Above: St Mary’s Cathedral students 2020. Source Sydney Catholic Schools.
The Benedictine Monks were the first religious order to serve in Australia and were involved in the early days of the establishment of Catholic schools.
In 1833, Fr William B Ullalthorne was the first Benedictine to arrive in Sydney and was also the first Vicar General. He later became Parish Priest of Parramatta (1835).
He gained approval from Governor Richard Bourke in 1833 to build a Catholic school house on Kent St in Millers Point, known as St Bridget’s.
St Bridget’s single story building was completed in April 1835, a partition of folding doors provided separate classrooms for the boys and girls, and the building was also used on Sundays as a Chapel.
By 1839, at St Bridget’s Millers Point, 76 boys were taught by Edward Hawkely and 45 girls were taught by Mary O’Brien. St Bridget’s school, Millers Point remained open on the site until 1992, and today remains the oldest surviving place of Catholic worship in Australia, now known as St Brigid’s Catholic Church.
Benedictine priest, John Bede Polding, was consecrated as a Bishop in London and in 1834 was appointed Vicar Apostolic with jurisdiction over what is now the Commonwealth of Australia.
In 1835, Bishop Polding travelled to Australia with Fr Gregory Corcoran and three Benedictine students.
The group arrived first in Hobart and a month later sailed to Sydney.
In 1836 Bishop Polding took control of the 13 primary schools in operation, seven were for boys, six for girls and all had government support.
In the same year, Bishop Polding also started a secondary school for boys at the Bishop’s Woolloomooloo house, which was transferred in 1838 to the St Mary’s site under the name of St Mary’s Seminary.
Schooling first commenced at the St Mary’s site in 1824 when Fr John Therry, the first Australian chaplain, arranged for a lay teacher to open an elementary school, but it is not known how long this school continued.
In 1838, a small chapel on Parramatta St (now Broadway) in Sydney opened and was used as a school on weekdays, it later became St Benedict’s Church.
By 1862, St Benedict’s also became a training school for Catholic teachers, and by 1873, 500 students were enrolled at the school, with one lay teacher.
While St Benedict’s school closed in 1981, the parish church and buildings were restored by the University of Notre Dame Australia.
UNDA’s Sydney campus was opened by then Prime Minister John Howard in 2006 and the St Benedict’s site continues to serve the parish and the university community today.
Fr Ullathorne returned to England and recruited teachers and priests, and arrived back in Sydney in 1838 with three priests, four students and five religious sisters.
Bishop Polding became the Bishop of Sydney on 5 April, 1842 and then the Archbishop of Sydney on 10 April, 1842.
In the early 1860s, Archbishop Polding moved the St Mary’s secondary school to Lyndhurst House in Glebe.
From then until 1882 the St Mary’s Cathedral school was an elementary school for boys and girls.
Staffed by lay teachers paid from government funds, it also became a Model School for the training of Catholic teachers.
St Mary’s Cathedral College is the oldest continuing school in the Archdiocese of Sydney and today operates as a systemic school for boys from Years 3 to 12 still on its original site.
In 1857, Archbishop Polding founded an Australian order of nuns in the Benedictine tradition, the Sisters of the Good Samaritan, to work in education and social work.
Archbishop Polding also helped establish the University College of St John’s in Sydney, founded on 2 July, 1858.
Above: St Mary’s Catholic School 1872. By Charles Percy Pickering, from the collections of the State Library of New South Wales.