Two centuries of Catholic Education
During this month, centred particularly on the Feast of Our Lady Help of Christians, the Church in Australia celebrates two centuries of Catholic education. It is fitting to acknowledge one of the great achievements of the Catholic Church in our nation.
From very humble beginnings when Fr John Joseph Therry opened a school in Parramatta which had 31 students, by January 2021 the Catholic Church has grown to now have 1,750 schools across the nation, educating around 770,000 students and employing some 100,000 staff.
It is also worth mentioning that there are some 6,000 Catholic catechists educating some 200,000 children attending government and independent schools. In addition to this, during the twentieth century the Catholic Church developed a number of specialist vocational training colleges which would later be transformed into the Australian Catholic University (ACU). In more recent years ACU has been joined by the University of Notre Dame Australia and Campion College, which together now provide tertiary education for some 50,000 students annually.
All of this is a remarkable achievement.
Here in Tasmania we have 39 Catholic schools and colleges. Hobart was the second place in Australia where a Catholic school was founded. Fr Philip Conolly rented a cottage in Harrington Street in 1823 which quickly grew to provide education for 50 students, a number of whom were not Catholic.
Our Catholic schools were able to grow and spread because of the extraordinary contribution of apostolic religious orders. In 1847 three Sisters of Charity arrived in Hobart from Ireland and, among their various works, provided religious education to girls at St Joseph’s school on the corner of Macquarie and Harrington Streets.
The development of Catholic education would not have been possible but for the number of religious orders who took on this vital apostolate. Here in Tasmania the Presentation Sisters who arrived in 1866 established their first school adjacent to the cathedral in Hobart. That same year saw Mary Mackillop and Fr Julian Tennison Woods found the Sisters of St Joseph of the Sacred Heart and they established their first school in Tasmania in Westbury in 1887. These congregations and many others, both female and male, have made a remarkable contribution such that by the twentieth century Catholic schools were scattered across the island enabling children to receive a Catholic education.
At the time of this bi-centennial the Catholic bishops have written a Pastoral Letter celebrating the achievement of Catholic education but also speaking of the challenges now facing our great educational enterprise. In particular, there is a focus on strengthening and enhancing the Catholic identity of our schools. The bishops look to educational leaders and teachers to be committed to this task which includes finding the means by which students can more fully encounter the person of Jesus Christ.
Our schools are meant to be places where the Catholic faith is experienced and lived. They should enable students to receive a high level of Catholic literacy and be inspired to practice their Catholic faith, especially in and through the sacraments. To achieve this the bishops emphasised the need for a sound religious education curriculum which is attractive and faithfully delivered.
The Catholic Education Office here in Tasmania is committed to advancing the Catholic identity of our schools. They recently launched a new program that seeks to attract men and women of faith to teach in our schools. The Thomas Aquinas Teaching Schools involves an apprenticeship model with trainee teachers working in schools while they undertake educational and theological studies. It is a very significant initiative which should see a generation of new teachers grounded solidly in faith as they are trained as professional teachers.
As we celebrate this significant achievement we also entrust our Catholic schools to Almighty God that, by the grace of the Holy Spirit, our schools will produce young men and women who are enlivened by the Catholic faith, sound in human character, and imbued with a spirit to give Christian witness within our Tasmanian community and the broader Australian society.