Above: Genazzano FCJ College students outside the Convent in 1889. Image sourced Genazzano Archives.
In the gold rush year of 1851 there were 9000 Catholics in the colony of Victoria and by 1865, there were 100,000.
The gold rush had transformed the colony and led the way to the era of Marvellous Melbourne and its boom times.
However, the government of the time had legislated in 1872 that education was to be free, public and secular.
Religious education, so vital to the promulgation of the faith, needed to be undertaken in a way that the colony’s young Catholics could be steeped in the faith of their fathers.
Such an education needed to be conducted formally and systematically by institutions whose raison d’être was the education of Catholic children of all ages.
The Society of The Faithful Companions of Jesus was founded by the Venerable Marie Madeleine d’Houët in 1820 in Amiens, France.
Marie Madeleine grew up in a devoutly Catholic and aristocratic family, a wealthy widow who sought to do God’s will.
When her son boarded with the Jesuits in Amiens, she became increasingly immersed in Ignatian spirituality.
Eventually she was called to found her own Society, particularly to help the children and their parents who worked in the cloth trade.
Marie Madeleine gathered around her women to help the poor, so education in faith and life was one of her founding imperatives.
Indefatigable in her mission, Marie Madeleine travelled extensively and founded 27 schools in Europe during her lifetime.
The story of the Faithful Companions of Jesus in Australia begins in 1882.
In response to a plea from the Jesuits, they came, as did several other teaching orders, to provide this much missed Catholic education.
The first twelve FCJ sisters from Liverpool were on mission as they boarded the SS Liguria for the six-week journey, via the Bay of Biscay, to the Antipodes.
The original twelve sisters carried out the vow of obedience with courage and confidence, Marie Madeleine’s mantra for active engagement in all endeavours, as they arrived in Melbourne.
They were greeted with rousing cordiality by the colonists, many of whom who had memories of their own education with the FCJs and other teaching orders in England and Ireland.
An extract from “The Advocate” (June 1882) records: Catholics will be delighted to hear that twelve nuns of the order of the Faithful Companions of Jesus, who are to be located at Richmond, arrived from Europe by the SS Liguria on the 1st June. The sisters came from the convent of their order at Liverpool…in the High School all the higher branches and extras of a first-class education will be taught… the Faithful Companions of Jesus have acquired a very high reputation in England as a teaching order, and no doubt they will prove a great acquisition to the cause of Catholic education in this colony.
The Archbishop of Melbourne, Dr James Goold was very pleased that the twelve apostles had arrived to provide a quality education for the young faithful of the colony.
At the end of September 1888, the Richmond community numbered thirty-four sisters and Vaucluse Convent was established for the education of Catholic young ladies.
In 1889 a community of eight nuns, under the guidance of Mother Stanislaus Stock moved into “Woodlands” in Kew and thus began the Genazzano school story.
Today, Genazzano FCJ College educates nine hundred students from Early Learning to Year 12.
In August 1900 a great crowd of parishioners gathered outside St Joseph’s Church, Benalla in central Victoria to greet the five FCJ sisters who had arrived after a five-hour train journey from Melbourne.
Thus began the involvement of the FCJ sisters in Our Lady of Angels Convent, Benalla which is today known as FCJ College, Benalla, a co-educational secondary school of 470 students from Years 7 to 12.
Genazzano and FCJ College Benalla are the two remaining education institutions under the governance of the Faithful Companions of Jesus in Australia.
John Paul College in Frankston (originally Stella Maris founded by the FCJs in 1968) is now a thriving co-educational school and the Society maintains an ongoing interest in the growth and success of the school.
Over the course of the years since their arrival, the sisters have worked in many schools and parishes for different lengths of time and established and closed schools as the needs arose. These include the schools and parishes of Our Lady of Good Counsel in Deepdene (1924-1981) and Sacred Heart (1899 -1984)in Kew; St. Joseph’s, Benalla (1900-1924) ;St. Mary’s Convent in Hawthorn (1911-1921); St. Joseph’s School in Hawthorn (1889- 1923); St Mary’s, Williamstown (1897-1900); St. Ignatius School, Richmond (1882-2005); St. Brigid’s Healesville (1914-1925) ;St. Berchman’s School, Camberwell (1897-1902); Saint Stanislaus Infants’ School South Richmond (1903-1912);St. Anne’s School, Seaford (1968-1982);St. John’s School, East Frankston (1970-1981);St. Jude’s Langwarrin (1978-1984).
Companionship with others, wherever they are on life’s journey, is the hallmark of the gentle charism of the Faithful Companions of Jesus.
Their contribution to Catholic education in Victoria is immeasurable, lasting and ongoing.
Information sourced: ‘Grit and Grace: The Story of Marie Madeleine de Bonnault d’Houët Foundress of the Faithful Companions of Jesus.’ by Ann Rennie. David Lovell Publishing, 2013. ©Faithful Companions of Jesus.