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Primary School childrenFrom the very beginning of their time in Australia, the Sisters of Charity recognized the importance of being involved in the education of young children. Mary Aikenhead was obviously aware of this as she sent, with the first five Sisters, a written method of teaching given to her by the Christian Brothers in Ireland. The Christian Brothers were extremely skilled in teaching and also generous in sharing tried and tested methods of educating. These notes proved invaluable in the training of the early Sisters in Australia. As a result it was not surprising that Schools and Education became a very significant apostolate within the Congregation here. In 1858, the Sisters founded the first primary school at Tarmons, Potts Point. Known as St Vincent's, it received full Government approval in 1861, which meant that the sisters and trainee teachers under their direction all received a salary. Likewise, the Government paid for equipment, books and other necessities. The first two Principals Sister Alphonsus Unsworth and Sister Aloysius Raymond set the school on a firm foundation but both regrettably died at an early age. When Mother Francis McGuigan took over the school in 1865, she brought new energy and vision and the school continued to thrive along with the secondary school added to it in 1870. Over the next hundred years, many more primary schools came under the care of the Sisters of Charity. In each state, several were founded by the Sisters of Charity but were later closed or were handed over to another religious congregation. Those that remained 'Charity schools' until taken over by the Catholic Education Office in the last part of the 20th century, included: New South Wales 1878 St Mary's Liverpool 1879 St Joseph's Edgecliff 1883 St Vincent's Ashfield St Mary's Concord Sacred Heart Darlinghurst St Mary's Cathedral St Thomas' Lewisham St Francis' Paddington 1886 St Mary's Hurstville St Columkille's Wooloomooloo 1890 St Canice's Elizabeth Bay 1892 St John's Auburn 1895 St Patrick's Mortlake 1900 St Canice's Katoomba 1924 St Ambrose's Concord West 1929 St Raphael's South Hurstville 1935 Sacred Heart Cabramatta 1939 St Thomas More's Brighton Le Sands 1952 Our Lady of Mt Carmel Mt Pritchard 1958 Stella Maris Shellharbour 1962 St Joseph the Worker South Auburn Holy Trinity Curtin ACT 1967 Tasmania 18 St Joseph's Hobart 47 19 St Brigid's New Norfolk 26 19 Mt Carmel Sandy Bay 42 Victoria 18 St Patrick's Fitzroy 89 18 St John's East Melbourne 90 18 St Joseph's Collingwood 91 18 St John's Clifton Hill 94 18 St Monica's Essendon / Moonee Ponds 95 19 St Therese's Essendon 23 19 St Vincent de Paul's Strathmore 37 19 St Christopher's Airport West 61 19 St Francis de Sales' Oak Park 62 19 Sancta Sophia Gelnroy 67 19 St Peter's East Keilor Sacred Heart Diamond 71 Creek Our Lady Help of Christians 19 St Leo the Great Altona North 74 Queensland 19 St Finbarr's Ashgrove 24 19 St Mary's Kingaroy 29 19 Maer Dei St John's Wood 51 19 Notre Dame Cooparoo 52 19 St Peter Chanel's The Gap 72 1988 was to prove a real watershed within the Congregation. It was the Sesqui Centenary of the Sisters' arrival in Australia and the Bi-centenary of white settlement in our country. Within the Church also, 1988 saw the effects of Vatican II surfacing strongly and these impacted dramatically on Religious life. The Sisters were no longer able to staff the great number of Primary Schools that they had opened to meet the needs of the Catholic population in previous years. Many of the smaller schools were handed over and competent lay Principals gradually emerged to take Catholic Education into the future. This was not an easy progression and the Catholic Education Office found it necessary to introduce training programs for lay teachers who wished to become leaders in the system. In the 1970s leadership development programs, set up by a Sister of Charity within the Catholic Education Office, together with the confidence and trust placed in the lay men and women by Religious, who so generously encouraged their development, certainly provided excellent training for lay leadership within the Catholic School System. Lay Principals would be the first to admit that Religious Principals, with whom they had previously worked, were used by them as a model in their later position of Principal. The position of Senior Primary Teacher was the first administrative position to be introduced. This was seen as a step towards taking on the position of Principal at a later date. At the same time the Sisters took on the extra responsibility of Religious Education co- ordinators. Many lay teachers had come through a time of confusion within the Church, felt insecure in their teaching of Religion and needed assistance with this important task. Yet the passing on of the faith was the reason for the very existence of the