A glimpse into St Mary’s Cathedral’s educational history


In te Domine speravi[1]

Recently, the Congregational Archives received a donation of seven photographs (printed copies) from an ex-student of St Mary’s Cathedral Commercial College.  The photographs include student groups from the early 1950s, largely identified by the donor and present a valuable addition to our collection.

The donation prompted the Archives to undertake further research on the schools at St Mary’s Cathedral, to enhance our understanding of their relationship with the Sisters of Charity.

For almost two centuries, Catholic schools have operated on the site of St Mary’s Cathedral, Sydney. The first school, known as the Chapel School, Hyde Park, was built in 1824 under the direction of Fr John Joseph Therry and conducted by Thomas Byrne.[2] In 1838, the Chapel School was joined by St Mary’s Seminary, a secondary school for both ecclesiastical and secular students previously located at the home of Bishop Polding in Woolloomooloo.[3]

Whilst the Seminary closed in the early 1860s, the Chapel School, renamed St Mary’s School, continued to operate under lay teachers.  Several of these lay teachers would later join the Sisters of Charity including Maria Bruton (Sr M. Ursula), headmistress from 1877-1882, Ellen Bruton (Sr M. Cecilia) and Anne Daly (Sr M. Berchmans).[4] Under Maria Bruton, the school achieved excellent reports and according to the Freeman’s Journal, became the “largest denominational school in the colony” with a daily attendance of 260 children in the primary school and almost equal number in the infant’s department.[5]

Following Maria Bruton’s decision to enter the Sisters of Charity in March 1882, Anne Daly, now Sr M. Berchmans returned to St Mary’s and despite being a novice, took up the position of headmistress after consent was given by the Council of Education.[6] In 1883, St Mary’s School reopened as St Mary’s Cathedral Girls’ School, a Catholic parochial school with an enrolment of over 700 pupils and a staff of Sisters led by Sr M. Berchmans.[7]

At the same time, St Mary’s Cathedral Boys School was opened by the Marist Brothers in the old pro-Cathedral at the opposite end of the Cathedral site.   The staffing of these schools by the Sisters of Charity and the Marist Brothers was undertaken in response to the passage of the NSW Public Instruction Act (1880), and subsequent withdrawal of Government aid in December 1882.

In 1885, the Girls’ School moved into a new school building that incorporated the ruins of the old Cathedral and expanded to offer post-primary courses.[8] However, it was obliged to move once again in 1910, as the 1885 structure had to be demolished to make way for the completion of the current Cathedral building.[9]  It was decided that a new three level structure would be built to house both the Girls’ and Boys’ School on the Cathedral site.

On October 23, 1910, Cardinal Moran laid the foundation stone and 18 months later, on April 25, 1912 the new school building was blessed and opened by Archbishop Kelly.[10]  The first and second floor was reserved for the Girls’ School while the ground floor was given to the Boys’ School now conducted by the Christian Brothers.[11]

The building measured 150 feet in length, 50 feet in width and contained two wings which projected out from the main building.  Each floor contained an assembly hall and six classrooms with cloak, hat, and storerooms.[12] Interaction between the schools was limited as each used separate stairways and playgrounds.

In 1926, the Sisters of Charity established St Mary’s Cathedral Commercial College, offering a one-year “Complete Business Course” supplemented by training in speech, deportment, drama, singing and physical culture.[13] Commercial subjects were also taught alongside a classical curriculum to First, Second and Third Year Intermediate.[14]

The College was located in the 1912 building, occupying several rooms from the Girls’ School including “one great hall, on to which open three large rooms separated by glass partitions.”[15] The main hall was reserved for typing lessons, with students in the adjoining classrooms learned shorthand, bookkeeping, business principles and how to operate Wahl-Adders and comptometers.[16] The College was well-regarded among the business community of Sydney and its graduates enjoyed high placement rates.

However, by the 1960s it was becoming clear that the 1912 school building, which had originally been built for 550 students but now accommodating over 1200, could no longer support the Boys’ and Girls’ Schools.[17] It was decided that the Girls Junior Secondary School would close, and the Primary School would be transferred to the Daughters of Charity at the end of 1964.[18]  The Commercial College remained on site until 1967, when it transferred to the former Mount St Patrick’s Ladies College in Paddington and came to be known as St. Mary’s Commercial (later Business) College.[19]

Following the move, the College, then under the direction of Sr Margaret Lee continued to offer a high standard course and maintained its strong reputation.[20]  Despite its success the College faced significant challenges in the mid-1970s following a sharp increase in operating costs and issues over funding with the Federal Government.

