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Historic North Adelaide college celebrates 140 years


The skills, courage and resourcefulness of a small group of Dominican nuns who arrived in Australia from England in 1883 will be honoured when St Dominic’s Priory College holds its 140th anniversary dinner this month.

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The founding Sisters came to Adelaide to nurse at the North Adelaide Private Hospital but their Rule did not permit them to care for men and they had to find another way to make a living.

They put an advertisement in the paper offering their services as teachers and within a few weeks they had opened a school in Strangways Terrace, North Adelaide.

The Sisters were also highly accomplished needlewomen and illuminators (decorative writing) and they received commissions to provide liturgical vestments as well as more humble garments.  Their illuminated manuscripts were considered amongst the best of their kind and were presented to bishops, mayors, popes and even to Queen Victoria ‘from the Women of South Australia on the occasion of her Golden Jubilee’.

The school began with just a few students, but recognising the quality of the education they offered, more and more families began sending their children to the ‘North Adelaide Convent’.

Boys too were educated in the lower years, until they were old enough to attend the boys’ colleges.

The Dominican Sisters of North Adelaide was established and began to grow as did the school which had boarders from the beginning, including ‘parlour boarders’ – girls continuing their education post-school in the city.

pioneering nuns and Mother Rose Columba Adams, first superior at North Adelaide.

Pioneering nuns and Mother Rose Columba Adams, first superior at North Adelaide.

By 1951 there were 260 pupils, including 55 who were boarders. There were boys enrolled in Reception, Year 1 and Year 2 until 2006.

Today the college educates 670 girls from Reception to Year 12.

Sr Jill Havey has been involved with the school for 70 of its 140 years, first as a student, then as principal for nearly 50 years and now as convenor of the Convent Archives.

“I started coming to kindergarten here when I was only four,” Sr Jill said.

“We lived in Childers Street just down the road and I could walk. It was small but we thought it was big, like you do when you’re little. It was a beautiful world, especially the kindergarten classroom. They were into drawing and painting in a big way so there were nursery rhymes on every wall so it was a lovely place to walk into.”

Her favourite recollections are not of individual moments but the people.

“Especially now looking after the Convent Archives I feel very connected to these women of the beginning…and I feel very connected to families, to mums and to dads,” she said.

“I look at the sports fields now and I can see two dads Michael and Paul on the lawnmower changing the garden that the Sisters had created to the oval that we desperately needed.”

“It’s a story about strong women but we owe so much to the dads of this school and their voluntary service.”

Her other recollections revolve around the waves of migration that impacted enrolments, from post-war WWII migration to the arrival of Vietnamese refugees, including Sister Cecelia, who serves in parish ministry but has been involved with the college in various ways for 41 years.

The location of the school, close to the city and a meeting point for the transport system, attracted migrant families to the college.

Sr Jill said St Dominic’s was most likely the only constant community remaining in North Adelaide.

“We’ve had 140 years of uninterrupted history,” she said.

“This place breathes history.”

Principal Helen Steele agreed. The first lay principal of St Dominic’s following Sr Jill Havey’s retirement in 2019, she said it was important to celebrate the 140th anniversary because the school was part of the history of Adelaide.

“You can’t discount the impact – 140 years ago these women arrived and they’re still here doing extraordinary work. They were up against it and had to solve problems but they rose above that…they just kept going with their mission and vision,” she said.

“There is a great connection to the story of the Sisters, and also to their love of learning, and I don’t use those words lightly; it’s about getting on with the work and study. That’s something to be proud of, and something the Sisters led from the very early stages.”

Fourth generation student Clare Haddad, who is in Year 9, said she loved the sense of community at the college.

“Everyone is so close together,” she said.

“Even before I came here I had been to the fete, that’s a really big day, so it’s always felt like a community.”

Clare’s great grandmother Marjorie Dillon was a former student, as was grandmother Anne Haddad and mother Cathy Coughlin (now Haddad).

Her siblings Isabella and Joanna went to the school and when Clare was a toddler she would often join them for Friday morning Mass in the historic 130-year-old chapel.

Her great aunt was Sr Mary Anne Holland, a widely respected Sister who in honoured in a memorial in the school grounds.

Newly-appointed Junior School director Natalie Cameron, said she began as a “shy and quiet” student at St Dominic’s in 1994.

“To now have returned as a confident and proud educator, leading the Junior School is a credit to my St Dominic’s education,” she said.

“There are many teachers who played a big part in shaping who I am today, but two stand out: Mrs Helen Capasso and Ms Lorna Starrs. These two women were inspirational in their ability to build relationships and bring out the best in the students they worked with.”

“My education at St Dominic’s taught me to have high standards of myself and of others and to believe that anything was achievable.”

The 140th anniversary is being acknowledged and celebrated at a number of events throughout the year including the dinner at the National Wine Centre of Australia on Friday July 5.

Old scholars, past and current staff and families will be joined by the Dominican Sisters of North Adelaide with guest speaker Dr Jo Vandepeer sharing her knowledge of the early Sisters’ embroidery and needlework.

Tickets available at:

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