Fremantle Stuff > Early Days: Journal and Proceedings of the Royal Western Australian Historical Society

Early Days, Volume 8, 1977-1982

The Presentation Sisters: unsung pioneers of education

Ruth Marchant James

James , Ruth Marchant 1980, 'The Presentation Sisters: unsung pioneers of education', Early Days, Volume 8, Part 4: 83-92.


Bishop Gibney was a man absorbed in education, and when he invited the Eastern-States-based Order of the Presentation Sisters to found a school in the W.A. goldmining town of Southern Cross, his suggestion met with instant enthusiasm.

The foundress of this teaching Sisterhood was Honora (Nano) Nagle, a wealthy young Irishwoman born in 1718. This dedicated young woman donated funds to assist the building of several Catholic convents, schools and public infirmaries. In 1775 Nano Nagle took the name of Sister St John of God, and the following year, with four pious supporters, she established a religious congregation which was the forerunner of the Presentation Order - or more correctly, Sisters of the Presentation of the Blessed Virgin Mary. These women were described as Sisters of charitable instruction.

Their advent into New South Wales came about when William Lanigan, Bishop of Goulbum, commissioned the Very Reverend McAlroy to bring out from Ireland in the 1870s a number of teaching nuns to work in his diocese - in particular, in the thriving town of Wagga Wagga. In 1874 five nuns from the Presentation Convent in Kildare, Ireland, volunteered to found the mission in New South Wales. Before departing, they wisely sought an indult from the Pope requesting that they be allowed to alter their former ruling, in as much that they be allowed to teach not only the poor but also children from wealthy backgrounds, bearing in mind that many of the well-to-do landowners in Australia had daughters also in need of education.

By 1881 they had built in Wagga Wagga a convent school and a convent; and eleven professed Sisters, two novices and three postulants were teaching approximately 200 children and 150 Sunday School pupils. The Order was very much aware of the need to recruit Australian girls for their community, so a Novitiate training school was opened in 1877. In that year, Sister Mary Angela Tracey, entered: after she took her final vows, she joined Mt Erin’s first independent country branch at Hay, New South Wales, and it was from there that she, as


Reverend Mother, began her long trek west, accompanied by four volunteers—Mother Mary Jones and Mary Joseph O’Dowling with Sisters Mary Paul O'Halloran and Mary Columba Moyniham. They embarked from Melbourne on the 6th February 1900 on the S.S. Orizaba for the voyage to Fremantle via Albany.

Due to a misunderstanding, the poor women disembarked at Albany instead of Fremantle, a mistake that cost them dearly in both time and comfort, for it necessitated a long tedious train trip in the searing heat of summer.

Father Morris, the parish priest at Albany, arranged to place the party in the care of the sisters of St. Joseph, who provided a substantial meal before they left to catch the 11 p.m. train on the last leg of their journey to Southern Cross. It was Albany Week and tightly packed carriages made the trip a nightmare. The Sisters were relieved to alight at Northam after passing twelve uncomfortable hours sandwiched together. Northam’s priest was at that time absent from town, so Mother Celestine from a nearby convent sent some of her school boarders to guide the nuns to their temporary quarters. It was during this two-day stopover that the five Sisters experienced their first real taste of a West Australian summer. They found the extreme temperature and scourge of mosquitoes intolerable, and they suffered from an insatiable thirst.

It was about 7 a.m. on a hot, airless morning in 1900 when the five Presentation Sisters raised the hems of their heavy black robes and gingerly stepped down from a carriage onto the dusty railway depot at Southern Cross. Surveying the squalor and poverty that surrounded them, their hearts sank! The Sisters were tired from a long and wearisome journey, but glad nevertheless, to reach their destination. Fellow passengers left the primitive platform one by one as the bewildered nuns waited expectantly for a welcoming party to appear. The group’s diminishing hopes were eventually pinned on a smallish man who was almost enveloped by a large white umbrella lined with green. As he turned to search the nearby carriages, the group was greatly relieved to see a familiar Roman collar come into view!

