Penola community celebrates schoolhouse 150th


Combine a huge dose of passion for all things historical with an equally large dose of infectious energy and enthusiasm.  Mix in equal measures a forensically researched narration with moving memories and stories, poems, songs, marvellous music and a generous, fun-loving committed community.  Gather all these together in the historic Schoolhouse at Penola on a cold Winter June evening.  The outcome?  A successful, salubrious soiree!

On Friday, 16 June the Penola community celebrated 150 years since the very young Sister Mary MacKillop and her sisters Annie and Lexie MacKillop occupied the new St Joseph’s School at Penola.  They had begun their educational enterprise on the Feast of St Joseph, 19 March 1866, in a humble renovated stable.  Now these new facilities were to continue the work of empowering the poor through the gift of accessible education.

After enjoying a sumptuous meal, guests entered the Schoolhouse to the strains of an organ Overture played by Pamela Walker OAM.  Anne-Marie Matuschka began her narration of the history of the various “lives” the Schoolhouse has had since those early beginnings.  The Penola Correspondent from the Border Watch newspaper records on Saturday, June 15 1867:  “On Tuesday an examination of the children attending St Joseph’s School, Penola, took place in the new school room, which is a fine room 40ft by 20ft and about 14 ft high. … The examiners were well satisfied with the progress of the children, who are making rapid steps under the able instruction of the Misses McKillop.”

In 1871, after the arrival of Mr O’Donnell, the male teacher whom parish priest Father O’Connor requested because he believed the sisters could not control the big boys, Mary MacKillop withdrew the sisters.  They were not to return until 1875.  Isolation and loneliness were chief factors for the sisters’ departure from Penola in 1885 but by 1936 the sisters were again enthusiastically welcomed back to Penola.  The laying of the Foundation Stone ceremony was performed in February, 1936 and witnessed by approximately one thousand people.  After only one more term the new school was ready and students moved to the current site.

Anne-Marie’s recording of the story was interspersed with recitals of poetry, singing of songs and sharing memories, all soaked up by a very attentive “class”.  Brian Larkin gave a brilliant rendition of Banjo Paterson’s “Bush Christening” and Margaret Muller recited two poems written by Sister Mary O’Neil rsm, “Bush School in Spring” and “Mary MacKillop: No Ordinary Eagle”. To the accompaniment of music from Pamela Walker OAM, Kathryn Mules, Judith Georgeson and Pamela sang three medleys of songs, so familiar that the community readily joined in.  Songs included “Bound for South Australia”, “Danny Boy”, and “School Days”.   A spirited singing of “March Hare Jig” accompanied by Kathryn on her tin whistle and the heartfelt singing of “Memories” accompanied by Kathryn on her flute were highlights of the soiree.  The final medley took on a more nostalgic tone when we sang “Amazing Grace,”  “Tantum Ergo” and “Great St Joseph”.

Among the reminiscences shared were those told by John Reilly.  His grandfather, Willie Patterson, had been taught by Sister Mary MacKIllop.  John recalled the time when the Schoolhouse was converted to a Hall and St Joseph’s School was relocated.  The Hall, he recalled, was renowned in Penola for its dance floor and many wonderful dances and other celebrations such as First Communion and Confirmation breakfasts, stalls, bazaars, and wedding receptions were held there.  In the early days the school room was used annually during Penola’s Racing Season to hold a Bazaar to raise money for the Church.

It was acknowledged that the Penola community owes a huge debt of appreciation to those who maintained the building and began restoration work in 1978.  The Restoration Committee was made up of Father Jim Honner PP, Robert Geraghty, Jack Mulligan, Tim Collins, Phillip Aitken and Mr George Mepstead.  In March 1989 Archbishop Len Faulkner blessed and rededicated the building as a place of pilgrimage for those inspired by the work of Sister Mary MacKillop and Father Julian Tenison Woods.

The people of Penola have wisely and carefully safe-guarded this sacred site and have consistently demonstrated their awareness of its historical value.   Year by year pilgrims visit the Schoolhouse to experience this part of the Mary MacKillop story and to learn about the unique educational Method which became fundamental to Josephite education.  The important work of volunteers drawn from all over the South East continues to bring this wonderful story to visitors from all over Australia and overseas.

Following the formalities and the fun, guests returned to the Interpretive Centre for the cutting of the Anniversary cake. This was carried out by Mrs Lenore McKie whose grandmother, Margaret Britt and Great Aunt, Annie Britt were students of Mary MacKillop.