The History of Saint John’s School, Ranfurly

The story begins – the arrival of the Mercy Sisters

Bishop Verdon, the second bishop of the Dunedin diocese, on the advice of his friend Bishop Murray the Bishop of Maitland in Australia,  approached the Superior of the Mercy Sisters in Singleton, Australia, Mother Stanislaus for help to meet the social, spiritual and educational needs of his people in the Diocese of Dunedin. Seven sisters volunteered – Mother Kostka, Mother Augustine, Sisters Imelda, Bertrand, Clare, Teresa and a novice, Sister Berchmans. Accompanied by Mother Stanislaus they left Singleton by train for Sydney where final preparations for the trip to New Zealand were made. After a five day journey on the sailing ship the Talune, they arrived in Wellington and then set sail for Lyttleton where they stopped over with the local Mercy Community. They finally berthed in Port Chalmers on January 17, 1897 to be welcomed by Bishop Verdon and many local people. They were driven by horse and cart from the port to their new home in South Dunedin.

The Sisters were settled into a modest wooden house beside St Patrick’s church and within a day of their arrival they were visiting the sick of the parish. Seeing the Sisters dressed in their black habits walking the streets in twos was not something the people were used to but they very much appreciated.  On February 2, 1897 St Patrick’s school opened for the new school year with 156 children, staffed by Mercy Sisters. This school had been well established seventeen years earlier by the Dominican Sisters who had made the trip each day from their convent near Tennyson St in the city centre down to South Dunedin. It would be more convenient now for the Mercy Sisters to live among the families they were serving.

In July, 1897 the community of the Sisters of Mercy which had been established in Gore in 1890 and the newly formed Dunedin community became one foundation of Mercy for the Dunedin Diocese. It should be noted that a primary and a secondary school, both named St Mary’s had been established in 1890 in Gore from the Gore community of the Sisters of Mercy who had arrived seven years earlier than the Dunedin foundation and their work continued on in both of the schools as the other schools were being founded from Dunedin.

The South Dunedin convent became the Mother House. This house was to become the heart of the works of Mercy in the Dunedin area and beyond in the 1900s. From this house over the next 65 years the Sisters would move out to establish Mercy schools all over the diocese: St Patrick’s South Dunedin, 1897, St Thomas’ Winton, 1898, St Mary’s Mosgiel, 1898, St Peter’s Wreys Bush, 1899, St Philomena’s High School 1907, St Gerard’s Alexandra, 1912, St Columba’s Riverton, 1913, St Patrick’s Nightcaps, 1917, St Francis Xavier Mornington, 1919, St Bernadette’s Forbury, 1935, St Brigid’s Tainui, 1939. In 1945 it was time for St John’s School in Ranfurly, the second to last of the Mercy schools, to be established. It was followed by Sacred Heart Waikiwi, 1962. St Peter’s College, Gore was established in 1969 and was staffed jointly with Mercy Sisters and Rosminian Priests and Brothers.

Ranfurly needs a Catholic School

In 1945 as the war was coming to an end, at the request of the parish priest Father Tylee, the Sisters of Mercy established a convent and a school in Ranfurly. Father Tylee was anxious to provide Catholic education for the 40 children who were attending the state schools in the area. His request for Sisters was met with a positive response from the superior at the time, Mother Cecilia. Late in January, Sisters Alacoque, Bernard and Tarcisius travelled to Ranfurly by train to set up the first Mercy Community in the little town in the middle of the Maniototo.

St John’s School is blessed and opened

On February 2 1945 Bishop O’Neill blessed the new school, and two days later the Sisters began their work. They were given a warm welcome by the grateful parents and children – see the photograph below.

St-John's-Ranfurly-1The school was set up in the church which had been outgrown by the ever increasing congregation. It was a well preserved wooden building which was transformed into a school with two large comfortable classrooms and a smaller room which served their purpose well until 1958.

Father Tylee had planned to have a new convent ready for the Sisters when they arrived but the war had brought building restrictions and this prevented his plan from coming to fruition. Wanting the best for the Sisters, Father Tylee generously moved out of the presbytery and into rented accommodation in the town until the new convent was built.

The people get to know the Sisters

The Convent, Ranfurly, opened in 1947.
The Convent, Ranfurly, opened in 1947.

Very few of the local people had seen Sisters before and they were a source of interest and amusement as they walked through the town to carry on their other mercy work of visiting the sick in the hospital. In their long black habits, white head pieces and black veils they soon became referred to as the ‘penguins’. It was not long before they were accepted and became respected women for their valuable contribution to the children’s education and their caring presence among the people

Early in 1947 the Sisters moved into a new home with all the modern conveniences.

