her capability and enterprise were demonstrated by her success in raising the funds to build the Academy (Abrahams, 43). Today, Sister Mary Maloney is the principal and the Academy is Victoria's oldest girls' secondary school; it is still owned and administered by the Sisters of Mercy. Mercy sisters came to Ballarat, led by Mother Agnes Graham, in 1881. They established Sacred Heart Girls' College and, over the next seventy years, took responsibility for the leadership and staffing of parish schools throughout the Ballarat diocese (O'Connor, Interview, 2012). Under the leadership of Mother Xavier Flood, Mercy sisters founded a teacher training college in 1909 to ensure that Catholic teachers were qualified for registration by the Victorian government's Teacher Registration Board. Known over time by more than one name (Sacred Heart, Aquin, Aquinas), it trained hundreds of lay and women religious teachers for schools throughout Victoria and NSW. Financial and administrative responsibility for the college was undertaken without government funding. An Aquinas principal from 1967 to 1973, the innovative Sister Valda Ward (1930-2008) went on to become a founder of the National Institute of Sisters of Mercy in 1981 (Lawson). Another Mercy Teachers' College began in Ascot Vale in 1909 and, until 1999, trained thousands of teachers (Rogan, 141). Those who trained in these colleges were, for most of this period, religious and lay women, and they staffed most Catholic schools because, as Sister Marie Kehoe, a former director in the Australian Catholic University, explained, 'they were cheap' (Kehoe Interview, 2012). However, women who taught in government schools and independent schools were also paid less than male teachers for most of the 20th century. In 1991, Aquinas, Mercy and Christ College (an amalgamation of Sion, Brigidine and Presentation Teachers' Colleges) formed the Victorian campuses of the Australian Catholic University, which is the only multi-state tertiary educator in Australia today.
In 1875, Mother Mary Gonzaga Barry (McTigue & Palmer, ADB) led the first Loreto Sisters to Australia. Inspired by their founder, Mary Ward, they began their mission in Ballarat and established Australia's first Loreto Convent College, Mary's Mount. Mother Gonzaga oversaw the development of Australia's first Catholic teacher training in 1884 and employed feminist Bella Guerin, the first woman to graduate from the University of Melbourne, as a teacher in 1885. She also brought leading educationist Barbara Bell (Shorten, ADB) from Ireland to instruct the Loreto sisters in new methods of teaching. In 1902, Bell advised Archbishop Carr on Catholic schooling in the Melbourne diocese and, in 1905, represented Catholic schools on the first Victorian Teachers' Registration Committee. From 1905 to 1909, she was mistress of studies at the new Central Catholic Teacher Training College, with Mother Mary Hilda Benson (Palmer, 'Benson', ADB) as founding principal. In 1912, Mother Gonzaga Barry also established the first free Catholic kindergarten in Victoria. It continued until 1961, after which its South Melbourne building was used for the Loreto Commercial College until 1976.
Presentation sisters, whose founder was Nano Nagle, first came to Australia under the leadership of Mother Xavier Murphy. Arriving in 1866, they immediately settled in Tasmania and established St Mary's College. The sisters pioneered Catholic schooling to other parts of Australia. In Victoria in the 20th century, they founded O'Neil Teachers' College (1956-1967), followed by Christ Teachers' College (1967-1974). The first principal was Mother Eymard Temby, former principal of Star of the Sea Girls' College. After one year, she was appointed Superior General of the Presentation Congregation in Victoria and, in 1971 and again in 1974, was elected president of the Victorian Conference of Major Superiors of Religious Orders (Victorian Honour Roll, 2001, 262). Christ College took its first male students in 1974, when it amalgamated with other Catholic Colleges to form the Institute of Catholic Education. In Australia today, there are 115 primary schools and 25 colleges that trace their beginnings in whole or in part to the Presentation Sisters (Society of Presentation Sisters).
Women religious pioneered secondary schooling in many parts of Australia. In 1861, the relentless Mother Vincent Whitty (1819-1892) (O'Donoghue, ADB; Lemon, 'Whitty', AWR) arrived with five sisters and founded All Hallows' Girls School in Brisbane. It was not only the first girls' secondary school but the first secondary school in Queensland. When Mother Whitty died, there were 26 Mercy schools, 222 sisters, 7,000 pupils and a teachers' college. The Australian Catholic University's Brisbane campus is named McAuley in recognition of the Irish founder of the pioneering Mercy sisters, Catherine McAuley. Further north in Cairns, the first principal of St Monica's College for girls was Kate Birmingham in 1890, for it began as a co-educational primary school with 62 pupils. But the 1890s Depression and the end of government funding saw the school taken over by the Mercy sisters; the first head was Mother Evangelist Morrissey and the school became a secondary college for girls in 1933 (Togolo, 14ff).