Reverend Father Wilfred Hampson, Parish Priest, accompanied by a handful of children and a single parishioner, soon took the nuns under his wing. He had been quite excited about the propsect of a teaching Order being sent to Southern Cross, but being somewhat uncertain about the time of their arrival, had failed to organise a reception for them. To add to the poor man’s embarrassment he offered to collect the Sisters’ luggage whilst they ate breakfast at the Maryah Hotel opposite the station. This he promptly forgot to do, with the result that their personal belongings continued on with the train and were not, in fact, returned until three months later.

Southern Cross in the early 1900s was the gateway to the goldfields. A rough mining town with a variety of inhabitants, it had become a railway depot when the line reached there in 1894. This depot served the needs of a rail line that ran hundreds of miles without any other coal supply apart from one at


Northam (170 miles west) and another at Coolgardie (120 miles east). Shanties and temporary camps sprang up beside the railway line to accommodate the gangs of fettlers and clearers who serviced it. The majority of these men were transient workers, mostly bachelors, who hoped to save enough money from their wages to form a basis for their future lives. Engine drivers, guards and fitters were well paid for those days, sometimes earning as much as £7.0.0 a week. Naturally a number of the single men married, and in consequence the female and infant population of the town increased - a situation which created a need for a more permanent style of living.

Apart from the shanties, “Railway Town" in those days consisted of the usual hotel, close to the station, a few shops, a couple of eating-places and a number of weather-board structures for the use of the railway officials. The town's main business thoroughfare, Antares Street, had very few buildings and the side streets were virtually non-existent. They were in fact mere tracks and quite hazardous in parts, due to the many stumps left there after hurried clearings.

Father Hampson, writing under the pseudonym “Viator”, states in his small publication “My Australian Diary—Five Years in the Antipodes” that the remainder of Southern Cross “looked a picture of desolation. Torn canvas of tents fluttered in the breeze. Horseshoes, bottles, fire ashes were strewn about in all directions”. Abandoned shafts were a common sight, although Mt. Fraser Mine employed 300 men and paid dividends on an average of 7d wts. Like the prosperous railway workers, most miners took home a good wage. This probably accounts for the Priest’s remark: “I had a wooden chapel and a congregation that dressed like dukes and duchesses.”

In his diary Father Hampson also notes the sandiness of the soil and the lack cf rocks throughout the area. “To reach the hospital, which stood across the lake, one had to walk some distance ankle deep in sand”. He described the Government school as “a large well-appointed building of coloured sandstone”.

The Catholic Church at Southern Cross left a lot to be desired. As a structure it was extremely run down and, except for the back section where the altar stood, still unlined. About a dozen unpainted deal forms furnished the small interior and outside, close at hand, a Mass bell hung in the fork of a rather high tree.

It is interesting to note that shortly after settling down to a life in the goldfields, one Presentation nun wrote that “the sun shone in full golden splendour, but nothing in and around the primitive little dingy town showed that the Golden West was anything but a misnomer”. Another entry noted that “our hearts were sad indeed, when we saw the fields of our labours”. Later these observations were reappraised, when the writer remarked: “Southern Cross deserves its name because the hearts of the people there are truly golden and kindly and hospitable to a degree”.

Mrs. Murphy was among the first parishioners in the town to thoughtfully assist the Sisters upon their unexpected arrival, escorting them to the post office


to send a telegram to New South Wales, then later taking them to a nearby hotel for a hasty lunch. Here they were forced to brace themselves against the stares of the curious who waited outside, un experience that left them feeling almost like animals on exhibition.

The Sisters, used to more hygienic surroundings, were much disgusted by the grubbiness of the place and shuddered at the thought of food being prepared on such shoddy premises. Wondering how they could possibly cope with this new setback, they must have been delighted to make the acquaintance of the town's lock-up keeper, Corporal Goodridge, a genial soul, who lost no time in inviting the party to take tea with him at his home.

