The Mother House at Kensington SA – the original building (left) and the 1876 addition (right).

The weather was threatening. Rain forced the bishop to shorten his address, but the Sisters’ hearts were light, as the foundation stone for the new Kensington convent building was laid on 5 September 1875. Soon the Sisters would have the room they desperately needed!

The year 1875 had been a busy but productive year so far. In January, Sister Mary MacKillop had returned from Rome with the new Constitutions and the ability to purchase property. In March, the first General Chapter had been held. And by early April the Kensington property, which they had been leasing, could be purchased thanks to the generosity of Joanna and Robert Barr Smith. Now Mary had employed architect Michael McMullen, brother of Sister Josephine, to draw up plans for a substantial addition to the existing Mother House, and the foundation stone had been laid.

The 1876 building with additions, now used as St Joseph’s Chapel.

The Sisters looked forward to the time when their novitiate would be on the convent site, they would not need to rent cottages as additional accommodation, and they could forgo the ten-minute walk to St Ignatius Church for prayers and retreats.

The addition was to be three storeys high, with the lower level substantially underground. This was to serve as the refectory. The middle storey, at ground level, was to contain the oratory, sanctuary and a community room (which could double as a classroom). On the top floor, there was room for 30 beds in the dormitory.

At first, building progress was pleasing. In October 1875, Mary wrote to Josephine McMullen, “Our new convent is rising fast.”[1] But by April the next year, Mary complained that “the carpenters are so slow…”[2] and the builder Mr Enhill seemed “in no hurry to get his work done.”[3]

Two weeks out from the official opening, painting had not yet commenced, and Mary felt she was the only one actively spurring the workmen on. Perhaps the builder felt little urgency since he had already received most of the £2000 payment for the work!

On 7 May 1876, the new convent was finally opened and dedicated. A procession followed Bishop Reynolds who blessed the exterior and interior walls in turn. The oratory could comfortably fit the assembly of 400 people, and the choir demonstrated the chapel’s excellent acoustics.

The Sisters were delighted with their “nice and comfortable” Mother House.[4] The resulting space and comfort made up for the inconvenience of the building works which had apparently “tried the Sisters’ vocations”.[5] The second-storey dormitory offered splendid views over Kensington and beyond. At last, the novitiate and convent could be together on one site, and the chapel could hold all the Sisters on retreat.

The new convent was sorely needed but Mary had to mortgage the Kensington property to fund its building. Little did the Sisters know, this decision would lead them into a cycle of debt and they would one day even have to consider selling the whole property. For now though, they took comfort in their new purpose-built Mother House at Kensington.

Janette Lange
South Australian Archivist


[1] Letter Mother Mary MacKillop to Sr Josephine McMullen, 19 October 1875
[2] Letter Mother Mary MacKillop to Sr Josephine McMullen, 4 April 1876
[3] Letter Mother Mary MacKillop to Sr Josephine McMullen, 24 April 1876
[4] Letter Mother Mary MacKillop to Sr Josephine McMullen, 4 April 1876
[5] Letter Mother Mary MacKillop to Sr M. Vincent Smith, 4 July 1876