Over two hundred years ago, Father John Joseph Therry opened the first official Catholic school in Australia – the year was 1820. The Principal was a gentleman named George Morley – a convict and former accountant. The school started with 31 students, both boys and girls.
The primary purpose of Catholic Education has always been and continues to be to instil the message of Jesus in the hearts, minds and spirits of young Australians. As we pass 200 years, the hope is that all Loreto students emerge from our schools with a deepened sense of spirituality, carrying with them the Loreto values of freedom, justice, sincerity, verity and felicity.
From the late nineteenth century, much of the life and development of Catholic schools was sustained by religious orders coming to Australia, mostly from Europe. Amongst these were the Loreto Sisters. In 1875 the pioneering Sisters, led by Mother Gonzaga Barry, ventured over 27,000 kilometres from Ireland to Ballarat at the invitation of Bishop Michael O’Connor in response to the educational needs of the increasing population. Landing Day (19 July 1875) marks the beginning of the ministry of the Loreto Sisters in Australia and South East Asia.
Gonzaga and her companions established Catholic primary and secondary schools in Ballarat and, soon after, in other states of Australia. Her vision for the education of girls focused on a broad and rich curriculum which led to Gonzaga’s significant influence on the development of education in the country. The Sisters also taught in more than 20 parish schools, opened the first free Catholic kindergarten in South Melbourne (1912) and provided commercial training for school leavers in Ballarat and South Melbourne.
Today, Catholic schools are the largest non-government provider of schooling in Australia, educating 770,000 primary and secondary school students (approximately 20% of all Australian students), in more than 1,750 schools, with nearly 100,000 teachers and support staff. Catholic schools are located in every part of the nation, including remote and rural communities. There are seven Loreto Schools in Australia and over 80 throughout the world.
The strength of early Catholic education was built on the commitment, passion and courage of the religious congregations, and today’s highly effective Catholic schools stand firmly on the shoulders of the members of these congregations. The strength of the Catholic school system resides in the dedication of all who work and minister in them – those who are committed to excellence and equality. “Alongside families and parishes, Catholic schools are the Church’s primary connection with young people. They are fundamental to the Church’s mission of progressing the faith to the next generation and forming young people as future contributors to Australian society” (Archbishop Anthony Fisher OP, Archbishop of Sydney).
Catholic schools, for two centuries, have inspired millions of young Australians and made an invaluable contribution to the moral fibre and character of our nation. The bicentenary of Catholic education in Australia invites us to remember the past, be inspired in the present, and look forward with faith in the future. Together, we celebrate Catholic Education, our Loreto origins in Australia, and all of the Loreto Sisters, staff, students and school communities.