Deep despondency overcame the Sisters at the thought of the huge task yet ahead of them; still weary from their journey and disappointed by the many reversals they had encountered so far, the women began to wonder if they could remain under such conditions. These doubts were not stilled when Father Hampson informed Mother Superior that, as the additions to their quarters were still under construction and the necessary bedding and household requirements still in transit, he felt that the Sisters unfortunately had no choice other than to rough it for a time. Mother Angela, concerned for those in her care, told the harrassed Priest in no uncertain terms, that she “did not bring her nuns half a country away to rough it, but guessed they would have to make the best of a bad matter”.

In the meantime Tom Ryan, a young Irish schoolmaster, had heard about their plight and, fearful that the parishioners of Southern Cross might lose the chance of obtaining a Catholic education for their children, offered the homeless Sisters temporary accommodation. Shortly afterwards Reverend Mother, accompanied by Mother John, made a quick expedition to Perth. There they stayed with the Mercy nuns at Victoria Square and at the earliest opportunity sought an appointment with the Bishop to discuss their future.

To help ease the rather uncomfortable position back in Southern Cross, Father Hampson vacated his own premises and moved into a tent erected close by. The Priest then attempted to goad his somewhat lethargic flock into action, hoping that a number of them might assist him in completing the building programme. English born, he was inclined to believe that much of the apathy and lack of support was due to the fact that most families living on the 'fields had Irish backgrounds. The Sisters on the other hand attributed the congregation’s complacency to a lack of education and religious fervour: a combination which meant that, as parents, many were lax when it came to the needs of their own children.

The new school opened on the 26th February 1900, when 18 children of both sexes commenced lessons. The following day the nuns moved into their makeshift convent. Although they still found the heat oppressive, the five women were greatly relieved to discover that, in keeping with most desert regions, the temperature usually fell around 5 p.m., thus ensuring pleasant sleeping conditions.


The school was, to say the least, inadequate. It had little or no furniture and very few requisitions—namely a small pile of broken slates, torn charts and a sparse number of rickety chairs. The ten shillings a week the Sisters received for school fees did not allow the Order to provide anything other than the bare essentials. Indeed if it had not been for some of their new-found friends, these women would have found it impossible to exist.

Conditions improved when the number of pupils attending the school increased. A decision was made then to build a rough verandah onto the side of the building. This extension consisted of several bark-covered tree trunks, supporting a roof of galvanised iron. Pupils sat beneath the shade of this lean-to, on planks of wood laid flat across two boulders, their tiny buttoned boots resting on a floor of loose stones. In spite of this protective covering the brilliant sun was often so intensely fierce, that the heavily-gowned teacher was forced to protect herself by balancing an umbrella above her head whilst she taught.

The Nuns resided in two rooms to which a larger weatherboard annexe had been attached. This latter section was divided and served as a combination parlour, oratory, music and recreation room. The smaller chambers were used as bedrooms. Mothers John and Joseph occupied one of these cramped spaces, which proved to be unbelievably stifling, as two of its three windows refused to open and the remaining one could only be raised a foot or so from the sill. Apart from these drawbacks, it was also necessary to close the door whenever the neighbouring room alongside was being used for either music lessons or visitors.

The Nuns' success in obtaining several violin and pianoforte pupils meant that the convent’s meagre income received a substantial boost. In fact at one stage the teachers were coping with twenty-eight budding musicians. This exercise not only kept the wolf from their door, but also heightened their popularity in the town.

The other tiny cell-like room leading into the church was of such a confined nature that one sister was forced to remain in bed, whilst the other occupant dressed. A lean-to kitchen was just as small, and it was only possible for one person at a time to stand in front of the Metters stove. In this room the roof leaked so badly when it rained that tubs had to be placed in strategic positions to catch the intruding water.

Throughout the goldfields in those days, water was of course very precious, and sometimes in return for a child’s school or music lessons, a parent would offer to do the convent’s laundry. One mother of six occasionally washed, starched and ironed the nuns’ giumpes and bandeaux; and as a personal favour a railway guard, Jack McCarthy, often provided the convent with firewood.

