St Francis Xavier’s Cathedral Hall Adelaide c.1864 (Photo B 2862; courtesy of State Library of South Australia).

On 2 July 2022, the Sisters of Saint Joseph will celebrate 155 years since the opening of the first Josephite school in Adelaide, South Australia.

“What,” they say, “can you expect from colonial girls, without any knowledge of a religious life, and no one to train them?”[1] Writing to Sister Mary MacKillop, Father Julian Tenison Woods conveyed the scepticism of those who had heard his plans to establish the Sisters of Saint Joseph. Just three weeks later, on 2 July 1867, Sisters Mary MacKillop, Rose Cunningham and Josephine McMullen would open a school in Adelaide’s St Francis Xavier’s Cathedral Hall in Wakefield Street.

Sr Josephine McMullen and Sr Mary MacKillop.

The Sisters were the first women religious In South Australia. What a sight for onlookers they must have been on that first morning, as they set out from their cottage in Grote Street. Mary and Rose in their new habits and Josephine in a simple black dress! No doubt the three sisters felt the same nervous excitement that all teachers have on the first day. There were new faces and names to learn, routines to instil and lessons to teach. But they were well prepared with the daily timetable and curriculum which Mary had drawn up during her time in Penola.

While some parents had reservations, 60 children turned up that first day. This new approach to schooling, which provided education for all no matter their means, quickly proved successful. No doubt it helped that Mary provided clothing for the children in need. But the quality of teaching was also recognised. Within six weeks, attendance had doubled, and some six months later there were 200 children at the end-of-year examination.

If Penola is the birthplace of the Sisters of Saint Joseph Congregation, then the Cathedral Hall school could be considered its springboard. By the end of the year, the sisters had charge of two more schools, at Bowden and Yankalilla, and the sisters now numbered ten. Several schools were opened the following year and progress exceeded all expectation, prompting Bishop Sheil to write to Julian: “Little you or I imagined…that at so early a date its results would attain such wide-spread utility… the Sisterhood is fast making monastic history in South Australia”.[2]

By the time of Mary’s excommunication in 1871, the ‘colonial girls’ had increased to 123 sisters with  responsibility for 47 schools and institutions. The Cathedral Hall school closed at this time, never to reopen as a Josephite school. However, this school and the one at Penola were to be forerunners of the many Josephite schools throughout Australia and Aotearoa New Zealand. Thousands of children would pass through their doors, gaining a Catholic education and preparation for life.

“What can you expect from colonial girls, without any knowledge of a religious life, and no one to train them?” Looking back 155 years later, we can confidently answer, “Amazing things!”

Janette Lange
SA Archivist


[1] Letter Fr Julian Tenison Woods to Sr Mary MacKillop, 12 June 1867.
[2] Letter Bishop LB Sheil to Fr Julian Tenison Woods, 24 April 1868.