Melbourne’s first Catholic schools

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St Mary’s School, Williamstown.29 September 2021

Over 200 years, Catholic schools have grown to become the largest provider of schooling in Australia (outside of government) with one-in-five school students attending a Catholic school. ‘Faith in the future’, the theme for the bicentenary, reflects the core purpose of Catholic education to form students in their faith, and to provide an education that enables graduates to not only excel but make a meaningful contribution to the world.

The first Catholic school in the Port Phillip District (later known as Victoria) likely opened in 1839 after the arrival of the first Catholic priest in the colony, Fr Patrick Geoghegan, a Franciscan friar.

It was a catechism school, conducted by Catherine Coffey who had migrated from Tasmania with her husband. The first school Mass was celebrated in a small, roofless building on the corner of what are now Elizabeth and Little Collins streets in the Melbourne CBD. Thomas Lynch and his wife, Mary, were the teachers at the first official Catholic school, which was probably near the present site of St Francis’ Church.

When Bishop James Goold, an Augustinian priest working in the Archdiocese of Sydney, arrived in the Port Phillip District in 1848, he founded two Catholic churches (St Mary of the Angels, Geelong and St Francis’ Church, Melbourne), six schools and a number of school chapels in Geelong, Williamstown, Brighton and Portland.

St Mary’s School, Williamstown, has been educating local children since May 1842, making it the oldest continuously operating Catholic school in Victoria.

The school was established through the efforts of local lay people determined to provide a Catholic education for working-class children as Williamstown reached a population of around 300 in the early 1840s.

Mary MacKillop, Australia’s first saint, was known to the parish community in the latter years of the 19th century and, in 1900, the task of continuing the education of the Catholic children of Williamstown was taken on by the Sisters of St Joseph, the religious order she founded.

The Josephites taught at St Mary’s for 99 years until 1999 and, although not teaching in the school today, the sisters still live in the parish community and attend school celebrations.

St Mary’s School continues to thrive today with an enrolment of 340 students from Prep to Year 6 under the leadership of principal Anthony Hockey.

Mr Hockey says the school community remains proud of its rich history, and the values of St Mary of the Cross and the Sisters of St Joseph – care, compassion and respect – still shape the school today.

‘As custodians of a school with such a rich history and legacy, St Mary’s aspires to provide a contemporary, high-quality and holistic education for the children of Williamstown – an education of which St Mary of the Cross would be proud’, he said.

This article originally appeared in the Term 3 edition of Catholic Education Today.