The religious group soon realised the need to be careful with every drop of water. The luxury of taking a bath was almost a forgotten memory, for the daily supply of water received by the convent each morning was placed into large basins and continuously recycled. The dregs of the day were finally stored in


an old tub or barrel and used at the end of each week to wash the floors. When the Sisters' supply ran short, Government schoolmaster, Tom Ryan, supplemented the convent’s store of fresh water from the State School’s underground rainwater tank. Even so, restraint still had to be exercised, for when extra water was not obtainable, a supply had to be purchased. This proved costly and many residents could ill afford the added expense. The purchased water was however in great demand, and because the colour usually appeared a muddy brown, the local youngsters were prompted to nickname the commodity “cheap tea”, a name that was later taken up by the adults.

Bishop Gibney’s first visit to Southern Cross on the 27th of April 1900 created a great deal of excitement. The Bishop was completely taken aback, when he saw the conditions under which the nuns were living. He was later heard to remark that “it was a wonder they weren’t all at death’s door, living in such catacombs". As a result of his tour, Mother Superior was given permission to spend £200 on the erection of a new dormitory, parlour and a fenced enclosure. With these extra funds the Sisters were also able to improve their oratory by lining the walls with matchboard to guard against the draughts in winter. They then called tenders to build a new church-school within the fenced-off area. This contract was let to Mr. Garris, who arranged at the same time to convert the two small existing rooms into a much needed refectory. The foundation stone was laid on 23rd June, 1900 by Captain Oats, M.L.A. The church was finished by August, and for the first time since their arrival in the West, the Sisters felt some headway was being made towards the establishment of a Presentation Order in Western Australia. Their moment of quiescence was rudely interrupted however, when the studs and framework of the new building suddenly collapsed during a severe storm. The builder had introduced a new material called Rubcroid, which was a tough type of paper, tarred in layers about the thickness of an old fashioned penny. It seems that this innovation was not successful, owing to incorrect calculations being made by the architects during the initial stages of planning. Unfortunately, the rebuilding programme was a rather costly exercise which could not take place immediately, as the workmen had moved onto other jobs.

Undaunted, the nuns continued to teach in their roofless school for at least two weeks. Yet even after the Ruberoid problem was rectified, it appears that the Sisters’ troubles were not altogether over. Six weeks later the side of the church broke away from its uprights and subsequently the material had to be reinforced. These unexpected events placed a huge financial strain on the convent’s resources, so in an effort to solve their immediate difficulties, the Sisters were forced to organise a fund-raising concert. No doubt in those days any form of entertainment was most welcome in a town of that size, and the nuns were highly delighted when they managed to raise £40. The Mayor, Mr. Montgomery, paid tribute to the nuns’ energy and zeal.

The increasing number of pupils attending the convent meant that it soon became necessary for the community to recruit a lay sister to take over the housekeeping and household chores, thus releasing the remaining nuns for their teaching duties. Before Miss Amy Houlahan (the future Sister Anthony) arrived from


Fremantle on 13th June 1901 to take over that office, a young schoolgirl named Hannah had readily assisted, whenever possible, in the kitchen.

By adding extra subjects to their syllabus, such as violin, pianoforte, theory, plain and fancy needlework and painting in both oils and water colours, the Sisters were able to support their community of six at a far more comfortable level. Every spare moment of the day was occupied, and continued improvements made to their surroundings created a sense of permanency at the convent. Each Presentation Sister contributed her own personal touch. Even the Prie Dieu boxes were hand-made: first the rough wood was covered with oilcloth, then with material which was lovingly embroidered in an appropriate design. These upholstered boxes made a welcome change from kneeling on the bare boards.

On the 27th January 1902 the hardworking, yet slightly disorganized Father Hampson was recalled to Perth to take up new duties. He was replaced by the Reverend Gerald Joseph Griffen. About that time, Bishop Gibney suggested that Reverend Mother revisit the Mother House at Mt. Erin in New South Wales to recruit postulants. With this mission in view, Mother Angela and her companion Mother John boarded the steamer Arabia bound for the Eastern States, bringing back with them a new member.

