On 24th May 1855, the P & O ship “Lady Amherst” arrived in Cockburn Sound after a long and tedious voyage of almost four months. Having sailed from London on 31st January, the frigate was then thoroughly checked out at Gravesend by government officials to ensure it was suitably equipped for the long non-stop voyage. Shortly before reaching her destination the “Lady Amherst” was in great danger, having been driven into Geographe Bay in a gale. It was only a propitious wind change at a critical moment that preserved her from being wrecked.
The ship anchored off Fremantle and when the weather allowed, the passengers climbed into cargo baskets, and were lowered over the side into open boats and subsequently carried ashore. Among these passengers were four French Sisters of the Congregation of St Joseph of the Apparition founded in France in 1832 by St Emilie de Vialar.
The Swan River settlement was then just twenty years old, having been officially established by the governor, Captain James Stirling on 1st June 1829.
The Bishop of Perth, Dr Serra, a Benedictine, had travelled to France in 1854 with the aim of finding more teaching sisters for his vast diocese. He accompanied these four young French sisters to the colony. On the day the “Lady Amherst” arrived within sight of Fremantle, Bishop Salvado was visiting Government House in Perth. When he was informed of the ship’s arrival he immediately set out for Fremantle in order to welcome the group, but rough seas prevented him from boarding the ship. However, during the next day or two he supervised the arrangements and business of disembarking.
While their premises were being made ready, the French sisters were taken to Perth on 15th June to stay with the Sisters of Mercy who had arrived in the colony in 1846. The trip to Perth from Fremantle took an entire day, with the poorly marked road leading through rocks, stones, scrub and trees, – a veritable boneshaker of a journey. As the bridge across the river was not built until the sixties, the crossing was made by means of a punt drawn by ropes.
A small two-storey wooden house of four rooms situated on Lot 63 Henry Street (almost next door to where the Orient Hotel now stands on the corner of High street) was provided for the sisters. The upper storey served as convent and the ground floor as church and school. The floor of the building was below ground level and opened directly on to the street. The building was most inadequate in size and quite unhealthy, being affected by rain and dampness. During winter the floor of the cottage was awash with seawater when at high tide it flowed right over to where the Esplanade is now situated. Nevertheless the first convent school was opened there on 1st July 1855.
Adequate accommodation and remuneration had been promised to the sisters, but this promise was not honoured and during those early years they lived in extreme isolation, hardship and poverty. By 1858 they were able to rent other cramped quarters on the corner of High and Queen Streets.
Five years later the growing number of pupils obliged them to consider building premises of their own. In order to do this they had to beg from door to door, but as most of the townsfolk were also living in poor circumstances and, even with bazaars and sales of handmade goods, they did not succeed in raising sufficient funds to purchase land. Therefore a building, initially consisting of four rooms was erected on church property in Adelaide Street adjacent to the Catholic Church that had been built a few years earlier by the Spanish Benedictines. Classes were transferred to this new venue in 1863.
By 1870 the sisters operated three schools – An infants’ school for boys and girls under seven, a girls’ primary school (free) and a ladies’ college for boarders and day pupils. Children of all denominations were educated at these schools.
In 1878 the sisters were able to obtain a house and land in Parry Street and a school was opened there in 1889. This later became St Patrick’s Parish School. Throughout the years the buildings were enlarged and extended. Between 1880 and 1889 a large kitchen, dormitories and a novitiate were added to the Adelaide Street premises. Secondary education was commenced in 1913 at the time the University of WA was established. The reputation for the quality of education offered by the sisters The “French ladies” as they were called, was soon established and children came from all over the colony to benefit. In 1870 Governor Weld sent his daughters to board and be educated by the sisters.
As requests for more schools came in and members of the Congregation increased, the sisters started schools in rural areas. After an eight-day trip by mail coach to Albany in 1878, two sisters and a young lady began classes in this important port and later this developed into a boarding and day school for primary and secondary students.
In 1889, three sisters began teaching in Northam, starting with nine pupils. North Fremantle followed in 1890 with the sisters living in a cottage left to them by the grandmother of one of their number. For some years the Sisters travelled to Cottesloe on Sundays where they taught catechism.
With the turn of the century, further expansion took place. Sisters began teaching at Beaconsfield in 1903, walking there and back each day form the central house in Fremantle. However as it was time-consuming and tiring it was later decided that they should stay at Beaconsfield during the week (in rather primitive accommodation) and return to Fremantle at weekends. East Fremantle was next in 1905; here again the sisters stayed overnight during the week.
