A Catholic school was established in Mosgiel in 1892 by Katherine McLachlan who was assisted by her sister Alice in 1895. It was opened by Bishop Moran on February 9 1892.

There was no school building so during the week part of the church was converted into a classroom and this was known as a church school. This arrangement was common in many of the early communities and it meant that the church furniture was moved on Friday afternoon and replaced on Monday morning so classes could resume.

In 1898 at the request of the Bishop Moran, the Sisters of Mercy took over the school of thirty six pupils. Sister Angela and Sister Alphonsus were appointed as teaching staff and, as there was no convent in Mosgiel they travelled by train from South Dunedin each day. This arrangement caused difficulties as often the train was delayed and the Sisters would be late arriving at school or would be travelling home in the dark. They got off the train at Kensington Station and then had a ten minute walk to the convent. The Sisters often felt unsafe on the train at night and one night Bishop Verdon was travelling and saw for himself the situation. He decided it was time for the Sisters to have a convent in Mosgiel.

A small cottage in Gordon Road was rented and Sister Angela and Sister Alphonsus were joined by Sister Aloysius to make up the first Mercy community in Mosgiel. Times were hard and St Mary’s parish was extremely poor. The Sisters suffered along with their neighbours and were grateful to receive gifts of food from these generous, poor people.

At that time the parish was served by a priest from the Cathedral who would travel out to celebrate Mass on Sundays for the people. In 1900 an important event happened in Mosgiel. A National Seminary was built as a centre to train priests, and this meant the school and parish had the services of priests in their own area. This meant there was daily Mass in the convent chapel for the Sisters and support for the school. In the grounds of the seminary a farm and garden were established and the Sisters were grateful for regular donations of fresh milk, fruit and vegetables.

The school continued to operate in the church and the Sisters and the children were often cold and uncomfortable. In 1912 when the roll had increased to fifty Father Liston, the parish priest discovered that the Drainage Board Office, a solid stone building in Church Street close to the convent was for sale. It had spaces suitable for a school and after many prayers and much negotiation the building was bought and converted into three classrooms which improved the teaching and learning conditions and served as the school for the next fifty years.

This improvement in the working conditions of the Sisters was not matched by their living conditions unfortunately, which were still cold and cramped despite some renovations in 1910.

As the school roll increased so did the number of Sisters in the community. News of the Sisters’ work and caring influence spread across the Taieri Plain and at the time of the influenza epidemic around 1918 the Sisters cared for people in their own homes until they were well.

From the 1930s until the 1950s the population of Mosgiel did not increase and the school roll remained around seventy. But as the country recovered from the war years, prosperity returned. Many people bought cars and moved over the hill to Mosgiel to live. The Catholic population increased and so of course did the school roll.

In 1951 Father Pound was appointed as the parish priest and he recognised the need for a larger convent for the Sisters. A large house next to the school came up for auction and it was bought and converted into a spacious much deserved convent.
During the 50s the school was staffed by Sisters Paschal, de Pazzi, Sebastian (who was also a gifted music teacher) Margaret Mary, Claver and Christopher. In the 60s the staff included Sisters de Montfort, Imelda, Rita, Campion and de Lourdes who continued to work as principal, in a wheelchair because of the early stages of a serious illness. Music and speech were taught at the convent to local children and this was an important source of income for the Sisters.

In 1957 the roll growth at St Mary’s school made it necessary to extend the classrooms and by the following year it was decided to build a new school. A four classroom block was opened in 1959 and this was extended to six classrooms in 1962. The roll continued to grow and it was necessary to set up two classes in a house on the school site. In 1979 a two classroom block was bought from the Taieri High School and renovated to make two modern classrooms which served the school until 1980.

Throughout these years the school’s connection with the students at the Holy Cross Seminary continued. The Sisters attributed many of the school’s sporting successes to the students’ coaching and support, especially of the rugby and cricket teams. The Sisters’ work throughout these years, not only in the school but also in the parish and the wider community enabled the presence of their founder, Catherine McAuley to become alive in this town on the Taieri Plain.

Times change and nothing stays the same forever. In the 1980s the Sisters of all congregations gradually left their schools due to ageing, retirement, the diminishing numbers in their communities and their discernment to respond to their call and their charism in new ways. St Mary’s was the first Mercy School in the Dunedin Diocese to employ a lay teacher, Adrienne Tompkins. The Sisters withdrew gradually from the school and in 1984 the last Sister, Sister James left, ending eighty seven years of faithful service to the children and their families of St Mary’s Parish, Mosgiel.

In 2012 St Mary’s School was moved from its site on the town side of Church St, to an area next to Holy Cross which is now a Lay Formation Centre as the seminary was relocated to Auckland in 1997. The school was refurbished as part of the relocation and opened on February 8 2013. The Charism of the Mercy Sisters lives on in the values and spirit of the children and teachers in St Mary’s School today. The hard work and sacrifices the Sisters made in the early days of establishing the school and over the years that followed are not forgotten and are much appreciated by the Mosgiel Catholic community.

Story re-told by Anne Kennedy [email protected]

References and Sources

A History of St Mary’s Convent School, Mosgiel
One hundred Years of Catholic Education

Published by the Centennial Committee 1992

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