Eight hundred years separates the foundation of the original Dominican Convent, Our Lady of Prouilhe, in the south of France and the Congregation of Dominican Sisters of W.A. From that first ancient convent founded by Domingo de Guzman (later St Dominic) in 1206 has grown a religious Order with many thousands of members, both male and female, across the world. Down the eight centuries the Church has canonized many of these members, notably St Dominic, St Thomas Aquinas, St Albert the Great, Meister Eckhart, St Catherine of Siena, St Catherine de Ricci, St Martin de Porres and St Rose of Lima.
Domingo de Guzman, the son of Felix Guzman and his wife Juana de Aza (later Blessed Jane of Aza), was born in 1170 in Caleruega in north-eastern Spain. Dominic developed into a young man of great integrity with a caring and charitable nature and, after completing his studies for the priesthood, committed himself to a life of prayer and contemplation of God’s Word in the Scriptures and to preaching the Truth of the Gospel. Dominic had a talent for adapting himself to circumstances and people and especially to the needs of his contemporaries and many young men were drawn to his way of life.
In 1206, a group of noblewomen who had embraced the ascetic lifestyle of the heretical group, the Cathars, was brought back to Christianity by Dominic. With these women and a married couple, Dominic established a "house of the holy preaching" within the Cathar territory at the small hamlet of Prouilhe, which was strategically situated at the crossroads of main thoroughfares between Toulouse and Carcassonne, Limoux and Mirepoix. Their mission was to study God’s Word in the Scriptures and following Dominic’s lead, spread the Truth through teaching, to all who came to them and their strength lay in their ability to communicate their knowledge and faith with great personal conviction. They supported Dominic and the other friars in the work of preaching Truth thereby establishing the female/male aspect of the Dominican Order and Veritas - Truth - became an accepted motto of the Order.
Foundation from Dunedin to Greenough WA
From this original group of women, foundations spread throughout Europe, including England and Ireland. The first known foundation of Dominican nuns in Ireland was established in Galway in 1644. Two other foundations were eventually formed in Ireland, in Drogheda and at Sion Hill in Dublin. It was from Sion Hill that Mother Mary Gabriel Gill led a mission to Dunedin in New Zealand in 1870 and 29 years later to the Goldfields of Western Australia after Bishop William Kelly, newly appointed Bishop of Geraldton, invited the Dominican Sisters from Dunedin to form a foundation in the recently formed Geraldton Diocese.
On 5th January 1899, Bishop Kelly provided a detailed description of their new mission and added:
“I can put before you no inducement to come here, but for the love of God.
If you can work for God’s sake and endure hard things and wait for better times, come along.
Should you think the prospects too uninviting, I will not blame you”.
The Sisters were not discouraged by the Bishop’s remarks: in March of the same year, Mother Gabriel together with Sisters di Ricci Kirby, Gonzales Wall, Dominica Murphy, Di Pazzi Miscall, Bonaventure McEntire and a postulant Kate Murphy, were named as the Western Australian founding members who arrived in Greenough, a tiny hamlet a few miles south of Geraldton on 7th June 1899 to form the first foundation of Dominican Sisters in Western Australia.
The Goldfields and Mid-West
It was from this small beginning that the Sisters spread to other rural centres. Three months after their arrival in Greenough, the Sisters agreed to found a second mission in Cue, an early gold-mining town situated in a harsh environment and at that time the See of the Bishop of Geraldton. Other foundations followed: – Dongara on the banks of the Irwin River, (1901), Day Dawn (1905), Leonora and Gwalia (1903), Meekatharra (1911), Three Springs (1917), Yalgoo (1922), Mingenew (1932), Reedy (1941) and Morawa (1955). The latter also included the staffing of the small St Joseph's School, Perenjori.
Just as the original Sisters in 1206 had a clear vision of their vocation – to contemplate Christ’s Word and share it with others, so, too, did these Sisters, as they moved from one foundation to another in the isolated and harsh gold-mining area of the Murchison and later in the wheat growing regions of the Mid-West. They were courageous, dedicated and filled with the love of God and a strong desire to spread his love and his truth, through education, wherever they were called to serve.
It was in July 1901 that the Sisters opened a convent at Dongara and established it as the head house and novitiate in the hope that they would be able to develop there a significant school and college that would offer a wider range of academic and cultural subjects than had previously been possible.
For the next 70 years the Dominican Priory with its boarding and day school for girls became well-known for the high standard of education it provided, first on a small scale, but, after 1928, for its well-equipped and attractive building, the Dominican Ladies College, set in lovely surroundings and for the quality teaching of the Sisters who served Catholic and non-Catholic families of the inland farming and gold-mining areas of the Geraldton Diocese and beyond.
As early as 1917, the Sisters experienced the traumas and difficulties associated with living close to a river that periodically burst its banks.
Although there were other floods from time to time, it was the more damaging one caused by Cyclone Mavis in 1971 that was the catalyst that finally saw the closure of the Dominican Priory at Dongara and the termination of the Dominican Ladies’ College at the end of that year, after serving the area for 70 years.
However, the continuing association of Dongara ex-students with the Sisters is a treasured remnant of a happy past, and annual reunions and other events provide occasions for recalling that past for those who still call Dongara “home”.
