A few days after the first Sisters of Mercy arrived in Gordan, they met the forty three children of the area and arranged them in primary and secondary age groups. The primary children’s schooling was paid for by their parents in provisions for the Sisters. The secondary students’ tuition was paid for by parents who could afford it.

The parish primary school was set up in the Town Hall until the school was built meanwhile the secondary students were taught in a room in the convent. This was seen as a temporary arrangement and plans were prepared for the building of a new school at Gordon.

On a sunny Sunday afternoon in early October 1890, only eight months after the Sisters’ arrival, Bishop Moran’s dream for his school in Gordon was realised. He, the priests and Sisters, along with a large crowd of parishioners from the district gathered to officially bless and open the new St Mary’s School.

During the high Mass that was celebrated Kate Healy (to be known as Sister Mary Patricia) and Bridget Doyle (to be known as Sister Mary Columba) were received into the novitiate (a time of training for life in a religious community) of the Convent of Mercy. It was a memorable event for all who were part of it and a special day to celebrate in the history of the Sisters of Mercy and Catholic education in the Diocese of Dunedin. In the midst of all the joy, Sister Patricia and Sister Columba must have shared some sadness at being so far from their family and friends as they made their commitment to their religious life. The day was brought to a close, as was the custom, with a concert given by the children.

During the next few years young women from Ireland and Southland added to the numbers of sisters in the Gore community and they were welcomed and received as postulants (women who were ‘asking’ to join the community) into the Gore Mercy community. This lightened the load of the sisters who staffed the school as the roll continued to increase.

It became evident that the real growth in the town was over the river in Gore and it seemed that this was where the parish and school should be established. Land was bought in Ardwick Street and by 1907 the first St Mary’s School was relocated across the river on wagons to the new site. The sisters moved to a new convent beside the school.

On May 22, 1895 Bishop Moran, who had brought the original group of Sisters from Ireland, died. He was greatly mourned by his priests and people and it is fitting he lies in the Southern Cemetery in Dunedin surrounded by them. One of his pastoral priorities was Catholic education and the establishment and achievement of his schools were very important to him.

The new St Mary’s School in Gore continued to grow and the Sisters lived in the old brick convent on Ardwick Street. The new church was opened on Ardwick Street in October, 1914. There are few records of school activities kept of this period up until 1928. It could be assumed that the school children took part in picnics, Sacramental Celebrations, end of year concerts as well as entertaining at parish events and fund raisers as was usual at this time.

As the Mercy community grew it became clear that a new convent was needed and fund raising events were held to raise money for it to be built next to the church. In April 1929 the convent of St Francis Xavier was opened complete with a chapel and music rooms surrounded by verandahs. The old convent was converted into a boarding hostel for country children to attend the school. During the years of hardship of the Great Depression (1929-32) few records of school events were kept. Money and food were short due to high unemployment and it was only through the generosity of the local people that the Sisters survived.

By 1935 it was evident the little school that had been relocated from Halton St, Gordon was in need of replacement. Numbers increased as more girls were requiring secondary education and the numbers of primary age children increased.

After much work and fundraising the new St Mary’s School with eight classrooms and an assembly hall was opened by Bishop Whyte on May 24, 1936. A Secondary School for girls was established which meant girls did not need to go out of town to boarding school. The school soon developed a good reputation and was very well supported by the local and surrounding community. Many successes in public examinations were testimony to the excellence of the teaching and learning of the students. Recognising their skills and good work ethic the local business people were anxious to benefit from this and provide employment for the girls from the school.

The school year of 1937 had a delayed start throughout New Zealand due to an outbreak of polio (poliomyelitis) which claimed the lives of many children and leaving many with physical disabilities. As the outbreak subsided the school year resumed starting with a roll of 237. Parishioners continued to donate funds to pay off the new school buildings and playground.

The children’s response to their parishioners’ generosity was to raise money themselves to purchase a new sanctuary lamp for the Church that continues to be used today. During these years parents and parishioners continued to support the Sisters with pantry days but their main income came from the many music pupils they taught. The parish was the centre of the social and spiritual lives of the people with regular events such as retreats, 40 hour devotions, celebrations of jubilees, carnivals, farewells and of course on-going fundraising activities to reduce the debt on the buildings.

In January 1940, despite the outbreak of war in Europe, St Mary’s School celebrated its 50th Jubilee at which Bishop James Whyte, the third bishop of Dunedin officiated. Tributes were paid to the Sisters of Mercy and their great work in the school and the community. An honoured guest at the celebration was Mother Patricia, who as Kate Healy had been one of the six founding sisters.

Also present were six of the first day pupils of the school in Gordon and this made the celebration even more special. However, celebrations such as this ceased as the war brought rationing and shortages of many necessities especially petrol, clothing and food.

As many of the men in the community had joined up to go to war it was left to the women to organise fund raisers to pay off the debt on the school and the much needed repairs to the convent. When this was done the women planned to raise money for the war effort. They organised garden fetes (like fairs), cards games and concerts and by February 1942 the school buildings were debt free.

As the war came to an end life began to improve. The men and women returned and were given rehabilitation farms in Southland, they married and had children and the flow on to schools meant before long St Mary’s School could not cater for the ever increasing roll. The post-war population increase impacted on St Mary’s School which resulted in the need to extend the school buildings. By 1967 there were eight sisters and one lay teacher on the staff. A new classroom block was built which included a new staff room, toilets and medical room. But another situation was developing. The sisters were getting older and young women were not joining them to replace them.

On Ash Wednesday in 1974 disaster struck St Mary’s School. In the early hours of the morning Sister Rosalie was awoken by the sound of fire. The school was ablaze causing enormous loss of teaching resources, irreplaceable religious articles, photographs, school records and the new library and its contents. The whole community was devastated. Temporary classrooms were brought in and the Gore Council made available the James Cumming Wing, a large conference venue right opposite the school for the school’s use during the rebuilding period which started immediately.

The new building was opened by Bishop John Kavanagh in May, 1975. This was the beginning of a period of great change in Catholic education. During 1975 the Integration Act was passed which meant that Catholic schools would be fully integrated into the state system. In May, 1980 St Mary’s became an Integrated Catholic School and this meant that not only would the buildings be maintained by the government but also the increasing number of lay staff would be paid by the government thus relieving the Catholic community of a large financial burden.

The other change that was taking place was the gradual diminishment in numbers of the Sisters in the school. This was due to increasing numbers of Sisters ageing and others taking up new ministries in the Church. The Sisters were replaced by Catholic lay teachers who over the next few years gradually took over staffing the school completely.

By 1980 St Mary’s School was staffed by five lay teachers and one Sister. With the retirement of Sister James in 1984 the school became fully staffed by lay teachers thus bringing an end to ninety four faithful years of service by the Sisters of Mercy from their first school in Gordon in 1890 to the successful and popular St Mary’s School that continues to thrive today.

The present staff recognises the work and dedication of the founding Sisters of Mercy and those who followed them. They do much to honour this by keeping the charism of Catherine McAuley and her Sisters who brought her vision and values to St Mary’s alive in their school and community today.

Story re-told by Anne Kennedy [email protected]

References and Sources

The Meeting of the Waters A History of the Gore Catholic Parish 1890-1990
By Helen Bruce, 1982

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

Mary, Mercies and Memories St Mary’s Gore 1890-1990
By Helen Bruce, 1990