Waikiwi was a fast growing suburb of Invercargill after the war, with a large Catholic population when the Mercy Sisters were invited to extend their work into the Southland area. Although the Dominican Sisters had already established schools eighty years earlier in the Invercargill area, they were an enclosed order whose mission was education and as such the Sisters were not able to meet the need for visitation of the sick and poor. It was to respond to this need, especially for the sick in the three local hospitals that the first Sisters of Mercy came to the Invercargill area in 1950. A Mercy convent in the city also provided a convenient place to stay for Sisters from communities already established in the outlying country areas such as Gore, Riverton, Nightcaps and Winton when they needed to come to town.

Permission was given to establish a convent in Waikiwi and a property on West Plains Road, not far from the parish church was purchased and a four bedroom extension added. Sisters Teresita, Christine and Cataldus travelled from Dunedin in the removal van with their furniture to set up the convent on 2 February, 1950.

Within a few days the Sisters were visiting the sick in the hospitals and the local community.

It was not long before it was recognised that the convent cottage was not satisfactory for their living needs. It was decided to buy a more modern house in North Road which belonged to Margaret Murphy the late mother of Sister de Monfort, a Mercy Sister, (who was also the writer’s grandmother). It was fortunate Margaret lived next door to her brother-in-law, Mr Michael Murphy, and both houses were for sale. The plan was to move the extension from the first cottage and make one large more suitable house. Mother Elizabeth, the Superior at the time, who was the daughter of the respected architect, Francis William Petre drew up detailed plans which, despite initial objections, were accepted by the Town Clerk and the plan was put into action. In February 1952 the Sisters moved into their new home on the Great North Road from where they continued their visitation work.

The Waikiwi area was expanding greatly and it was not long before the Sisters realised a large number of Catholic children were attending the state schools in the area as it was too far to travel into the city to the Catholic schools. The Sisters contacted parents in the parish and offered to have Religious Instruction classes for children on Saturday mornings in the convent. The numbers attending exceeded the space before long and it happened that one Saturday morning Bishop Kavanagh came to visit the Sisters. On seeing the situation he recognised immediately the need for a Catholic school in the Waikiwi parish. Without delay Father Harrington and the parishioners began work to raise sufficient funds to build a school.

By 1962 the building was completed and it was blessed and opened by Bishop Kavanagh on February 2, in time to start the new school year. Under the leadership of Sister Xaverius, assisted by Sisters Kevin and Rosalie the new mission of educating the Waikiwi children in the new Mercy school named Sacred Heart began.

As in other communities the school became the heart of the parish and much of the community life centred round school activities including Sacramental celebrations, sporting and cultural activities and parish social events.

By 1968 the roll growth necessitated more staff and this meant a new convent was required. The road that separated the convent from the school had become the main route to Te Anau, and Queenstown and was one of the busiest roads in Southland. It was decided to build a new convent with accommodation for 17 on the same side of the road as the school for safety’s sake and by September 1969 it was completed. Father Harrington, the parish priest had dreams of setting up a girls’ college in the area but this did not eventuate.

The school roll remained steady but as in other places, the Sisters were no longer able to provide enough teachers to staff the school due mainly to the decline in religious vocations. Lay teachers gradually replaced the Sisters until in 1984 Sister Rita Bonisch, who was the principal, left the school to take up a new ministry. This brought to an end 34 years of service from the Sisters of Mercy in the Waikiwi school community. However three Sisters – Anne, Gregory and Clare continued to live in the convent and carry out pastoral care in the Mercy spirit for people in the community and the hospitals.

Sacred Heart School celebrated its 50th Jubilee in 2012 and many of the photographs on the Jubilee CD show images of happy, well cared for children involved in sport, singing in choirs, celebrating First Communion and in class photographs. The black and white photographs gradually become coloured and the teachers who were once all young Sisters of Mercy gradually become older and were replaced by lay people. This followed the pattern in Catholic schools all over the country.

But the Mercy spirit continues to live on in Sacred Heart School as the staff and children honour the work of the founding Sisters and those who followed them. Catherine McAuley’s name and story are part of the Mercy Charism that is promoted in the school and the gospel is spread with an emphasis on the spirit of mercy which was so important to the first Mercy Sisters who began this work in Waikiwi over 50 years ago.

The 50th Jubilee celebrations held in 2012 paid tribute to the work of the Sisters and the Mercy legacy they passed on to the Waikiwi community.

Story re-told by Anne Kennedy [email protected]


Divide and Share – The Story of Mercy in the South 1897-1997
By Sister Stephanie Glen, 1996