Catholic School system. As late as 1994 Dr Charles Burford in address at a Conference in Adelaide stated: "Unless Christ lives in our curriculum there is no justification for our existence!" In 1989 Pope John Paul II issued a clarion call to the 'lay faithful' to take an active and responsible part in the mission of the Church. However, the lay teachers were not yet ready to handle the responsibility of Principal in the bigger schools and so the Sisters found themselves in charge of very large Primary Schools. In the intervening years the expertise of the lay Principals has grown, through the responsibilities and extra studies they have undertaken and they now have competently assumed role of Principal in the bigger schools. So what might have been seen as a disaster became a very freeing movement within the Congregation. Each State was different. Within NSW the Directors of Catholic Education in the Archdiocese of Sydney and the dioceses of Parramatta and Wollongong were far seeing in their introduction of the position of 'extra Religious' into the schools. The Sisters will be forever grateful for this. They were no longer burdened with the expectation of accepting a leadership position beyond their capabilities or desire while at the same time it was possible for them to remain in the schools. Neither were they obliged to take on the responsibility of classroom teaching. Instead they occupied positions which gave them far greater freedom and opportunity to relate to families on a much more personal level. As a result Sisters found themselves able to do group work with parents and/or children, attend home visitation during school hours, organize craft sessions or work as assistants in the Library - to name a few of the special ways the Sisters, in consultation with the Principal, worked within the school community. They were being true to Mary Aikenhead's words of being 'extensively useful'. In Victoria and Queensland the position of 'extra Religious' on Staff was not offered by the Catholic Education Office. There are now no Sisters of Charity present in the Primary School system in those two States. In the year 2000 the opportunity for the Congregation to provide a candidate for the principalship at Blackbutt, in the Wollongong Diocese, and for her to be selected to be the founding principal also speaks of the ability of the Congregation to contribute to the life of church through educational leadership. The generosity, vision and commitment of Sisters, throughout the years, have enriched the parish community in a variety of parish initiatives. Another surprising and positive result of the effect of Vatican II came in the form of the achievement of Sisters after they left the Congregation. Many became part of the Catholic Education Office staff and advanced to positions of great responsibility. They have always been a wonderful support for our Sisters who feel very much at home in their dealings with them. In NSW, four sisters continue to hold the position of Principal in systemic schools. They have the satisfaction of being part of the great changes that have taken place in education, particularly in the area of curriculum. The Principal's role is vital and professional courses in the promotion of leadership provided by the Catholic Education Offices together with their willingness to take part in other professional study has equipped them well to handle these problems and even enjoy the challenge. Drug Education has become part of the curriculum and Information Technology can easily replace the personal approach that was always so much part of Primary Education. The protection of the child remains high in their priorities. Group planning, parent participation in decision making, and overloaded curriculum are all part of Primary Education and the fear that the handing on of the faith can be mismanaged or lost is always present. It is now a prerequisite for all teachers to participate in courses on Religious Studies. We are grateful to all the Sisters who have worked during this particularly difficult time in Primary Education and to those presently there. We also laud those dedicated lay teachers who are continuing what was begun in our first school at St Joseph's Hobart in 1847. Thomas Arnold, Inspector and Director of Schools in Tasmania at that time, in his memoirs recorded: 'There were two thoroughly efficient schools in Tasmania during my term of office, to commemorate which with due praise is still a satisfaction to me. One was the Central School. The other was that for girls conducted by the nuns at Hobart Town.' (Apostolate of Love, p.133) Our best wish is that Catholic Primary Schools will continue to be a haven for children and a place where seeds are sown that will help children grow in wholeness and develop in the faith that our early Sisters nurtured so well.
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