Over the earlier decades of the 20th century, St Monica's sisters, as was the case with other women religious in Australia, supported themselves and their staff by teaching music and, over time, they developed cultural capital in their local community through music. A longstanding St Monica's school leader, Sister Teresa Masterson, stated that the early St Monica's sisters 'used to play as well and loudly as they could as an advertisement to passing people who would then inquire about lessons' (Masterson Interview, 2012). Universal music teaching by the women religious was disparaged at the 1911 Catholic Education Conference by male religious, to whom Mother Stanislaus D'Arcy, a Presentation sister and founder of St Mary's Girls' College, Lismore, responded pointedly, 'should music and the accompanying fees be discontinued, the sisters would be thrown upon the kindness of the bishops' (McGrath, 66). Historian Heather O'Connor found that Mercy and Loreto sisters were influential in the development of Australia's, and in particular Ballarat's, musical heritage. She drew attention to the early leadership of outstanding musician and teacher, Sister Gertrude Healy (O'Connor, 2013, 107; Lynch, ADB) to Ballarat. Sister Deirdre Browne, a fine music teacher and musical liturgist, was the co-musical director of the Papal Mass arranged for the Pope's visit to Sydney in 1995 for the beatification of Mary MacKillop (O'Connor, 2013, 178). Sister Dierdre went on to be the Loreto's Australian province leader from 1999 to 2005.
According to Catholic historian Ronald Fogarty, from the late 19th century and into the early 20th, 'the convent high schools constituted practically the only organised system of secondary education for girls that Australia possessed' (Fogarty, 348). By 1910, there were 200 Catholic girls' secondary schools and 149 of them were in NSW and Victoria. Historian Rosa McGinley found that Catholic convent schools continued to lead secondary educational opportunities for girls after 1910. McGinley and historian Frank Rogan also found that convent schools provided career opportunities for boys in country areas (McGinley, 278; Rogan, 45). In the Ballarat Diocese, by the 1940s, 'the number of Catholic secondary schools rose from 12 to 30 and most of them were conducted by the Sisters in country towns' (Rogan, 45). Pragmatic, resourceful and determined to provide Catholic education, women religious ensured that their schools 'prepared students for four different examinations, namely university, public service, commercial colleges and music academies' (Barbaro, 53).
In her case study of the Loreto and Mercy sisters in Ballarat, O'Connor concluded: 'By the 1950s in Ballarat the Catholic Community had developed to the point where it virtually duplicated all the educational, social and healthcare services provided by the government, with the overwhelming responsibility for staffing the institutions being in the hands of the women religious'. She added: 'The Ballarat community was a microcosm for Catholic communities across Australia' (O'Connor, 2013, 106). A similar study by historian Marie Crowley of the Sisters of St Joseph in the diocese of Bathurst and the Carmelite Nuns in Wilcannia-Forbes found that women religious had enriched their rural communities 'on a spiritual, social, educational and cultural basis'. She likewise concluded that her selective study 'mirrors the contribution made by other religious congregations across Australia' (Crowley, 29). A recent history of the Sydney Catholic Diocese showed that two-thirds of its current schools had been established by religious orders over the previous centuries and most of these orders were of women (Luttrell & Lourey). This diocesan history lists hundreds of sisters who were the principals of these schools up until the 1980s, demonstrating that women religious were the leaders and the community 'face' of Catholic education in the city, just as they were in rural areas.
After World War II, educational needs changed rapidly and Australian education by the 1960s was considered to be in crisis. Schools were overcrowded as a result of immigration and the 'baby boom', and industry, governments and parents were making increasing demands on schools. Lay women and women religious were facing classes of over 60 and up to 120 (Rogan, 64). John Andrews, a student at St Joseph's College, Mildura, recalled Sister 'Pan' (Sister Pancratius Holland) teaching every subject in his matriculation year. For the Catholic system, the challenges were comparable to those of a century earlier but this time the women religious were unavailable to fill the system's needs. Although there were 13,000 teachers, of whom 90 per cent were women religious, this was inadequate (Jupp). In addition to these teaching pressures, the impact of Vatican II 'brought profound changes and touched every aspect of Catholic life in Australia' (Clarke, 192). In the 1960s, fewer women were entering religious orders and, after Vatican II, many religious women questioned their teaching mission. However, government funding to Catholic schools was re-introduced in the 1960s, and this facilitated the continued growth of the Catholic system, building upon the successful educational foundations established largely by women religious.
