SISTERS OF ST. JOSEPH OF THE MOST SACRED HEART OF JESUS
JANUARY 1932 – DECEMBER 2000
69 YEARS OF HISTORY
1932 was an eventful year in the history of Mount Isa, for that year saw the establishment of the first Convent School. His Lordship, Bishop McGuire, had the vision of securing Catholic education for the growing number of children of that mining town, as yet in its infancy. With the co-operation of the pastor, Rev. Father H. O’Twomey, negotiations were entered into with Mount Isa Mines Ltd. and the Company readily made available a site for both the convent and school on the mines lease.
Securing religious teachers was the next problem to present itself. The Bishop now appealed to the Superior of the Sisters of St. Joseph for sisters to staff the school in that then far flung outpost of civilization, which was at the time to be the farthermost Australian convent from the motherhouse in North Sydney. Mother Superior readily consented to send the first community.
The Parish purchased an old iron building, formerly Marshall’s Hall from Duchess, a weatherboard cottage from Kuridala and the old C.P.S. Office and residence from Selwyn. These buildings were to serve the parish for many years as Convent, School and Church.
On Saturday 29th January 1932, the first community of Sisters arrived by the Mount Isa express known as 42 UP. The Sisters were warmly welcomed and what a sight met their eyes. Save for the Mine Ambulance Station and a Bootmaker’s shop there was little else in the line of buildings to be seen. Rows of tents stretched on one side of the convent while stately gums and spinifex filled in the rest of the picture. The ladies of the Parish had breakfast prepared for the Sisters.
At this stage the Convent was far from complete but the Sisters felt privileged in having water and light for at that time water was not laid on in the town. Any inconveniences suffered were more than compensated for by the kindly consideration of the Parishioners. Much should also be said for the good men who were ever to the fore in rendering valuable assistance. The Sisters of St. Joseph agreed to teach and the buildings were blessed by Bishop McGuire.
School commenced on the 1st February 1932, ninety children were enrolled on the first day. An insufficient number of desks and an absence of blackboards and presses increased the difficulties of teaching for sometime. The Sisters taught in the school and visited families in their tent houses. On Sundays, Mass was celebrated in the school, the Blessed Sacrament was carried from the Convent Chapel.
The story of early times would be incomplete if the field of sport did not come into prominence. Those were the balmy days when it was imperative that the Convent School should excel in that important branch of school life. It was most fortunate that a first class football coach in the person of Frank Hogg was secured. He was assisted by a Sister who was always on hand to cheer her team on to victory and do the coaching when Frank was not available. Many and varied are the amusing stories that may be related by past pupils who can tell of the hard battles fought and won on the field. Under such expert leadership school footballers remained undefeated premiers. Basketball too claimed honours. Cups for sport were the order of the day.
Sports were always encouraged: running and basketball for the girls; jumping and football for the boys. Training took place after school. May Day Sports each year were a real event. Inter-school sports, a maypole competition, free lunches, ice cream and soft drinks were the order of the day. Each year a “fancy dress school ball” would be held and both girls and boys were taught ballroom dancing. The children were dressed in sets of eight, four boys and four girls, Irish lads and Irish colleens, Indians and Squaws, etc. During the war because of clothing rationing, the costumes were made from hessian and calico flour bags dyed in various colours. Several concerts, especially the annual St. Patrick’s concert, were held during the year, singing, dancing and of course, recitations. Little is known about those early days but as the town grew so did the school.
During the war the Convent was taken over by the Australian Army. On 17th March 1942 it was handed over to Lieutenant J. Sobey and was used as a supply store. Very grave inconvenience resulted from this. The Sisters were transferred from their convent to the house previously occupied by the clergy in Camooweal Street. The reasons necessitating this transfer were that it was not fitting for the Sisters to be situated in the centre of a military zone.
The house the Sisters were forced to live in during this time was too small, necessitating the Sisters to sleep on the open verandahs. It being midwinter, and very cold, some of the nuns became ill and were obliged to leave Mount Isa. Numbers at the school decreased during this time as children had to be transported to school by bus because of distance varying from 1 to 3 miles. The school was handed back to the Parish on 30th November 1942, although it was in the Army’s hands for such a short time, a considerable amount of damage had been done to the buildings.
By 1951 there were about 370 pupils from grades 1 to 7, four Sisters and three lay teachers.
In 1960 a new convent was built for the Sisters on the former tennis courts and the old Convent became St. Joseph’s Presbytery. It was demolished in 1970 by a controlled fire.
As Mount Isa grew there became a need for further education of the girls to high school standard. San Jose was built and was ready for accommodation in August 1965. All this time the school was growing both in numbers and buildings.
1964 saw the opening of another Primary school in Mount Isa. The Good Shepherd School opened with a total enrolment of 125 pupils in grades 1, 2 and 3. The staff comprised of two Sisters and one lay teacher. The staff increased until in 1972 the school was full primary school with three Sisters and nine lay teachers. 1976 saw the commencement of a new educational program when Good Shepherd returned to the only Catholic junior primary school in Mount Isa operating with 4 streams, grades 1,2,3 and with a total enrolment of 380 pupils. The staff was now four Sisters, 7 full time and 2 part time lay teachers.
The Sisters, staffing all three schools, St. Joseph’s, San Jose and Good Shepherd lived at St. Joseph’s Convent till the end of 1971. San Jose Convent was blessed and opened in February 1972.
From May 1964 until 1974 the Sisters of St. Joseph visited Dajarra regularly and instructed the children.
Over the years the children of the schools conducted by the sisters have partaken in most activities of the city holding their own in winning bursaries and scholarships. Probably one of the most ambitious undertakings was when they helped the town of Mount Isa to celebrate the City’s Golden Jubilee. The combined Catholic schools, San Jose, St. Joseph’s, Good Shepherd and St. Kieran’s Christian Brothers College performed “Mount Isa Old and New” on the night of 7 August 1973. The production was an outstanding success and was enjoyed by all.
1982 saw three well-equipped, up-to-date schools but the battle to achieve this was long and hard. The Nuns laboured tirelessly to achieve this. As the years went by the Sisters have become fewer and were being replaced with lay staff to help them teach. That year there were only six Sisters staffing the three schools.
The year 1985 brought the rationalization project to Mount Isa when the face of the Catholic schools changed. San Jose merged with St. Kieran’s Christian Brothers College to become a co-educational high school named Mount Isa Catholic High School. The “old” San Jose premises became St. Joseph’s Primary School, and in the same year the new St. Kieran’s Primary School was opened in Short Street
Whilst the year 2000 saw a formal end to the sisters of St. Joseph in education, their ministry will continue in Mount Isa with. The Sisters work includes retreats for parishioners, Prayer Leadership programmes and developing spiritual direction. Cloncurry was the last convent founded by Saint Mary of the Cross MacKillop and still remains as a reminder in the North West of the ministry of the Sisters for nearly 100 years.