The Story

By Sisters of St Joseph Archivist Sue Sondalini

Written around the time of the 50th Anniversary celebrations - 2014

Wyndham 50th anniversary celebrations

In March this year the Catholic community of the Kimberley and the Sisters of St Joseph of the Sacred Heart celebrate the 50th anniversary of the foundation of St Joseph’s School Wyndham and the commencement of the Sister’s ministry in the Kimberley.

From the late 1950s Bishop Jobst, the Vicar Apostolic of the Kimberley, had sent a number of requests to the Sisters of St Joseph and other congregations searching for an order who would be willing to establish Catholic schools in the east Kimberley, but without success. During a visit to Rome Bishop Jobst made his plea known to Cardinal Agaginian, of the Sacred Order for the Propagation of the Faith, who wrote in October 1963 to Mother Adrian, the then Superior General of the Sisters of St Joseph. This request direct from Rome acknowledging the challenges of the location and in the spirit of the mission of Mary MacKillop, the founder of the Sisters of St Joseph, and her words “to never see a need without doing something about it,” had immediate results. In a December circular to the Sisters, Mother Adrian called for volunteers and the following month Sisters Maureen Joseph Meaney, from South Australia, and Fergal (later Margaret) Lambert, based in New South Wales but originally from Ireland, were informed that they had been selected to begin the Sister’s ministry in the Kimberley.

Wyndham in the far north, a port town servicing the cattle industry with an important meatworks had been chosen to be the first town in which the Sisters of St Joseph would establish a school. Sisters Maureen Joseph and Fergal prepared for their new ministry collecting school and household goods that might be useful in their work; adapting the habit of the day to make it more suited to the heat of the north; and making contact with the WA education department to learn about the education system in this state.

The Sisters were joined by congregational leaders Mother Adrian Ryan and Mother Leone Ryan to make the overnight journey by plane to Wyndham. On the 19th March, the feast of St Joseph and the anniversary of the foundation of the congregation in 1866, the Sisters arrived in Wyndham to begin their ministry in the Kimberley. They were welcomed by the parish priest Father Carl Boes and community members.

On 31st March enrolments were taken, a meeting of parents was held, and St Joseph’s School was opened. Classes began on 1st April with an enrolment of 31.

The Sisters faced many challenges in getting the school established and reaching out to the community. The first accommodation for the Sisters was the presbytery which meant Father Boes, soon to be replaced by Father Benno Rausch, lived in the garage until a new presbytery was built. The classes were held in the church. The desks that had been expected were not delivered in time for the commencement of classes and so the first students used the church pews to do their work. The toilet block took some time to be built which meant for most of the first year the children used the convent toilet facilities. However, by the end of the year, the school had an enrolment of 50 students; facilities had been built; popular playground equipment installed; a donated library collection gathered; and the nearby road had been sealed. The school was now part of the community and students had participated in the local sports day; a Parent’s and Friend’s group had been established; the uniform agreed upon; and a successful fete had been held. The Sisters had made contact with other religious congregations based in the Kimberley and received visitors including the Governor and his wife. Several students had received the sacraments so that the Sisters were able to record at the end of the year “It was lovely to see all who had made their first communion at the sacraments – a good finish to our first year.”  

When the Sisters arrived in Wyndham they were especially anxious to meet the local Aboriginal people and provide an education to the children. At the time Aboriginal people were living in the town, on the old reserve and at camps known as 7 Mile, being seven miles from town, 9 Mile and 12 Mile. The numbers at the camps grew during the 1960s as many Aboriginal people in the Kimberley were displaced from the station properties where they had lived and where the men had been employed as cattlemen and the women as domestic staff. The camps did not have adequate water or other amenities and the people lived in tents, under bough shelters and in some cases out in the open.

A school bus had been purchased and the Sisters, once they had obtained their driving licences, were able to visit and get to know the people living at the camps some of whom were familiar with the Catholic faith and sent their children to the school. The Sisters had come to the Kimberley as teachers but rapidly became friends to the Aboriginal people and assisted in practical ways providing transport to town for shopping and for Mass, visiting the sick at the Native Hospital as well as making washing facilities at the convent available for the people living at the camps.

In the early 1970s the Sisters of St Joseph, inspired by Vatican 11 and changes in society,
re evaluated some of the rules and structures of their order. Within these discussions there was an increased concern that the Aboriginal ministry and education methods be appropriate to the circumstances of the communities. Through their ministry the Sisters had gained a respectful awareness of the spiritual traditions and rich culture of the Aboriginal people. The local people were also keen to pass on their traditions and were invited to school to teach language and traditional dance.

The Sisters appointed to Wyndham often stayed only a couple of years and came from all parts of Australia to serve as teachers. In 1974 the first lay teacher was appointed. From the mid 1970s Aboriginal Teaching Assistants were encouraged to gain formal qualifications and enrolled in study programs administered from Mount Lawley College of Advanced Education (now Edith Cowan University). 

In the last term of 1974 the new school building became available and this was officially blessed in November 1975. The old school was renovated to create a pre-primary class and a sewing area but soon after was damaged by fire and required further renovations.
In the mid 1970s the school was known for its school band which performed at community events including Anzac Day and provided an accompaniment as students marched into class. In 1979 the Warmun community established its own school and some families who had been living in Wyndham to send their children to school moved reducing the numbers attending St Joseph’s.

In 1989 the first lay principal was appointed. The Sisters continued to provide a presence in the school until 1995 and took on other roles supporting the community and the parish until 1999. From 2001 – 2008 a Sister lived in the town continuing in a supportive role.

St Joseph’s Wyndham continues as a well resourced and positive school proudly aware of its links with the Sisters of St Joseph and guided by the spirit of their founder St Mary of the Cross MacKillop.

In the fifty years that the Sisters of St Joseph have served the community of the Kimberley more than 80 sisters have spent time living with the people and assisting as teachers, principals, university administrators and lecturers, counsellors and pastoral workers. In addition to their ministry at Wyndham the Sisters of St Joseph have served at Kununurra, Warmun, Balgo, Bidyadanga, Broome, Gibb River, Halls Creek, La Djardarr Bay, Mirrilingki and Ringer Soak. They continue to provide a valued presence in the Kimberley and are pleased to see the wonderful work of lay and community members building on the foundation they have established.  

Sue Sondalini