St Joseph’s schoolhouse in Penola, SA commissioned by Father Woods in 1866.

Into the heart of Julian Tenison Woods, God placed a passion for learning.

From his earliest years, Julain thoroughly enjoyed rambling at the seaside, in forests, over rocks or anywhere there was a discovery experience. He was reared in an environment where all lived a productive life with a strong work ethic and where knowledge led to high achievement. This ethic inspired Julian’s priestly ministry until his death.

In South Australia, he often journeyed to far-flung homesteads where he encountered children growing up ignorant of basic learning and religious practice.[1]

Balanced against his own childhood experiences and Gospel values where Jesus likened the Kingdom of God to a little child, his compassionate heart, love, justice and practicality led him to begin a school in Penola which he staffed with governesses such as Mary MacKillop, who later formed the nucleus of the Sisters of Saint Joseph. This learning venture with Mary MacKillop was non-discriminatory and widespread, irrespective of colour or creed, wherever children needed assistance. “Be kind to all, be gentle to all… ” he exhorted pioneer Sisters in their Rule of Life.

“Serving others is the most grateful sacrifice we can make to the Sacred Heart of Our Lord,” Julian wrote to Mary (June 1870). Many values, including the necessity of prayer, service, patience and the love of children, Julian inculcated in the Sisters in their Rule and his ongoing correspondence. He urged Sisters to take an extra vow with their canonical vows of Religious Life “to promote the love of Jesus, Mary and Joseph in the hearts of little children.” (Rule 1867)

In 1867, the Bishop of Adelaide, Rev B Sheil, noting Julian’s zeal, ability and organisational skills, appointed him Director of Education. His main task was to begin a Catholic Education System comprising many small schools already operatedand staffed by lay people. These schools were similar to small schools begun in Sydney in 1821, the bicentenary of which was commemorated earlier this year.

Julian’s system was the basis of the Catholic Education System we know today in Australia with Julian and Mary MacKillop recognised by historians as the founders – Julian being the inspirer, Mary the pragmatist. Both served children and strove to provide quality education for all.  “…Be bound to education and more to the children of the poor.” (Rule, 1867)

In March 1973, Julian wrote to Mary, “It is God’s own calm, quiet work and let us do it in His own calm, quiet way.” Additionally, Julian wrote, “You cannot see Our Lord but you can see His children and He leaves you to do for them what He would do in your place.” (Memoirs)

Julian’s last letter to the Sisters, appropriate for this Year of St Joseph, urged: “We are to try to teach by the example of St Joseph…” (4.9.1887) whose life motivated Julian to live totally for God and serve all, especially children.

Julian, passionate about children’s education, pray for us.

Connie Cummings rsj


[1] Ten Years in the Bush! With Julian Tenison Woods 1857 – 1867, Text Anne Player ; Art Work T.K. Hart. Published by Trustees of the Sisters of Saint Joseph of Goulburn, Goulburn, 2000.