In 1922 a primary school was established in Kalamunda – this later became a boarding school for primary boys. In 1933 there was a move to the wheat belt town of Cunderdin and the following year, a small beginning was made at Spearwood. In many of these schools, classes were held in church buildings, until better facilities could be provided. Later on, schools were established at Mt Barker (1943), Mundaring (1953), Hilton Park (1954), Medina (1956) and eastwards to Victoria -Gisborne 950), and Ivanhoe (three schools) in 1951. A convalescent home for elderly ladies was opened in Kalamunda in 1948 catering for about twenty residents. In 1971 two sisters joined the school staff at Beagle Bay Mission in the north of our state.
There was always great interaction between the sisters and the local people particularly in the country areas. It is also to be noted that the sisters who taught music played an essential role in all of these establishments, especially in the smaller houses. Without the minimum remuneration obtained thereby, the sisters’ existence would have been most precarious. In addition the development of local culture was much enhanced, and the basis for future careers of numerous students was established. Many hours after school and at weekends were spent visiting the sick and the poor in the surrounding districts, and also visiting the prisons. Travelling to outlying districts with the priest on Sundays to give religion lessons after Mass was also a regular event. In the country areas, “Bushy Schools” were conducted during school holidays, where concentrated courses in preparation for receiving the Sacraments were provided.
The school in Adelaide Street, which became known as St Joseph’s College, expanded and flourished during the first half of the twentieth century. By 1921 the dwelling house adjoining the convent had been purchased to provide accommodation for Junior and Leaving classes.
A further two cottages were purchased a few years later to cater for growing numbers. Ultimately the College occupied the area from St Patrick’s Church to the Funeral Director’s in Adelaide Street, where Ross’s Salvage and Handyman Centre and the car park are now situated. At the back of the funeral director’s, tennis courts extended to the boundary of Point Street. The grounds also touched on the boundary of Josephson Street, (St Patrick’s School formerly situated in Parry Street, currently occupies this area). Three cottages between the early College buildings and Prosser Scott’s building on Adelaide Street were later purchased and used as classrooms.
The business people of the district who were always keen to employ students as they completed their courses, held the College in high esteem. Centenary Celebrations marked the year 1955 and that same year the foundation stone of St Joseph’s Hospital at Bicton was laid, a further extension of the work of the Congregation. This 34-bed hospital was officially opened on 11th November 1956.
By the sixties, the old buildings of St Joseph’s were beginning to show signs of disrepair and after much soul-searching it was decided to relocate the Secondary College to Hilton where it continued under the name of De Vialar College, being opened on 24th May 1968. This large complex included classrooms, science rooms, a language laboratory, a large hall and chapel, dormitories (catering for 32 boarders) as well as a convent, Provincialate, novitiate, kitchen, dining rooms, etc…
The old convent and College premises were advertised for auction in May 1967 and were purchased by G.J. Cole who had the building demolished in September to make way for a supermarket and car park which opened in September 1969 as Cole’s new World Supermarket.
The seventies saw great changes in the apostolates of the sisters in the Australian Province. No vocations were forthcoming, the sisters were becoming older and the needs of people seemed to be calling the Province to look at the desirability, or otherwise, of maintaining its institutions. After much prayer, soul-searching, consultation and, it must be admitted, much pain, the Provincial Council decided upon a policy of divesting the province of its institutions.
The sisters started withdrawing, first from their primary schools, then from their secondary schools and last of all from their only hospital in Western Australia. It was a time when great trust in the Lord was required. The institutions were the sisters’ main source of income and were the location of most of the apostolates in which the sisters had worked for all of their religious lives. Nevertheless, once the decision had been made the sisters trustingly turned their backs on these congregation owned institutions and “launched out into the deep.”
Faithful to the charism of their foundress, St Emilie, the sisters widened their educational activities and began educating adults in the faith. They started preparing people for Baptism and other sacraments. They initiated and taught catechetical programmes for children attending government schools. Others obtained counselling degrees and offered their services to poor people, who needed counselling, but were not able to afford the cost of this professional service. Some sisters, freed from the constraints of institutions, offered their expertise to other provinces and left Australia for a time, to help others less fortunate than themselves. Other sisters worked with organisations like the St Vincent de Paul Society or taught English to migrants. The apostolates, which emerged, were very diverse and reached many marginalized people.
The sisters, since the seventies have had a low profile, as they are no longer associated with institutions. They also do not have a captive audience of young people as they once did when they ran schools. However they feel they are now closer to their patron St Joseph, who had the most important task of caring for the Holy Family, yet did not have one of his words recorded in the New Testament. Like St Emilie, who saw the needs of her times and sought to remedy them, so our changing times have brought new and different challenges wherein to live out the charism and apostolic religious life in today’s world.