As the Catholic system reacted to the new educational environment, generous and experienced women religious continued as school principals in schools staffed by lay male and female teachers and led innovations in Catholic schooling. To cater for the urgent need for teachers in Canberra, for example, the Dominican Sisters (who first arrived in Australia in 1867) opened the Signadou Dominican Teachers' College in 1963, with Sister Margaret Mary Brown as principal. The college's foundation period was described as the 'heady days before and immediately after Vatican II' (Catholic Religious Australia). It continues today as the Signadou Campus of the Australian Catholic University. New co-educational Catholic secondary schools were also established. In Queensland, the first Catholic co-educational secondary school was Seton College, Mount Gravatt East, opening in 1964. The first principal was Sister Paul Myers and the Daughters of Charity established and administered the college for thirty years. In Perth, Sister Peg Flynn 'attracted attention Australia wide with her innovative and imaginative approach to primary education' in the 1970s (Clarke, 175). She taught at Loreto Convent, Claremont, which was headed by the 'avant-garde' Sister Angela Quill (Clarke, 175). In 1977, Sister Angela decided to amalgamate the girls' college with the Jesuit boys' college, St Louis. The school, renamed John XXIII, was headed by Sister Denise Desmarchelier in 1979. She had the immense task of managing the sale of the old campuses, purchasing a new site and building a large new school complex to accommodate over a thousand students (Clarke, 198). The first Catholic school to open in Australia without full-time religious staff since the last century was the Immaculate Heart School, Leichardt (QCEC, 2009). The archbishop only allowed it to do so because the Sisters of Perpetual Adoration agreed to regularly visit the school. Brigidine Sisters were leaders in the establishment of Australia's first Christian Community College in Maryborough in 1974; known as Highview College, today it is a co-educational Christian ecumenical college. It was established by the amalgamation of the Brigidine Convent, Maryborough, and St Josephs, Maryborough, with support from the Methodist Church, Churches of Christ, Anglicans and other Roman Catholics.
From this era, women religious educationists increasingly gained challenging leadership roles outside schools. Mother Tarcisius Saunders (1911-2013) was the first president of the Australian-New Zealand Federation of Sisters of St Joseph in 1966 (Lofthouse). Sister Veronica Brady, a Loreto, was an ABC commissioner in the 1980s and one of the first women religious to become a university lecturer. In 1968, Sister Margaret Mary Press, a Sister of Joseph, was a member of the Interim Council, Mitchell College of Advanced Education and the permanent council until 1979. The college was a predecessor institution of Charles Sturt University. Sister Joan Nowotny, a Loreto, was the first woman dean of a theological institution in Australia, Yarra Theological Union, in Melbourne. Sister Margaret Mary Manion (Land, AWR), another Loreto, was the first woman appointed to an established chair, University of Melbourne, in 1979. Sister Josepha Dunlop, a Sister of Mercy, was the only woman member of the Catholic Education Commission, Victoria, in 1980. In 1978, Sister Margaret Doyle, also a Mercy Sister, was the first woman religious to be directly appointed to a government position when she became a member of the NSW Women's Advisory Council on the invitation of the state premier. Sister Marion Corless was appointed superior general, Australian Sisters of Charity (1972-1978). Sister Judith Redden was employed in the Catholic Education Office, Adelaide, in a variety of roles, including supervisor of the Disadvantaged Schools Program, supervisor of Pre-school Programs and coordinator of Support Services. Sister Deirdre Jordan (Heywood, 'Jordan', AWR), a Sister of Mercy, was a commissioner of the Tertiary Education Authority (South Australia) from 1977 to 1980 and the chancellor of Flinders University (1988-2002). Sister Helen Connolly was a member of the first Sydney Archdiocesan Catholic Schools Board in 1987 and mother general of the Australian Brigidines. A Sister of St Joseph, Kristin Johnston, was recently appointed executive director of the Australian Conference of Leaders of Religious Institutes.