The district continued to grow as did the school’s roll. As well as teaching in the school, the Sisters taught music, theory, singing and speech.

Trinity College Centre is established

Sisters Pauline (left) and Clare, who served Ranfurly for many years.
Sisters Pauline (left) and Clare, who served Ranfurly for many years.

In 1955 the convent was extended to include a large music room and a smaller room for theory classes. The Sisters’ school of music and speech grew steadily as news of their pupils successes spread throughout the district. Some children travelled long distances to learn music and speech from the Sisters. As the children sat Trinity College, London examinations some of the local people, along with Sister Margaret Mary, the music teacher, decided to set up a centre in Ranfurly. With a suitable venue available, and the guaranteed number of pupils required, a trip to the Dunedin centre for examinations was avoided. Ranfurly was thriving and growing and the school and the work of the Sisters went from strength to strength.

Fire in the Junior school

Sisters Stephen, Stephanie and Pauline with their classes
Sisters Stephen, Stephanie and Pauline with their classes

However, in September 1958 an unexpected event caused a major change. A fire broke out in the ceiling of the junior classroom. No one was hurt, due to the alertness of the head teacher and there was no damage in the classrooms themselves. However, Father Sexton, the parish priest with the support of the parishioners, decided it was time to build a larger brick building to replace the present school. The necessary finance of 7,700 pounds was raised and building began immediately.

New school buildings opened

In August, 1959 the children and their teachers moved into a new school which included three large classrooms, suitable storage and toilet facilities. The old school, with its ceiling repaired was converted into a parish meeting place. With some adjustments to the old classrooms and corridor, a hall was created for use by the school and the parish.

More children – bigger convent

As the school roll grew so did the need for more Sisters. This resulted in the convent community room needing to be extended. Large windows and doors were installed to take advantage of the Central Otago sun and allow a view of the mountains and plains of the Maniototo.

The Ranfurly convent became a place of rest and peace for many of the Sisters from other centres during the summer holidays.

Community support for the Sisters

Sister Eymard and Sister Pauline and their classes
Sister Eymard and Sister Pauline and their classes

The rural town of Ranfurly is in the centre of farming country and most of the children who attended the school lived on farms. From the time the first school and convent were established the farmers agreed to support the Sisters with gifts of meat and food from their farms. This was part of the promise they made to Father Tylee when he first decided to set up St John’s School. Initially a roster was drawn up and each farmer was scheduled in turn to provide half a sheep per week for the Sisters. Although this generous gift presented no small challenge to the Sisters’ butchery skills they were very grateful for it. The local townspeople were also very generous in their support of the Sisters and the school. At this time there was no government funding for Catholic schools and they had to rely on the parents and parishioners and their music and speech fees to keep them going financially. This arrangement continued for many years and the Sisters were always grateful for the support given to them by the local people.

The school is the centre of a vibrant community

Sister Anthony and her class.
Sister Anthony and her class.

The school was a focal point of Catholic community life in Ranfurly.
as it was in other small country towns. The community gathered to celebrate special events in the families’ faith journeys such as First Communions and liturgical celebrations.

Sporting events offered other opportunities for community gatherings and although Ranfurly is a small isolated town there were lots of activities for families to get involved in and many of them centred round the school.

The Sisters leave but Mercy lives on

St-John's-Ranfurly-7In May 1980 St John’s School was integrated into the state system.
But times were changing and as in other communities the Sisters were ageing, religious vocations were decreasing and some of the Sisters were moving on to new ministries.

In 1984 there were three staff, Sister Clare and two lay staff. Gradually the Sisters withdrew from the school and were replaced by faithful lay teachers who over the years have continued to honour the charism of Catherine McAuley that was passed on to them by the founding Sisters and those who followed them. Today the teachers have embedded the Mercy charism into the life of the school and it gives a special focus to the values and way of life of the children and their families in Ranfurly and the surrounding district.

Back row   Jane White, Chris Hogue, Sister Collette Front row Sisters Callista, Stephanie, de Lourdes, Clare, Susan Mulholland.
Back row Jane White, Chris Hogue, Sister Collette
Front row Sisters Callista, Stephanie, de Lourdes, Clare, Susan Mulholland.

The school’s 50th Jubilee in 1995 celebrated the Mercy legacy as those present recalled many memories of happy school days at St John’s, Ranfurly.

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