“The nuns taught me to value celebration”

A former boarder at St Mary’s Dominican Convent, Maitland, reflects fondly, despite a challenging childhood, on the legacy of the Sisters.


The Hunter Valley is in my blood. It is probable my maternal great-grandmother, Caroline Stapleton, who was born and raised in Paterson, then moved to Maitland after her marriage, attended St Mary’s Dominican Convent, Maitland. My maternal grandmother, Adelaide Hoskins (née Schild), her sisters Olga and Marie, my mother Carmel and her sister Ollwyn, certainly did. Aunty Gwyndra, who was disabled, did not attend school, as was the custom at the time. My paternal great-grandmother, Susan Josephine Doherty, the ancestor for whom I was named, also attended St Mary’s as a boarder.

Few Australians know about the 1950s law that separated children like me from their mothers. No matter the reason for leaving a marriage, these women were automatically classified ‘unfit mothers’ because a woman’s salary was not enough to support a family. This in turn awarded the State the power to remove children from their mothers and place them in orphanages. Thus the ‘white Stolen Generation’ evolved. This was the reason I was sent to St Mary’s as a boarder in 1956, aged four. I was so small when I started school I could not reach the refectory table so a cushion had to be fetched from the music room.

My courageous mother Carmel left my father in 1954 with two children and no money. My father was an alcoholic who could not control his temper when drunk. He was incapable of supporting a family. My mother’s family consequently negotiated a special arrangement with the Dominican Sisters to take me as a boarder. I was never told the details of the arrangement but I know my mother had to work two jobs to survive. My brother was sent to an orphanage but had to be rescued after he stopped eating. My brother henceforth remained at my mother’s side and this would not have been easy before the law changed. It is one reason my mother moved to Sydney.

My mother’s younger sister Ollwyn was a Dominican. She entered the Convent in 1947, aged 17, and served until the early 1980s. She was known as Sister Dymphna. As a boarder at St Mary’s I saw my mother and brother only at irregular intervals. I went to my grandparents’ home in Banfield Street, Maitland, for school holidays unless my mother could afford to send money for me to travel to Sydney. Usually I spent the Christmas holidays with my grandparents. It was never easy returning to school after the long break but fortunately, the first day back was so exciting that my emotions were quickly calmed.

My mother was automatically excommunicated from the Catholic Church and subjected to criticism from a community that did not tolerate a woman leaving her husband. She told me she hated small towns. Despite the fact that both parents had served during World War II, my mother did not qualify for Legacy because my father was alive. My mother’s parents could not raise me because my grandfather had been wounded at Passchendaele and their hands were full raising Gwyndra on a War Service Pension. Gwyndra was my first friend in life. I spent more time with her than with my mother. I shared her room when I came home from school and she walked me to school until I was old enough to find my way. Everyone in Maitland knew and loved Gwyndra.

I treasure my fond memories of the St Mary’s years that ended in 1966 after completing the School Certificate. My experience as a boarder has given me an appreciation of philosophy, a love of knowledge and a passion for knitting and the handmade. Thanks to the example of the Dominican Sisters who raised me, I truly appreciate the value of love, good health, art and much more.

I was taught elocution by Sister Paul, impeccable table manners, how to fold garments and pack a suitcase (people always comment!) and even a little ballet in the early years. Our school choir was world class, thanks to Sister Helen, and the boarders’ basketball team was a force to be reckoned with. The nuns taught me to value celebration. Saint Dominic’s Day was the best day of the year, apart from my birthday. We were allowed to rollerskate down the polished concrete cloisters and to climb the mulberry tree to feast, and our cultural life was second to none. I had the good fortune to grow up in an intellectually stimulating and culturally rich environment. There were girls from China, Thailand and New Guinea who took over the kitchen a few times a year. Of course, the best memories are of the special friendships we formed.

I was given opportunities by the Dominican Sisters at St Mary’s I could never experience living in the suburbs. There are too many to share here. Thank you, Sisters, for your selfless service.

Veritas, our school motto, will live within me forever.


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