Saint Francis Xavier School, Mornington

In 1918 Bishop Verdon requested that the Sisters establish a convent and school in the suburb of Mornington. The Sisters wasted no time in setting up a school and St Francis Xavier School opened in February, 1919. As there was no building available the church was used as a classroom with a curtain drawn across in front of the sanctuary, as was customary in other places. The church had already had a previous life as part of a Christian Brothers’ school in Rattray Street. It was moved to Mornington in 1919 and was used as a school until 1929 when a purpose built school was opened.

The first Sisters to teach at St Francis Xavier School were Sisters Camillus, Clement, Columba and later Cataldus. According to Sister Clement, the makeshift school was surrounded by open fields with cows grazing in them. There was a road up the hill from the Caversham tram-car terminus and, like their Sisters in other areas, the Sisters trekked up the steep hill each day in all weathers from South Dunedin to Mitchell Avenue carrying whatever they needed for the day. At the top of Sydney Street they took a short cut across the paddock, through the fence on the school boundary arriving in time for assembly. This routine lasted for six months. When the weather was bad the Sisters were often soaked through and had to spend their day teaching in long wet habits. The homeward route was down Maryhill Terrace, along Wilkie Road to Princes Street and back to the convent.

Sister Clement recalls the opening day of the school

At 8:30, a well-known taxi driver, Harry Trinder arrived at the convent in Adelaide Street in South Dunedin. Mother Kostka, Mother Patricia, Sister Camillius and Sister Clement were driven via the city to Mornington. On their arrival they were warmly welcomed by Father Coffey and taken to the church where the children were waiting. Within a few minutes the children were sorted into classes, the priest and the Mothers were gone with the taxi driver returning to South Dunedin and the ‘classroom’ needed to be sorted. There was no classroom furniture and they had to make do using the church pews. Between the Sisters and the older children these were arranged so classes could begin and slates and pencils could be put to work. As the week progressed the children brought boxes from home to sit on and the areas of the church were arranged into teaching spaces for children of different ages. Friday afternoons and Monday mornings saw the re-arrangement of the furniture. This happened in many churches that doubled as schools and this arrangement continued for ten years in Mornington.

The hardships of the first teachers at St Francis Xavier School can only be imagined. However the transport difficulties improved with the help of Harry Trinder, the taxi driver who took it upon himself to drive the Sisters to and from school whenever he could. After five months a small house was rented by the Sisters for a few years until a larger property suitable for a convent became available. Although the school continued to function in the church, life became easier for the Sisters as they did not need to travel and they soon became a familiar part of the Mornington community.

On July 16 1919 a house was purchased in Mitchell Avenue as a convent and was named St Michaels. Sister Claver and Sister Raphael joined the community. Not long after this the Sisters began teaching music at the convent and visiting the sick and elderly in the area. This was an important part of the work that Catherine McAuley who founded the Mercy Sisters passed on to her Sisters.

In 1929 three new classrooms with a hall attached were completed, blessed and opened in time to start the new school year. Mornington suburb was growing and the roll of the school grew with it. The high standards set by the Sisters and the quality of their work was recognised by parents and the Education authorities.

In the years that followed the Sisters taught many local children speech and music and this was a valuable and necessary source of income for their community.
The Mornington parish continued to be served from the Cathedral with the priest coming each week to celebrate Sunday Mass. This continued until 1949 when Father Tylee was appointed the first parish priest. The photograph below was taken of Father Tylee with the school in 1953.
The school roll continued to increase and in 1969 the house next to the school was purchased to cope with the extra children.

The pattern of change familiar in other communities followed in Mornington. In 1966, with fewer Sisters available to teach, the first lay teacher, Pauline Diack (nee Kilgour) was appointed. With the decline of religious vocations and the gradual withdrawal of Sisters the school was left in the hands of a full lay staff. Sister Anne Enright brought the Mercy Sisters’ teaching involvement with the school to an end in 1984.

A new school was opened in July 1985 to meet the requirements of integration. However the Sisters’ contact with the school continued. In 1987 St Michael’s convent was demolished and a rest home was built on the site for retired Sisters. This building was called Maryhill Mercy Centre and was opened in 1989. It became the last home for many of the Sisters who, as younger women had taught in the school and played an active part in the life of the parish community. In the years that followed the school maintained regular contact with the Sisters, including them in school celebrations and concerts. The second lay principal, Anne Kennedy continued this contact as her mother became one of the residents at the home. Anne often took her class over to visit the Sisters who were always interested in hearing about what the children were doing. The Sisters loved to share stories of their time ‘in the olden days at St Francis Xavier’. They were always invited to special school events and in that way they continued to be part of the Mercy school they had founded.

Unfortunately changes in government funding caused Maryhill Mercy Centre to become unviable and as many of the elderly Sisters required greater levels of care it was decided to close the rest home. This ended almost eighty years of the Mercy Sisters living in and being part of the Mornington community.

The present school staff of six follow in the footsteps of the hard working founding Sisters and they promote the Mercy Charism to keep the seeds of Catherine McAuley’s work and values alive in the school and community.
Story re-told by Anne Kennedy [email protected]

References and Sources

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

St Francis Xavier’s 50th Jubilee 1919-1969