January 3, 2019 marks 140 years since the Sisters of Mercy arrived in Gunnedah to establish Catholic education in the fledgling town.
In today’s air-conditioned homes and businesses, it is hard to imagine the trials the five Sisters had to endure when they arrived on January 3, 1879, dressed in the congregation’s black habits.
Led by Sr Mary Ignatius O'Brien, the sisters travelled by rail to Werris Creek where they transferred to a coach to continue their journey to Gunnedah.
The first day’s travel brought them as far as Breeza Station where they were accommodated overnight by Mrs Clift. The next day they arrived in Gunnedah where they were met by the Bishop of the diocese and the parish priest, Reverend Denis English, along with joyous residents.
The Sisters rented a small cottage from George Cohen in Maitland Street, which served as their convent and also as a small high school. An elementary school was opened in the local church.
On September 14, 1879 the foundation stone of the Bloomfield Street convent was laid. Gunnedah remained a branch convent of Singleton Congregation until 1887 when, with the alteration of the boundaries of the Maitland and Armidale dioceses, Gunnedah Convent of Mercy became an autonomous congregation.
At that time five sisters were given to Gunnedah by the Singleton Congregation. Mother Mary Aloysius O'Driscoll was appointed superior of the new congregation, and in this capacity is regarded as the foundress of Gunnedah Sisters of Mercy.
In 1880, the high school, later known as St Mary's College, was relocated to the Bloomfield Street convent. In 1906 the foundation stone of a two-storey building for a new college was laid to provide new classrooms, new boarding accommodation for girls, and a music academy.
Having gained registration under the Bursary Endowment Act of 1911, St Mary's College, a co-educational school, received authorisation to present pupils for all public examinations.
Significant in the development of St Mary’s College was the opening on its campus of Gunnedah's first business college, where tuition in typewriting, shorthand and business principles and practice was offered to private pupils, with many prepared for examinations of the State Business Colleges.
In 1928, St Mary’s Business College received the National Business College Cup “for the best work submitted by any school in Australia.”
In 1896, the Sisters of Mercy commissioned the German architect, Frederick B. Menkens, to design a plan for a new primary school in Bloomfield Street. The school became known as St Xavier’s Primary School.
The Gunnedah Sisters of Mercy opened branch convents and schools all over the north and north-west.
In 1924, the beautiful Romanesque chapel was added on the western side and described as “an architectural gem which compels the imagination of all who see it, and one of the finest buildings of its kind in Australia.”
The Sisters of Mercy operated Gunnedah’s first nursing home in the 1960s at their convent infirmary, built in 1939. In 1975 they built Gunnedah’s first hostel for aged persons within the convent grounds. Known as McAuley Aged Care Facility, it offered residential care for aged women from Gunnedah district and beyond. The residents moved to a new facility in 2007 when the Sisters transferred their licence to Lundie House.
In the last decades of the 20th century, the sisters moved from education to health care, care of the aged, rural ministry, parish ministry, retreat and spiritual direction in an effort to respond to current needs.
Sisters from the Gunnedah Congregation have also undertaken Mercy ministry in Papua New Guinea, Pakistan and in refugee camps in Thailand.
Today the beautiful convent buildings are utilised by St Joseph’s parish and Catholic schools and the three remaining sisters live in the community where they are involved in pastoral care.
Administration and ownership of the two schools has been handed over to the Catholic Diocese of Armidale as the original purpose of the sisters in establishing catholic education had been fulfilled.
– information taken from The Way We Were