The growth of the Singleton Catholic community

Emigrants from a potato famine-ravaged land of Ireland where the Catholic faith was tolerated but oppressed in practice; those who escaped political and religious turmoil in Europe; the offspring of Catholic convicts who were transported in the first couple of decades of the 19th century — these diverse peoples were the Catholic pioneers of Singleton from the mid-1830s.

In a strange and often hostile new land on the far side of the world, some of these pioneers did well for themselves, others were poor; some lived on the land, others provided stores and services in a growing township; most had large families. But despite a variety of hardships, they continued to contribute to the church, which was a focus of continuity and stability in their lives. They paid to have their children educated whenever possible, because they saw the value of an education underpinned by Christian morality.

From 1875, resident in this same town, was a community of religious women, not living as privileged ladies, but according to a rule that was strict, uniform and self-denying. The Sisters of Mercy were formed in a spirituality intended to nourish their service to the destitute and infirm. Countless acts of charity over so many years often not recorded, and yet will never be forgotten. The Sisters continued to educate the children of the township when the colonial government no longer offered any support to Catholic schools. The people of Singleton and other benefactors supported them and they worked tirelessly in their apostolate of mercy.

Focus on education

For the Catholic priests ministering in Singleton since as early 1830 and (from 1875) for the Sisters of Mercy, a primary focus of their ministry was the education of the children of the town and district, and this is reflected in the built environment of the precinct. The Sisters of Mercy in particular brought higher culture to Singleton — not restricted only to Catholics — and their educational establishments also enabled the teaching of the arts and music, otherwise hardly available in Singleton in the 19th century. The Hunter Valley priests in the 19th century established and supported temperance movements for general moral improvement and to build up a Catholic community. The priests resident in Singleton, from 1845 until the 1860s, travelled north far beyond Singleton and its outlying districts — even into northern NSW — to sustain small and scattered groups of Catholic settlers.

How the precinct grew

In 1840, Singleton settler John Browne promised to make a grant of land to the Catholic Church for the purposes of a church building, priest’s house, school and cemetery. This was an additional grant of land he had received in 1839 running along the Hunter River. As well as being a grazier, Browne owned a public house at the crossing of the Hunter River, which also served in the earliest years of the township as a post office, courthouse and occasional place of worship. The donation of land to the church, formalised in 1850, was almost certainly prompted by the more regular ministry of a Catholic priest in the Upper Hunter, namely Father John Lynch (resident at West Maitland from 1839).

Subsequently, upon this donated land and running parallel with what is now Queen Street, the first Catholic cemetery was established (1844), the priest’s cottage (1849-1856), Saint Patrick’s Church (1859, 1881 and 1921), and Saint Catherine’s College (1911-13) constructed. The cemetery of the Sisters of Mercy was also established on this land in the late 1870s. Early in 1845, a small timber church was completed on John Browne’s donation. This building was used for other purposes after the completion of St Patrick’s church in 1860.

The priest’s cottage was enlarged by a two-storey brick addition in 1873, and the parish church enlarged in 1881. In 1875, the priest’s cottage, with its new brick addition, was given to the Sisters of Mercy as their first convent. From 1892-1909 the Sisters of Mercy built a new, purpose-designed convent on adjacent land purchased from Browne’s estate. The old cottage convent was retained as a boarding school. In 1911, on the original Browne land donation, a new school building was erected next to the old cottage. It was known as Saint Catherine’s College. In 1924-25, on the property purchased in 1890, the Sisters of Mercy built their convent chapel, contiguous to the convent buildings.

In 1933 the Sisters added to their complex of buildings with the erection of a two-storey brick novitiate on the north side of the property. The novitiate was expanded by the addition of another two-storey brick building in 1964. Additional buildings to Saint Catherine’s College were erected in the 1930s and in 1969. When the college passed from the ownership of the Sisters of Mercy to the Parish of Singleton in 2001, several new buildings were erected on the site as a part of a re-structure of the Parish schools.

Check back for more articles on the history and architecture of the amazing buildings in the Singleton precinct.


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