By the year 1903 the Order had secured a fairly large house in the south-west coal-mining town of Collie and on the 2nd August 1903 they officially opened it as St. Bridget’s, a new convent school. Rented for twenty shillings a week, this insignificant little building boasted very few interior furnishings, yet it soon became a landmark in the district.

Five years after the nun’s arrival in this State, a Church decision was made concerning the future of the Presentation Order. Southern Cross passed into the Diocese of New Norcia and the convent and school were then handed over to the Sisters of St. Joseph. The five original pioneers, at the request of Bishop Gibney, were sent down to Perth to establish a primary school and convent in the flourishing seaside suburb of Cottesloc. This move was warmly welcomed by popular Father Richard O’Neill. As local parish priest he was keenly aware of the need for a church school to cater for the many Catholic children then living in the district.

The busy Perth-Fremantle road (now Stirling Highway) stretched between the capital city and the port, and the erection of an English-type pier at Cottesloe in 1906 meant that this beach locality, so ideally situated near road, river and rail transport, was rapidly showing signs of becoming Perth’s most celebrated beach resort. Prior to 1904 the spiritual needs of Catholic residents in the Cottesloe and Claremont areas were attended to by the Oblate Fathers from Fremantle. Mass was initially celebrated in a small hall in Marmion Street, Cottesloc, and later in the more centrally-placed Well’s Hall (its site now the Grove Plaza) on the Perth-Fremantle road. As both these areas became more settled, Bishop Gibney decided that the time was ripe to appoint a resident priest. The Reverend O’Neill arrived in Perth about April 1904 and was billeted with Mr.


John Brody of Railway Street, Cottesloe. Keen to establish his new parish, the cleric began to search the suburb for a suitable block of land on which to build a church. He did not have to look far, for a generous benefactor, Dr. Kenny, donated a valuable site along the Perth-Fremantle road. This enabled a newly-formed committee to make arrangements to build the first part of the proposed church. Mr. Cavanagh, a well known Perth architect, was commissioned to draw up the plans, and several notable identities (Bishop Gibney, Messrs. Frank Connor, T.G.A. Molloy and M.J. Durack) were named as guarantors. The foundation stone for the new church was laid by the Bishop in August 1904 and about December that year the first section of the building was completed and officially opened.

In those early days the Priest’s parish boundaries were widespread, extending from North Fremantle to Claremont, included Karrakatta and took in areas now known as Dalkeith and Nedlands. Father O’Neill covered his parish by using a buggy or by riding horseback. He had a full-time job attending to his many religious duties and visiting his scattered parishioners. Sunday Mass was celebrated at the new Cottesloe church, and on weekdays the service was conducted at either the nearby Loreto Convent, the Old Men’s Home (now Sunset), or the Claremont Asylum.

The Presentation Sisters on their arrival from Southern Cross experienced residential problems and were forced to rent a series of houses around the Cottesloe area. They took over the Dicken’s home in Burt Street until they were able to transfer to a house, rented to them by the Patters, for the sum of twenty shillings a week. When this arrangement came to an end, the Emmanuel family of Forrest Street allowed them to use their home “Bellevue”. This period was followed by a short spell at a residence known as “Eastbourne” and finally at the “Nest”, a property situated on the Perth-Fremantle road and owned by the Duracks.

The teachers from Southern Cross made an all-out effort to establish quickly their new Parish school in Cottesloe, and in 1905 their first classes were held in the newly-completed Star of the Sea Church. Movable benches, blackboards and altar were rearranged daily to suit the requirements of either a school lesson or church service. The Sisters trekked back and forth between their rented accommodation and the school, praying that “Fortune” would soon smile their way and perhaps provide them with some semblance of a permanent home. As it happened “Lady Fortune” did favour them in more ways than one. In 1907 Bishop Gibney decided to assist the Order by arranging for the purchase of an elegant two storey residence. This building was pleasingly situated on the rise above Mosman Bay, a position which enjoyed views of a wide expanse of the Swan River.

