From the time it was established St Patrick’s parish covered the whole area of South Dunedin, known as the ‘flat’ and beyond, including the surrounding districts of St Clair, Forbury, Caversham and Lookout Point. A few farms were set up to supply milk to the city residents but when South Dunedin was given Municipal Status in 1876 its future development was to be residential. Paddocks and cattle were replaced with streets. Buildings, shops and hotels sprang up across the swampy ground. Small businesses were set up to service the needs of the growing population. Blacksmiths, ironmongers, saddlers, cabinet makers and others were set up, some in front of their houses. Many of the immigrants who were settling in this area were poor Irish Catholics who were fleeing the troubles of their homeland in search of a better life in New Zealand.
The first parish school in the area was set up in 1878 with a lay woman, Katherine Heffernan as its first teacher. This school was passed to the care of the Dominican Sisters in 1882 and then in 1897 to the Mercy Sisters who took up residence in the area and began their work of teaching and visiting the sick.

The small school-chapel that was both the school and mass centre was soon outgrown and plans for a larger new church were completed and the foundation stone was laid on March 20, 1892. The Basilica of St Patrick was blessed and opened on October 7, 1894. Sadly Bishop Moran was unwell and Bishop Grimes of Christchurch officiated. The Basilica was the centre of church life on the flat for the next 40 years as the building debt was resolved. From 1911 until in 1949 the parish was in the hands of Monsignor Delaney, a much loved priest.

In 1934 he approved the establishment of St Bernadette’s parish to cater for the expanding number of families in the area at the Western end of the parish. Plans began to build a church-school and by February 1935 this was completed and staffed by four Mercy Sisters.

But it became clear that the growth in the population was also in the north eastern side of St Patrick’s parish showing there was a need for a church-school to be built in that area also, around Tainui and Anderson’s Bay. It was not long before a committee was formed to raise funds for the project and the parishioners worked enthusiastically holding carnivals, baby shows, bridge and euchre evenings and various fundraising activities which were popular at the time. These were the depression years so money was short, and despite the fact that several of the other areas of the city were also fundraising to build their church-schools, Father Klimeck, who was acting administrator of the parish in Monsignor Delany’s absence, had bought and paid for the land in Bayfield Road by 1935.

By January 1939 the building was completed and the Mercy Sisters were invited to staff the school of forty four pupils in Tainui. The new school was to be named after St Brigid who was a close friend of St Patrick. The school was referred to as an ‘out-school’ which meant the two teachers, Sister Clement and Sister Callista had to travel by tram to and from school each day from the main Mercy convent, known as the Mother House in McBride St, South Dunedin.

This was a time consuming trip on the tram and then a walk along Bayfield Road to the school. On wet days in winter it often meant the sisters spent the day in damp, long habits which was the clothing Sisters wore then. This was only one of the many hardships the Sisters had to bear in these early days at St Brigid’s. However a kindly assistant priest at St Patrick’s, Father Ted Fahey, would often arrive on wet days at the convent at 8:15 and drive the sisters to school.

The original St Brigid’s school was called a church-school because during the week it was used as a classroom and at weekends it was a church. This meant that on Friday afternoons and Monday mornings the school furniture had to be rearranged so the church seats could be set up ready for Sunday Mass. On Monday morning the school furniture was replaced ready to start classes.

The whole school was taught in the church space which was one large room. After a year a heavy curtain was hung to separate the space into two teaching spaces – senior and junior classes. There was no staffroom or toilets for the Sisters and they had to use the children’s. The Sisters cooked their midday meal in a space no bigger than a cupboard which had been fitted with a cooker and a small table and chairs. They brought their food with them each day.

The Sisters had to remember to turn the cooker on so that their meal would be ready by lunch time. They found this hard to do when they were so busy with the children in their classrooms. There were times the food was burnt because it had been unattended.
In 1943 a junior classroom was built and that made the situation easier. In 1951 St Brigid’s parish was established and a new church was built as well as a two classroom block for the school. The original church-school could then be used for other activities.
In 1959 the Home and School Association, which is what is now called a PTFA, Parents, Teachers and Friends Association, formed a roster of parents to transport the Sisters to school each morning. This made life much easier for the Sisters. In the early 1960s the school roll was over a hundred and the staff was increased to three. The school continued to be very successful and there is evidence of this in th Education Department’s Inspectors’ Reports.

In 1969 Bishop Kavanagh asked the Mercy Sisters to leave their much loved school.

The reason for this was the Holy Name School in Cumberland St had to close because of its falling roll and this school had been staffed by the Sisters of St Joseph. Bishop Kavavagh wanted to keep the Sisters in the diocese so he needed to find a school for them. After consulting with the Mercy Sisters, it was agreed that the Sisters of St Joseph would take over St Brigid’s School.

In 1970 the Sisters of St Joseph, also known as the Brown Josephites took over as teachers in the school. They lived at the old convent near their old school while Father Frank Bennett planned and built a new convent for them. This was blessed and opened on June 7, 1970. The Sisters who formed the first community of the Sisters of St Joseph at Tainui were Sisters Marie Joan Tuite, Doreen Hannan, Teresa Thompson and Paula Mary Cronin.
In 1970 the school roll was 135 and it retained this number until 1980 when it dropped to 122.

In 1978 Mr Rob Duffy became the first lay principal and two sisters continued to work with him. Gradually the Sisters withdrew from the school and by the end of 1981 the school was in the hands of lay staff. The convent then passed into the hands of the Dominican Sisters and when they left it was converted into an administration and teaching block for the present school.

The present staff and community continue to keep the Charism of Catherine McAuley and her Sisters who founded St Brigid’s alive in the proclamation of the gospel emphasising the values of mercy, compassion, respect and hospitality as cornerstones in the life of the school.

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 Brigid’s School, Tainui, Dunedin 50th Jubilee Book, 1989
Published by the Jubilee Oganising Committee

We remember We celebrate We believe
Catholic Parish of Tainui
St Brigid’s Church 1951-2001