Early in 1898 Father Patrick O’Neill who was the parish priest of Winton, with the full support of his parishioners, began negotiations to set up a Mercy convent and school in the town. Within two months a house was rented for a convent and work had begun on building a school. On August 20 three Sisters, Mary Clare, Gertrude and Philomena, accompanied by Mother Kostka arrived in Winton to be warmly welcomed by Father O’Neill and the parishioners. As soon as the Sisters were settled they began their work of teaching and visiting the sick and elderly.

The following year the Sisters opened their second school in the Southland area – St Peter’s School. This was established in the Wreys Bush township which was part of the Riverton parish and was inhabited by an almost completely Catholic population. Originally there was a state school in the area and all but one child was Catholic. As soon as Bishop Verdon heard of this he decided immediately to set up a Catholic school and approached Mother Kostka to supply two or three Sisters of Mercy to staff it. Although she had few Sisters to spare Mother Kostka set off with Sisters Imelda, Anthony and St John to establish the school and convent in Wreys Bush. They arrived on Sunday March 19, 1899 and were met by the parish priest, Father Michael Welsh who brought them to the church where a large crowd of parishioners had gathered to welcome them.

After Mass was celebrated they were taken to their new home, a large eight roomed building which had been the home of a wealthy land owner and had been used as a presbytery. It was then handed over to the Sisters. The community was made up of Sisters, all of whom were novices, young women in religious training, except for Sister Imelda and Sister Joseph who joined the community a few weeks later. When Father Welsh found out about this he was very unhappy as he was expecting to staff his school with fully trained teachers. He complained he ‘did not want little girls in my school!’ When he was assured ‘the girls’ had been teaching at St Patrick’s school in South Dunedin where ‘only one of 200 children had failed the inspector’s examination’, he calmed down.

To begin with St Peter’s, Wreys Bush, followed the pattern in many early New Zealand Catholic settlements, where there was no school building to start with, and classes were held in the church. This meant the furniture had to be arranged on Friday afternoons for Mass on Sunday and then rearranged back to a classroom on Monday morning for classes to begin. With the establishment of this church-school, as they were known, the local state school closed. Due to the widespread area of the Riverton parish, Mass was celebrated every second week.

’Mass Sunday’ was very well attended with families arriving early in buggies to have time to catch up with their neighbours and other parishioners in the area. The community always made the Sisters, who walked the short distance to the church from their convent, very welcome. When Wreys Bush became a separate parish a new presbytery was built so there was a resident priest to serve the busy township.

In 1903 Sister Imelda was transferred to Gore and Sister Patricia, one of the original founders of the Gore community arrived to become the new school principal and community superior. At this time the school was still being conducted in the church. Several requests had been made to the Education Board to purchase the disused state school but this had been refused. However, with St Joseph on her side, Sister Patricia approached the Board again and this time the offer was accepted and the building was sold to the church for five pounds. No time was lost and the school was transported to the convent grounds and prepared to operate as a Catholic primary school for local children. Father Welsh was delighted to have the church building back to function for the purpose for which it was built.

He arrived one morning and asked the children and teachers to take what they could carry from the classroom and follow him. With books and blackboards they trudged across the paddocks to their new school following their priest with much laughter and singing. Sister Patricia was there to greet them and restore order. The children were quickly settled into their classroom routines and life in their new school began.

While the new school met the children’s needs the state of the convent was barely satisfactory for the Sisters to live in. It lacked basic amenities and offered few comforts and had not been improved since the Sisters first moved in, in 1899. In 1913 despite funds being very low, Father Lynch, the parish priest, decided it was time to provide better living conditions for the Sisters. Not wanting to incur a large debt for the parish, he launched an appeal for volunteers to build a new convent. The request was met with a great response and work began under Father Lynch’s supervision. Built of stone and roughcast, the convent was well constructed, comfortable and spacious and connected to the old building by a cloister

The area of the Wrey’s Bush parish was extensive and scattered which meant for many families it was far away from Catholic schools. It was not long before Father Lynch suggested to the Sisters that the old convent could be converted into a boarding school for girls. This was well supported by the people of the parish who dearly wanted Catholic education for their children. Once again the volunteers transformed the building into a suitable place for girls to stay while they attended the school.

With the success of the boarding school for girls, Father Lynch now looked to setting up a small cottage on the property to become a boarding school for small boys. This proved so popular that a second cottage was built which enabled 12 boys to join St Peter’s School. From this small school of about 30 children, in an isolated area 40 miles from Invercargill, many vocations to religious life were nurtured.

At this time the population was centred round Wreys Bush but Nightcaps, another small town five miles away, was fast becoming an important coal mining centre and its population was increasing as men moved there with their families to work. Many were Irish miners who wanted Catholic education for their children and many of the children were too young to travel to St Peter’s so they attended the local state school. Once again Father Lynch responded to the situation and it was not long before he was planning to build a Catholic school in Nightcaps. Land was donated by a local resident who was not Catholic and a concrete building was constructed by a local builder. On August 16 1917, the new St Patrick’s School was opened with Sisters Paul and Teresa appointed as the first teachers.

The Sisters continued to live in Wrey Bush and travel by carriage and pair (a gift from Bishop Verdon) to and from Nightcaps each day. The horses were named Dandy and Dobbin and at times were wayward and caused the Sisters and the boys who looked after them trouble, although the boys would often use them as a diversion to get out of the classroom. But the horses were put out to pasture in 1935 when the parishioners bought the Sisters a car which made the daily journey much more comfortable and convenient especially in winter.

As the population in Nightcaps increased the numbers of Catholic people in Wreys Bush decreased. By the end of 1935 the roll at St Peters had fallen to six, and the decision was made by Father Fenton to transfer the convent to Nightcaps. For 19 years the Sisters travelled to Nightcaps from Wreys Bush but by 1936 few Catholic families remained there.

The local Wreys Bush community strongly opposed the move but in the end it seemed more practical for the Sisters to live among the families they served so on July 16, 1936 the Sisters moved to a beautiful new two storied convent in Nightcaps.

Arrangements were made to transport the last of the St Peter’s Wreys Bush children to St Patrick’s Nightcaps by bus. The Sisters continued to visit the sick in the Wreys Bush area. The Nightcaps community made the Sisters very welcome and the school roll continued to increase. This required more classroom accommodation.

Life in the community flourished for many years but Nightcaps, like most of the other Catholic schools in the diocese, was affected by the decline in religious vocations and the ageing of the Sisters which caused staffing problems in the schools. In 1986 the difficult decision was made to withdraw the Sisters from St Patrick’s School at Nightcaps. In 1987 after 88 years of serving the Nightcaps district the Sisters handed over the school to the Josephite Sisters to continue the work they had started.

However Sister Campion and Sister Joan Welsh continued the Mercy presence in Western Southland doing parish work.

In 1981 St Patrick’s School Nightcaps was integrated into the state system. It became part of the Trinity schools model in 2003 and this meant sharing a principal, and a Board of Trustees with St Joseph’s, Invercargill and St Teresa’s, Bluff. Together they keep Catherine McAuley’s spirit alive in the school by encouraging the children to live the gospel with a Mercy emphasis.

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