At the same time, lay women were entering teaching in greater numbers than before and, like men, they were taking up principal positions when they were vacated by women religious. Lay women teachers took up other leadership roles in the wider community too. Miriam-Rose Ungunmerr-Baumann (AO) (Kovacic & Lemon, AWR), of the Ngangiwumirr, was the first Aboriginal teacher in the Northern Territory when she qualified in 1975. She was appointed principal of St Frances Xavier Primary School and became a member of the National Indigenous Council in 2004. Clare Conquest was employed by the Catholic Education Office Victoria as an educational consultant in 1978. Significantly, she was one of the few lay women to be employed in this office since Julia Flynn (Palmer, ADB; Lemon, 'Flynn', AWR), who was a senior adviser to the Catholic Education Office in the 1940s. Flynn had previously held the position of chief inspector secondary education in the Education Department, Victoria. Today, the Julia Flynn Memorial Prize is the 'Catholic Education Office's most prestigious prize' (Sacre Coeur). In the 1980s, Mary Condon, was an adviser to the Queensland, and National, Catholic Education Commissions on special education. From 1992 to 2003, Therese Temby was director, Catholic Education Office, Western Australia, and chief executive of the National Catholic Education Commission in 2008. Susan Pascoe was director, Catholic Education Office Melbourne from 2002 and chair of the National Catholic Education Commission, Victoria. Audrey Brown was recently appointed director of the Catholic Education Office, Ballarat. She was previously a principal of the large co-educational Catholic College, Wodonga. The first principal of this college was a Sister of Mercy, Mary Duffy, in 1979.
Today, despite over a century of leadership demonstrated by women in Catholic education, their numbers in leadership positions are fewer than those of men. The peak body for Australian Catholic education is the National Catholic Education Commission. In 2013, the national director was male and, of the eight state directors, only one was a woman (NCEC). This was Trish Hindmarsh in Tasmania. Most of the directors of the thirty Catholic Education Diocesan Offices in Australia are male. Recent figures in Western Australia show how the educational leadership of women in Catholic schooling has recently declined. In 1998, in the category of principal, there were 7 religious males, 19 religious females, 85 lay males and 44 lay females. In 2008, there were 2 religious males, 5 religious females, 98 lay males and 53 lay females. By 2013, there were 121 male and 53 female principals and no women religious were principals (CEOWA Annual Report). In Australian Catholic schools, national totals for male and female principals show women's lower participation rate at leadership levels. Women were 60 per cent of primary principals in 2007 and 60 per cent in 2010 and they were 37 per cent of secondary principals in 2007 and 41 per cent in 2010. This was disproportionate to their teaching numbers, which were 85 per cent of primary teachers and 58 per cent of secondary teachers (McKenzie et al., 29). The lower leadership participation rate of women compared to men in Catholic schooling was similar to the findings for women in government and independent schooling. O'Connor has suggested, 'Perhaps the most striking parallel between secular and religious women has been the reluctance to take advantage of the talents of both sets of women' (O'Connor, 2010, 75).
However, women religious achieved their mission in Australia, which was to maintain and extend Catholic education. Today, there are 1,704 Catholic schools in Australia and the system continues to thrive. The sisters' work is not forgotten. Recently, Sister Therese Masterson's contribution of over forty years to Catholic education, particularly to St Monica's Cairns, was publicly rewarded. Like thousands of other religious women, this was 'her life's work'. In 2007, she received the Docemus Award for her 'generosity as a leader that she is willing to serve wherever needed' (Institute of the Sisters of Mercy of Australia, 2007, 1). Significantly, even though few Catholic schools have retained religious as staff or principals, their particular founding order's charism remains. As Loreto historian Mary Rhyllis Clarke found: 'The Loreto sisters may not be teaching in the classrooms of their schools but have an immense influence on those who run the schools' (Clarke, 295). Catholic schools across Australia founded by various orders and headed by lay women and men today commonly include on their websites that their school's mission was based upon their particular founder's leadership. The school captains of Sacred Heart, established in Geelong by the Mercy sisters over 150 years ago, recently declared: 'Being a Mercy school and following in the footsteps of Mercy Tradition it was time to roll up our sleeves and put our words into action, after all this was what Catherine (McAuley) had so fervently believed in' (Sacre Coeur).
Additional sources: Unpublished interviews: John Andrews, Melbourne, 2013 (interviewed by Deborah Towns); Jacqualine Rankin, North Fitzroy, 2013 (interviewed by Deborah Towns); Marie Kehoe, Essendon, 2012 (interviewed by Deborah Towns); Therese Masterson, Cairns, 2012 (interviewed by Deborah Towns); Kristin Sharpe, telephone, 2012 (interviewed by Deborah Towns); Heather O'Connor, Williamstown, 2012 (interviewed by Deborah Towns).
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