Commemorating 140 years of the Sisters of St Joseph at Lochinvar

Over the past week, celebrations have been held to commemorate the arrival of the Sisters of St Joseph in Lochinvar 140 years ago.

Articles originally published by The Herald.

Sisters of St Joseph celebrate 140 years since arriving in Lochinvar

One-hundred-and-forty years ago, four Sisters of Saint Joseph arrived in Lochinvar, marking what was the beginning of Catholic education for the Hunter.

Through the early work and vision of Mary Mackillop and Julian Edmund Tenison Woods in the Adelaide bush in 1866, the sisters were able to implement faith and teaching to people in need.

It was on September 2, 1883 when they took a train from Perthville, NSW and got on a boat to Morpeth before catching a buggy to Maitland, where they stayed with the Dominican sisters overnight.

They arrived on September 3 at the school in Lochinvar, to a warm community welcome.

Today, Sister Jan Tranter, Sister Maureen Salmon and Sister Patricia Egan who joined in the 1960s, are three of the 59 Josephites left in the area and say the rich legacy of their work remains intact through education and caring.

"It's the largely unwritten story, but we still meet people today who say 'my grandmother was looked after by the sisters for something'," Sister Jan said.

Bridging the gap

Lochinvar had an existing school with a teacher, but at the end of 1882 the government withdrew its funding for denominational schools and locals were unable to afford it.

That's when the sisters stepped in to bridge the gap, Sister Maureen said.

The Maitland Diocese Bishop James Murray called on the sisters to teach children who were in the mining towns of the Hunter Valley and outer suburbs of Newcastle.

"To the outback, children weren't being reached but some of those were also in the extent of Newcastle in Carrington and The Junction," Sister Jan said.

Sister Patricia said education was the motivator in their work, to teach children not only in faith but reading, writing and arithmetic.

"Other orders had more classical kind of education but ours was out in the bush in the country, in places like Merriwa, Denman, Wybong, Dungog, Cessnock and Kurri," she said.

Initially the St Joseph's of Lochinvar School had a primary education but through the Bursary Endowment Act of 1912 it was registered as a secondary school in 1922.

"The sisters at Lochinvar looked ahead and said we need to bring our children up into high school standard and they started that ball rolling in 1915," Sister Maureen said.

At that stage it was a boarding school for girls who came from country areas like Sister Maureen, Jan and Patricia.

"I wouldn't have had secondary education in my day if I hadn't been able to board at Lochinvar," Sister Patricia said.

In 1992, St Joseph's boarding school finished when it amalgamated with Maitland secondary schools St Peter's and St Mary's and became All Saints College, losing its senior years.

It underwent a restructure again in 2019 with the return of the HSC and became St Joseph's of Lochinvar.

Vision unchanged

Part of the Spirit of the Order by Tenison Woods and Mary Mackillop was for the sisters to be close to the people and never above them.

"The sisters never ever just taught. If there was someone sick of families struggling in need, there was always a quiet outreach," Sister Jan said.

"We were to share the lives of the people that we worked with," Sister Patricia said.

"Even when we weren't in the schools, there was really a bond of friendship and equality," she said.

Equality was an important factor for the Sisters of Saint Joseph to move away from the tiered and hierarchical systems of the European orders who came to Australia.

"They had two congregations - lay sisters and choir nuns. The lay sisters did the domestic duties while the choir nuns taught," Sister Maureen said.

"But Mary Mackillop and Tenison Woods said no, ours was to be the one."

Sister Jan said the sisters were never bound by the social mentality of earlier years and that has remained.

"That has been with the sisters ever since, to recognise what's happening and to respond intelligently," she said.

The modern day

In the 1960s there was a change in government funding causing Catholic schools to go on strike, taking their students to state schools who were unable to care for them.

"It showed the reality of the fact that through sisters and brothers in catholic schools, thousands of children were being educated without any help from the government," Sister Patricia said.

"There was a huge uprising at a sense of injustice among the catholic population because they were all paying taxes and they also had to carry their own school system since 1883," Sister Jan said.

Part way through the 1960s and gradually in the 1970s, the government started to fund the Catholic education system and employ people, and the number of sisters started to decline.

"There's only 59 left of us in the diocese now compared to the times when there was 200 of us but times have changed," Sister Maureen said.

"None of us are in very public ministry now but we still operate often supporting and encouraging Parish ministries and schools, we also try to be very hospitable."

"Those who are well enough to be out and about are all in a ministry of caring for others as much as possible and sharing the positive movement in life," Sister Jan said.

Looking back on the path

Over 140 years the Josephites established an impressive network of 50 parish primary schools and 10 secondary schools.

Sister Patricia said she came from a staunch catholic family in Merriwa and she was influenced by the sisters that taught her.

"I was very conscious of the fact that it was a good thing to do to keep the Catholic school system going. I wanted to teach," she said.

"It was a common thing in those days for young women, there would've been four or five girls from my class who went to the convent. Nowadays there are so many other opportunities for young people, they don't have to become a nun to teach in Catholic schools," she said.

Sister Maureen said she wanted to leave the world a better place than when she came into it.

"There was certainly that motivation to do something with my life," she said.

She said she was influenced by three young nuns when she was attending school at St Joseph's in Merewether.

"They were full of life and they were happy and they certainly had a big influence on me."

Sister Jan went to a Dominican school in Newcastle and secondary school at St Joseph's College in Lochinvar.

"After that I went to uni but in my heart I was seeking for the road that I felt called to take, and it really took a few years after joining the sisters to be really convinced that this was it," she said.

"What I felt with the sisters who taught me, they were really alive women and they were happy. There was a real sense of companionship and joy."

She recently attended a mass at St Mary's Gateshead which was founded by the sisters and said she felt accomplished in their mission.

"The children said the Our Father beautifully, and I thought, that's what we sought to do in seeing these children being given a good sound education in the whole way with faith implanted in it. That was an affirmation of what our sisters have done," she said.

"We are really reassured and happy that teachers are carrying on what we started and that's really important," Sister Maureen Pat said.


St Joseph's College Lochinvar bell rings 276 times to mark history of Josephites arrival

The ringing of a bell echoed throughout St Joseph's College in Lochinvar on Monday morning to mark 140 years since the Josephites first arrived in the Hunter.

As the students sang the recessional hymn to complete their Mass of Thanksgiving lead by visiting Wollongong Bishop Brian Mascord, Sister of St Joseph congregational leader Lauretta Baker stepped out to ring the bell.

Tugging on the rope 276 times, Sister Lauretta said each ring was in honour of the sisters that have died.

"I got to ring the bell because we are honouring the whole gamut of sisters of Saint Joseph from 1883 up until the present," she said.

"Two hundred and seventy-six of our sisters have died in those 140 years so we wanted to bring everyone present into this really significant celebration."

The rows of the church pews in the chapel also bear the names of the sisters who have passed, with their names written on small paper crosses.

"It's an acknowledgement of all we've been and all we are," she said.

"We've always been educators. We've always worked with children and young people and we see that as a great gift and a great privilege."

She said she once read a sign on a teacher's door that read "I work for the future I teach".

"... and there's our future today [students] standing on the shoulders of the people who have gone before us," she said.

Bishop Brian Mascord said the legacy of the Josephites was clear and strong among the future generation.

"The Lochinvar Josephites were established particularly for the local church of Maitland at the time in 1883 and that has maintained and stayed central to who they are throughout their existence," he said.

"For me, that's a really important thing because I've been a beneficiary of that and now it's up to the young people who are present here to recognise that they are Josephite."

"They've been influenced by that spirit of this community of women and it's now their responsibility to continue to live that spirit the best way they possibly can."


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