Religious Communities

Religious Communities throughout the Parish’s history:

The arrival of the Dominican Sisters in Tamworth in January, 1876.

On Saturday, 8th June, 1867, there set out from St Mary’s Convent, Kingstown, Ireland, eight Dominican Sisters, who, at the request of Bishop James Murray of Maitland, were to be the foundation members of St Mary’s Convent Maitland, and of many convents in the years ahead. After the three month voyage on the sailing ship “Martha Birnie” these brave Irish women began their life anew in a strange land and entered into their work of education of youth on 16th September, 1867 – just five days after their arrival.

They were: Mother M Agnes Bourke, Prioress, Mother M Teresa Molloy, Sub-Prioress, Sr M Regis Dowley, Sr M Hyacinth Donnellan, Sr M Ignatius Finnegan, Sr M Augustine Fagan, Sr M Bridget O’Brien, Sr M Bernard Larkin. By 1873 four auxiliary bands of Sisters had arrived from Kingstown and the first foundation from Maitland was made in Newcastle. This was the only Catholic Girls’ School in the entire Newcastle district. Thirty years later a Residential College for Junior Boys was established there (closed 1960). As yet, most of Northern NSW was part of the Maitland Diocese. The Peel Valley had for many years been administered by Father Tim McCarthy (after whom McCarthy Senior High School has been named). Once in a few months the Tamworth Catholics would be gladdened by an advertisement in The Gazette “Father T McCarthy will say Mass in Tamworth on Sunday next”.

The first resident priest appointed to Tamworth was the Dominican, Father B H Power in 1862. Of his administration there are no records. There were many great-hearted Catholics living in the district, whose one regret was the lack of religious services and a school for their children.

Dr Murray, Bishop of Maitland, in which Tamworth was included, asked the Dominicans to make a foundation here.

Such a project was fraught with risk, privation and hardship, but the great-hearted Mother M Agnes Bourke welcomed any undertaking that would advance the Kingdom of God.

On 11th January, 1876 four Dominican Sisters, accompanied by Dr Murray, Bishop of Maitland and Rev Michael Foran set out from Maitland.

Those sisters were: Mother M Regis Dowley, Prioress, Sr M Francis Hayden, Sr Gertrude O’Laughlin, Sr Aloysius Lynch.

They travelled in a gloried stock-train to Murrurundi, the terminus of the railway. From there a Cobb and Co coach was the transport. Sr M Francis Hayden described the journey: “Slowly but surely we wended our way through the bush, which was indeed a novel experience for us, who never before had plunged into its depths. The coachman pointed out to us many spots ‘sanctified’ by the escapades of Thunderbolt, and related some thrilling incidents in the career of this notorious bushranger, where one redeeming quality was his respect for the clergy and for womanhood”.

Flaggy Gully was their first stop overnight and the next morning they stopped en route at the residence of Mr King at Goonoo Goonoo where they joined the family at breakfast.

Some miles from Goonoo Goonoo, the Pastor Tamworth, followed by a cavalcade, met and escorted them to Tamworth to St Nicholas’ Church, where a liturgical welcome was read by Miss Teresa Coghlan. Then followed a banquet, speeches, toasts, etc in the Presbytery, which was the home of the sister till 1882, when the convent was completed. The priest, Father B D Ryan found shelter elsewhere.

There were five small rooms. The bedrooms had brick floors and unplastered walls. Cooking was done in the open at a camp oven. Detached from the cottage was a large wooden building on brick piles, divided into compartments consisting of “small kitchen, a laundry with movable iron tub, screened from the laundry was a bathroom with nothing between itself and the light of day but a strip of baize curtain. Next door was the nuns’ refectory and pantry combined. This latter compartment was lined with hessian to reinforce the loose fittings boards. With a sense of humour that was their mainstay in these grim days, they called their tumble-down apartments “Judyville”.

Schools were opened on Monday 16th January 1876. The first enrolments in the Primary School numbered 90 and the High School with 10. St Nicholas’ Primary School was erected in 1910 and renovated 40 years later.

The Misses Cunningham, assisted by their brother Michael, had been conducting the school in the church prior to the arrival of the nuns. Sr Francis described the furniture as “of Samsonian proportions”, and the sisters, aided by three or four pupils, had to carry them out to the school yard on Friday afternoon and bring them back on Monday morning.

When the railway was extended to Tamworth in 1878 the numbers in the school almost doubled so the newly erected St Nicholas’ Church had to be given over for school purposes. The old church was transformed into an Infants’ School.

The people of Tamworth rallied to the help of the nuns in raising funds for buildings and in 1880 the foundation stone of St Dominic’s was laid by the Bishop of Armidale, Dr Torreggiani; Dr Murray being absent in Europe.

The new convent, when completed was blessed and opened in January 1882 by Very Rev Thomas English, Vicar General of Maitland.

Boys and girls were taught in the Dominican High School until the Christian Brothers opened a school in Tamworth in 1925.

In 1887 the boundaries of the Dioceses of Maitland and Armidale were altered. In consequence the parish of Tamworth was handed to the Bishop of Armidale. This occasion coincided with the Golden Jubilee of Mother M Regis, who led the Dominicans to the Peel Valley in 1876.

Compiled by Sr Margaret Short from The Journal of the Tamworth Historical Society, Tamworth Centenary Edition, March 1976.


No further information has been provided at this stage.

Please forward any information to the Catholic Schools Office (Attention: History Website) or post to PO Box 636, ARMIDALE NSW 2350.

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