“Win the heart of a little child and you can mould the character of a woman whose influence will extend and be still ennobling the world, when we have been long dead and forgotten.”
Primary or junior schools have been a part of the Loreto story in Australia since the very first days of Mother Gonzaga Barry’s arrival in Ballarat. In 1877, only two years after the opening of Mary’s Mount as a boarding school for older students, the Sisters took over a small parish school and reopened it as part of the Dawson Street site in downtown Ballarat. This became St Joseph’s primary school and over 350 pupils attended on the first day. St Joseph’s represented two of Mother Gonzaga’s priorities; her commitment to primary education as the foundation for lifelong education and her desire to ensure poorer Catholic families could access a fine education; at St Joseph’s the fees charged were nominal, or nothing at all for those experiencing hard times. In the book Loreto in Australia, Mary Ryllis Clark writes Mother Gonzaga believed in the importance of education in bringing about social change, especially for women. She also believed that primary teaching was more important than secondary. In a primary school both these commitments could effectively combine.
Strategically Mother Gonzaga placed her finest teacher at the time, Mother Hilda Benson, as the sister in charge and St Joseph’s grew quickly in reputation and success. Both Mother Gonzaga and Mother Hilda believed in the notion, in an echo of the famous epithet attributed to the Jesuits, give me the child until he is seven and I will show you the man, that the earliest years of education could be the most formative. Mother Gonzaga wrote, give her to me till the age of ten. It is childhood’s thoughts that are the backbone of character.
Mother Gonzaga’s reputation as an excellent and progressive educator was recognized very early, when Loreto Abbey Mary’s Mount was invited to take part in the Centennial Exhibition in Melbourne in 1888 as part of the Catholic Church’s inclusion. The Loreto display comprised material from the schools in Ballarat as well as All Saints Parish primary school in Portland, which was established by the Sisters in 1885. The display attracted considerable interest and praise, particularly the section on kindergartens of which she was a pioneer in Australia. Mother Gonzaga had been drawn to the Froebel system which originated in Germany as early as 1837, as the inspiration for her approach to primary education. Frederich Froebel, its founder, believed that play was the highest expression of human development in children, an approach which perhaps informed Gonzaga’s own interest in the importance of early childhood and primary education. In 1900 an educator from Germany came to Australia to train the Loreto sisters in the Froebel method, which led to the establishment of Loreto kindergartens in Sydney in the early 1890s and Melbourne in 1907. Loreto kindergartens came to be known as a significant educational foundation for many Catholic families and demonstrated the commitment of a Loreto education to the whole child, hearts and minds, from the earliest years to adulthood. It was a source of great pride to Mother Gonzaga, that following her advice and, as a result of her encouraging them to share widely the benefits of their own school experiences, Loreto past pupils opened the first free Catholic Kindergarten in Albert Park in 1912. I hope others may follow the good example, for what is taught children at an early age is never forgotten.
Through the establishment of primary schools and kindergartens in the federation era of Australia, we can see that Mother Gonzaga and her colleague’s understandings of child psychology and development were forward thinking, influential and significant. Loreto primary schools were centres for faith formation and educational excellence, shaping morality, aspiration and imagination in younger students that would influence their later lives and learning. Today, there are 6 Loreto primary schools thriving across Australia, some with Early Learning Centres and kindergartens. Each one is led by a team of outstanding educators and each one leads their respective states in educational excellence. Just as Mother Gonzaga intended, our primary schools ensure the education of the whole child, with broad curriculums, innovative teaching and a commitment to creative play, music, the arts, student leadership, faith development and social justice as their hallmarks
These photos give a snapshot of life in a Loreto primary context more than 140 years since the doors of St Joseph’s opened in Ballarat.
Author: Michelle McCarty
Gallery Images: Loreto Junior Students from John XXIII College, Loreto Nedlands, Loreto College Marryatville, Loreto Kirribilli, Loreto Mandeville Hall Toorak and Loreto Normanhurst.
Quotations taken from Loreto in Australia by Mary Ryllis Clark (2009, UNSW)