By that time, a number of the convents and schools founded in the gold-mining towns of Yalgoo, Meekatharra, Leonora, Gwalia, Cue, Day Dawn and Reedy were suffering from the decline in the mining activities of their districts and accompanying loss of population. This was gradually reflected in the number of students enrolled. There was no choice for the Sisters in these circumstances but to close the schools and withdraw.
The possibility of establishing a Dominican foundation in the Perth Archdiocese was raised as early as 1933, but, it was not until August 1940 that the new Prioress, Mother Vincent Colgan, received an invitation to open a school at Bedford Park in February 1941. Permission was granted by Bishop O’Collins of Geraldton to open a school in the city and on 24th January 1941, the foundation group, arrived from Dongara (Sisters Lawrence Prendiville, Marie Thérèse Sharman, Albertus Bain and Rose McCusker), to commence their mission in St Peter’s School, Wood Street, Bedford Park, a newly opened northern suburb of Perth.
From this beginning and subsequent growth, a secondary school for girls was opened in 1957 and named after the Dominican theologian, St Thomas Aquinas, the building made possible by Commonwealth Government grants and the School Building Fund.
Progress during the 1970’s brought about significant changes: The question of the possibility of forming a co-educational senior school in conjunction with the Christian Brothers was discussed and the appointments occurred of lay Principals, Mr Graham Cooney at St Thomas Aquinas School and Mr Laurie Mayne at St Peter’s School. In February 1989, the coeducational College became a reality under the name, Chisholm College, and operating on two campuses, Wood Street and Beaufort Street. Prior to the amalgamation of the two schools, the Dominican Sisters withdrew from the administration of St Thomas Aquinas College and the College became the joint responsibility of the Catholic Education Office and the Christian Brothers.
Associated with the Bedford Park foundation over the years were several primary schools in nearby localities – St Therese’s School, Gwelup (1952), Santa Clara School Bentley (1953), Infant Jesus School (originally St Paul’s church-school) (1955) and Our Lady’s Assumption Dianella (1967). These schools were administered and staffed by Dominican Sisters until the increase in numbers of students and the decrease in available Sisters required the assistance of lay staff. Gradually, the Sisters had to withdraw from the schools and pass the responsibility wholly to lay persons, leaving with them the legacy of the Dominican spirit to be handed on to successive generations.
From their small rented house in Wood Street, nearly 50 years before, the original group of foundation Sisters could not have envisaged the end result of their effort in Bedford. They would have been however, the first to admit that the goals achieved over those years were made possible by the close cooperation of dedicated staff and parents with the Sisters, and influenced by the spirit of St Dominic in a caring environment.
Almost ten years after the foundation was made at Bedford Park, the Dominican Sisters were invited to staff St John’s School, Scarborough, when the Sisters of Mercy found it necessary to withdraw. The Sisters saw this as a need to be met and, as Dominic and the first Sisters did in 1206, they readily agreed to fill this need.
The new foundation was made in August 1950, and three Sisters, Albertus Bain, Anthony Sachse and Francis Huntsman took up temporary residence in a small house in Clifton Street, Scarborough, where they lived until October 1953 when the convent, Santa Sabina, in Lalor Street, was completed.
The 1950s and 1960s was a time of expansion in the Scarborough area during which time St John’s added Secondary classes to the original Primary school. Several new Primary Schools were opened in the surrounding region - St Dominic’s, Innaloo, (1955), Holy Rosary, Doubleview (1959) and Holy Spirit, Wembley Downs (1965), all staffed by Dominican Sisters. In addition; a Secondary School, “Siena”, Dominican Girls’ High School, Doubleview, was built in 1962 to accommodate the Secondary classes from St John’s and those students entering High School from the Primary Schools.
Change was the dominant characteristic of the 1970’s: a severe and destructive flood in Dongara resulted in the Sisters’ transferring their head house to St Catherine’s Convent in Doubleview in 1972; a shortage of Sisters saw a gradual withdrawal of the Sisters from the country and city schools they had previously served. The Sisters now focused their attention on the two Doubleview schools adjacent to St Catherine’s Convent, Holy Rosary Primary School and Siena High School, of which they retained the Principalship and some teaching posts.
Further changes followed after discussion with the Marist brothers and Brigidine Sisters; the upper school classes, Years 11 and 12, of the three schools combined at the Marist College in Churchlands while “Siena” became a Year 8-10 girls’ school, both colleges autonomous and operating under the umbrella name of Newman College.
In 1983, the two colleges became co-educational but continued to be separately administered until 1995 when they were amalgamated under one Principal, Brother Stephen Bugg and were renamed Newman College (Doubleview Campus) and Newman College (Churchlands Campus).
In June 1997, the Dominican Sisters finalised their association with the College when they formally withdrew from all aspects of that association, happy in the belief that they had followed God’s call to meet the needs of the times while their numbers allowed this.
A Gathering of Sisters at Santa Sabina Convent, Scarborough.
1999 marked the Centenary of the Dominican Sisters in Western Australia. It was a year of celebration shared by Dominicans from other Australian Congregations and New Zealand, parents, friends, and past students. One of the highlights of the year was the Heritage Pilgrimage to the sixteen foundations and their associated schools where the Sisters had served during the hundred years.
Historian Ruth Marchant James completed "Fields of Gold: A History of the Dominican Sisters in Western Australia" for the Centenary, which was well-received by all who were keen to read the story and see photos of past schools, convents, sisters and students!