Penola and the Mary McKillop story

The small town of Penola at the bottom of the Coonawarra Wine Region was where it all began for Mary McKillop. It was here that her vision for providing a Catholic education to poor children was realised.

Mary was born to Scottish parents in Melbourne in 1842, the eldest of eight children. Her father was not a successful business man and the family faced many hardships and she gladly accepted a position as governess to her small cousins at her Uncle Alexander Cameron and Aunt Margaret Cameron (née McKillop), at Penola Station. Mary was only 18 when she arrived in Penola.

In Penola Mary met the charismatic priest Father Julien Tenison Woods. Father Julien was a popular parish priest whose parish included a vast area of some 56,000 square kilometres in South Australia. Father Julien rode his horse all over his parish and was well loved by his parishioners. He could be found regularly celebrating Mass beneath the River Red Gums. He was an educated man and had an interest in geology, writing, map making, music and even the Theory of Evolution.

He and Mary were like-minded in wanting to provide a Catholic education to those children whose families could not afford to pay for a governess. They both felt it was every child’s right to a good Catholic education.

Their first school was set up in an old 6 stall horse stable in 1866. Mary’s brother helped remove the horse stalls and the school began. Mary’s two sisters, Annie and Lexie, came to help. This is the time the Mary made a declaration of her dedication to God and began wearing black.

The school flourished and a new school was built out of stone in 1867. It had a large school room, a dormitory for the Sisters and a big kitchen. Mary insisted that all their furniture be as poor peoples so everything was plain and functional. By the end of 1867 10 other women had joined with Mary and they all adopted the plain brown religious habit and became known as the Sisters of St Joseph of the Sacred Heart. They were known locally as ‘the brown Joeys’. This was the first religious order founded by an Australian.

Mary’s school system was eventually taken up by the church and was the beginning of the Catholic Education system in Australia. By the end of 1869 more than 70 members of the Sisters of St Joseph were educating children at 21 schools in Adelaide and in the country.

Mary traveled widely and helped establish schools in Queensland and NSW. Mary’s untiring work in education was finally recognised by the church hierarchy and after her death in 1909 she was canonised and became Australia’s first Saint in 2010.

Penola is home to the Mary McKillop Penola Centre which includes the original 1867 Schoolhouse. The lives of Mary and Father Woods are celebrated in the excellent displays inside the centre. It is well worth a visit when you are in Penola.


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