“Buckland House”, the former home of Scotsman Dr. Adam Jameson, had been built originally in 1897. Dr. Jameson was the Cottesloe Road Board’s first appointed Health Officer and a foundation member of both the Peppermint Grove and Buckland Hill Road Boards. When the Doctor’s departure to South


Africa seemed imminent, he sold Buckland House to prominent West Australian mining magnate Colonel Zebina Lane, who promptly renamed the property “Chateau Perseverance” after one of his mines. This title, had it remained, could well have suited the Presentation Sisters, for they have been noted throughout their history for perseverance against what must have sometimes seemed insurmountable odds.

The sale of this fine old home was duly completed, and on the 11th September 1907 the nuns gave up their nomadic way of life and moved into “Iona”, the future Mother House of the Presentation Order in Western Australia. The name “Iona” was chosen when Bishop Gibney made his first visit to the convent. It was a clear sunny day, and His Grace found it most difficult to take his eyes off the blue depths of the river to his right, and to his left the Indian Ocean turning silver in the late afternoon sun. Obviously touched by the serene beauty surrounding him, the Bishop remarked: “We are on an island - the island of Iona with Columba in the midst”. His reference was of course clearly twofold - Sister Columba being one of the original pioneers from New South Wales, and Iona, the name of an enchanting island off the Western coast of Scotland where a monastery was founded in 563. It is there in the ancient monastery churchyard, that forty-eight kings of Scotland, four kings of Ireland and eight kings of Norway lie buried. Included among these is Duncan, Macbeth’s victim.

Iona was the isle chosen by the evangelist St. Columba as the religious centre from which he would spread Christianity to the British Isles.

The Presentation Sisters continued to build up their primary school venture at Star of the Sea, Cottesloe. Father O’Neill had meanwhile acquired a suitable site next to the existing church on which to build a much-needed presbytery. This land, purchased by the church for £200 had previously been owned by Sir John Forrest. By the year 1913 the area’s Catholic population had increased so much, that it was decided to operate Claremont as a separate parish. Father Tom Masterton was appointed as that suburb’s first priest, and until he was provided with permanent living quarters, he followed the example of the Cottesloe curates and boarded with Tim Davidson, father of newspaper columnist Frank Davidson.

In 1907 a boarding and day school for young ladies seeking higher education was established in the new convent at Iona. The curriculum presented to prospective pupils offered a wide variety of scholastic and musical subjects, and it was also taken for granted by those parents who enrolled their daughters at the school, that religious instruction and all the usual social graces befitting a young lady of that era would be high on the list of priorities.

The Presentation Sisters added two more primary schools to their list. In 1908 they opened a small school at Claremont and called it St. Thomas's after the renowned teacher St. Thomas Aquinas. The following year they took on a similar undertaking at Beverley, a pastoral town on the Albany line. Later in 1938 another convent was established at Goomalling.


A long line of scholars from many walks of life have passed through the hands of the Presentation Sisters since 1900, and those original makeshift rooms at Southern Cross seem light years away from today’s fashionable new convent and college at Mosman Park.

Perhaps the greatest contribution made by those early pioneering teachers was that they brought with them not only their religious teachings and scholastic knowledge, but that they also introduced to the lonely outback a certain amount of culture with their music, painting, needlework and elocution lessons, and with their refined manner—a touch of gentility.


1. “Centenary of the Sisters of the Presentation of the Blessed Virgin Mary, Wagga Wagga, N.S.W., 1874-1974”. Bernard T. Dowd., F.R.A.H.S. and Sheila E. Tearle, B.A., 1973.

2. Private Diaries of Pioneer Sisters held at “Iona” Presentation Convent, Mosman Park, W.A.

3. “My Australian Diary—Five Years in the Antipodes”. “Viator” (Rev. Fr. Wilfred Hampson).

4. L.R.M. Hunter, Great Eastern News, 1/8/57.

5. Catholic Church Archives.

Garry Gillard | New: 7 September, 2020 | Now: 7 September, 2020