By 1977, the Federal Government decided to withdraw financial support to all non-government tertiary institutions including St Mary’s College, although interim funding was granted for 1978, pending a review.[21]  Nevertheless, it was decided by the Sisters that St Mary’s Business College would close at the conclusion of 1978,[22] ending a relationship of nearly 100 years between the Sisters of Charity and the Schools of St Mary’s Cathedral, Sydney.

— Carlos Lopez,

[1] I put my trust in you, Lord – School Motto.

[2] Charles McGee, The Forgotten Ones: Teachers in the Catholic Schools of New South Wales before 1880 (Sydney: Catholic Education Office, 2012), 23; “Advertising: The Roman Catholic Chaplain,” The Australian, June 16, 1825. http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-page4248551.

[3] Vincent Crow, A History of St. Mary’s Cathedral Schools (Sydney: Christian Brothers’ High School, St Mary’s Cathedral, 1984), 1-2; Frances O’Donoghue, The Bishop of Botany Bay: The Life of John Bede Polding Australia’s First Catholic Archbishop (Sydney: Angus and Robertson Publishers, 1982), 36-38.

[4] “Presentation at St. Mary’s School,” Freeman’s Journal, June 4, 1881. http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-page12664164; Edna M. Skewes, Mother Mary Berchmans Daly: Foundress of St Vincent’s Hospital Melbourne (Melbourne: Spectrum Publications, 1989), 14-15.

[5] “St Mary’s Girls’ School,” Freeman’s Journal, March 4, 1882. http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-page12541023

[6] “St Mary’s Girls’ School”; Skewes, Berchmans Daly, 14-15.

[7] Skewes, Berchmans Daly, 15

[8] Crow, Cathedral Schools, 12-15.

[9] Crow, Cathedral Schools, 15-16.

[10] “St. Mary’s Cathedral New Schools: Blessed by the Archbishop of Sydney,” The Catholic Press, April 25, 1912. http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-page11849830

[11] “St. Mary’s Cathedral New Schools: Blessed by the Archbishop of Sydney”.

[12] “St. Mary’s New School,” Freeman’s Journal, April 25, 1912. http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-page12411496

[13] SER/4/380 A461.7/973; Crow, Cathedral Schools, 17-18.

[14] SER/4/378 A461.7/55

[15] “Cathedral Commercial College: Conducted by the Sisters of Charity,” The Catholic Press, September 22, 1927. http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-page11818840

[16] “Cathedral Commercial College”

[17] SER/4/378 A461.7/7

[18] SER/4/377 A471.7/15; Crow, Cathedral Schools, 19.

[19] SER/3/8 31 October 1967

[20] SER/4/374 A461.4/55 – 100% placement rate in 1977.

[21] SER/4/374 A461.4/31 Letter addressed to Sr Margaret Lee from John Leslie Carrick, Minister for Education.

[22] SER/4/374 A461.4/37 Letter addressed to Archbishop James Carroll from Mother Marion Corless, Superior General of the Sisters of Charity of Australia.

When we have so much to praise the Lord for, we must not complain.
True affection is to rejoice in the happiness of our dear ones. Never allow a sentiment of resentment to enter into our hearts.
Pray, reflect and consult – and may the divine spirit direct all to God’s greater glory.
May our dear Lord Jesus fill your hearts with His own love. Amen!
We must have patience with others as He has patience with us.
Under every difficulty try to pray fervently.
We have much to thank Him for, even for those little drawbacks on our comforts and conveniences.
Do pray that justice may be accomplished in peace and that truth may prevail.
Go on now as steadily as you can, relying on the Divine assistance and fear not.
What we do ought to be done well.

The Sisters of Charity acknowledge the First Peoples and traditional custodians of this land where we live. We respect, value and honour their history, culture and spirituality. We are committed to standing in solidarity and to actively working for justice, peace and harmony in this land.

Ask a Question

  • This field is for validation purposes and should be left unchanged.
Contact us
Level 7, 35 Grafton Street
Bondi Junction NSW 2022

T: (02) 9367 1222