HISTORY SEARCH: Ena Hehir looks over a copy of the 1872 Gympie Times to find information about Mary MacKillop.
HISTORY SEARCH: Ena Hehir looks over a copy of the 1872 Gympie Times to find information about Mary MacKillop.

Lost connection with Saint Mary

AUSTRALIA’S first saint was just 30 years old when she established a primary school at the raw settlement of Monkland in 1872.

It’s a small but significant piece of Gympie history that is almost entirely shrouded in the mists of time.

What we do know, says historian Dr Elaine Brown, is that Sister Mary MacKillop first visited Gympie in 1872.

A small band of the Sisters of Joseph arrived at the Nashville goldfields to set up the first local convent school at a site on the corner of Brisbane Road and Araluen Terrace.

It was a mere eight years after James Nash discovered gold in a gully in bushland not far from the Mary River.

In the early 1870s there were about 10,000 people living in the town and conditions would have been basic. The nuns lived in what was little more than a hut.

It’s part of local history that is crying out for some attention, Dr Brown said.

“It would be helpful for someone to take it on as a project,” she said.

“To come to the library and go through The Gympie Times from the 1870s and pull out these stories. The Gympie Times covered all those things and nobody has ever done that.”

Dr Brown said it would be an ideal project for someone whose ancestors went to the original St Joseph’s school at Monkland.

The Gympie link is a snippet of history that highlights the type of work Mary MacKillop was doing, and graphically illustrates that the path she was taking was not an easy one, reflected Gympie Catholic priest Father Pat Cassidy.

The era was not conducive to a young nun of independent mind and determined nature wanting to be in control of anything, let alone one with an aim to do something as novel as educate the poor.

“I don’t think people have realised up to this point how significant she was in Australian history,” Father Pat said.

“She was the first one to put forward that all people deserve education at a time when only the rich were educated.

“Ultimately the state stepped in but it was Mary MacKillop that started the whole thing rolling.”

In 1879, Mary MacKillop visited Gympie for the second time, this time to pull out the Sisters of St Joseph after she clashed with Bishop Quinn about teaching directions. Father Pat sees it as two people wanting to achieve the same goal, but tackling it from different angles and ending up at loggerheads.

“She knew what she was on about – they had a purpose and a direction and this is what she was trying to say to Bishop Quinn.”

Parishioners who spoke with The Gympie Times yesterday were keen to piece together Mary MacKillop’s history in the local area.

After all, how often can you walk in the steps of a saint in your own home town? “We need to keep the history for posterity,” parishioner Pat Carroll said.

Gympie’s Peter Clifford could think of no one more deserving to receive sainthood than the “vibrant and dogged” Mary MacKillop, who saw education so vital for all, she set her sights on what would have been in 1872, the rough and ready mining town of Gympie.

“Her altruism wasn’t in vogue at the time,” Mr Clifford said. “I think she’s comparable to Mother Teresa and will have a huge positive influence on Christendom, especially in Australia.”

Gympie Times

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