MT ST MARYS PAGE
AN ABRIGED HISTORY - Contributor Catherine Roberts (Student 1964-1967)
The school was founded by the Sisters of Charity in 1901 in Main Street Katoomba. In 1910 Mt St Marys moved to a much larger and purpose built building at the Eastern Gateway to Katoomba.From 1910 until 1966 Mt St Marys was a strictly all girl boarding and day school. The front entrance to the school was from The Great Western Highway via a sweeping driveway up to the School and Chapel steps and a side entrance via Station Street. A well planned and well maintained garden with a Grotto and Fountain were features of the front entrance. A large oval, an orchard, a basketball court and tennis courts also formed part of the school property.
For many years the school offered Intermediate (Third Year) and Leaving Certificate (Fifth Year) courses. The introduction of the Wyndham Scheme (educational reforms) in the early 1960's saw Mt St Marys offering the new School Certificate course as the highest level of education at the school. 1966 saw the last Intermediate Exam and the first School Certifcate Exam held. 1966 also saw the constuction and completion of a new Science Block. Other, more local and immediate changes were also taking place.
At the end of the 1966 school year, despite the efforts of the then Principal Bro Leo and the families of the boys, St Bernard's College closed down. In order to accommodate those boys who did not transfer to De La Salle Lithgow, other Catholic boarding schools or Katoomba High School, Mt St Mary's went co-educational in 1967. Mt St Marys closed in 1974. It was briefly used after that firstly as a Catholic Youth Centre of some sort and then as The Renaissance Centre but the old school has sadly fallen into disrepair.
THE MYSTERY OF THE TUNNEL - contributor Graham Bennett (St Bernard's ex-Student and Old Boy)
There are many stories circulating even today about this tunnel from Mt St Marys to Katoomba railway and it comes up in conversations with old residents. If you believe all you hear then it must be like an underground ants nest with many galleries. I have made some enquiries from a few of the old residents and I hit the jackpot one day so this is what and where this tunnel was.
As the Edge Theatre now sits on the site the landscape has changed and the playing field was where the tunnel started or in that vicinity and was driven due east to emerge on the Sydney side of the railway line. The old resident whom I spoke to and have known for years tells me that the eastern portal is now a feature in a house on the eastern side of the railway. This fellow only found out because at one time he was looking for a house to purchase. When he actually saw the inside of the house the portal was all bricked up and was probably filled in behind. From the playing field to the eastern side is not a great distance so it would not be that long, but the purpose and size is unknown or when it was built still remains a mystery. That’s what I have found out and now pass it on for you to think about. Mysteries are always enchanting.
THE MYSTERY CONTINUES - Contributor Ross Murdoch (St Bernard's ex-Student and Old Boy)
I was interested in the Tunnel piece in the last newsletter and said I typed in "tunnel at Mt St Mary's, Katoomba" to Google, but the first website I saw was the Mt St's page on our SBOBA website. From what I read on some of the other websites, I'd guess the "tunnel" was an air-raid shelter, probably lengthened because of the numbers of girls & nuns. My sister was a day-girl there from 1942-45, & would certainly have been made aware of the air-raid shelter, if that's what it was. Unfortunately, our sister Laurie died (much too early) in 1963, so that avenue of information is closed.
MY TIME AT MT ST MARYS - Contributor Joan (McHugh) Wilson (Student 1957-1959)
My time at Mt. St. Marys was a huge learning curve for an eleven year old. Fortunately for me my two older sisters Helen and Betty preceded me and Betty was only one year ahead. Helen had left to commence nursing at St. Joseph’s Hospital (Charity Order) Auburn the year I arrived at Mt. Sts. I heard stories about the “One Eyed Nun” who resided in the Boarders' Tower (which swayed in the high winds). I was the youngest of seven children and rather used to being told scary stories by my older siblings. But the One Eyed Nun story topped the cake! We stored our suit cases right at the top of the tower at the beginning of each Term and retrieved them at the end of each Term. I ran up and down those stairs at a great pace, so that she wouldn’t GRAB me. I never really discovered if perhaps there ever had been a Nun with one eye. But being a border I soon realised that Nuns in general had eyes in the back of their head so to speak.
My first year there, 1957, was a great initiation. We had a rather hairy season of bushfires and during the Winter season we had a very heavy dousing of snow. About 1 foot of snow fell and that brought the Sydney Morning Herald photographers up the mountains from Sydney. I ended up on page three of the SMH much to the delight of my parents when they opened up the paper the next morning.
Sister Luigi was my 1st Year teacher. She had a rather serious demeanour and was feared a little by us all. One morning when she was doing the rounds through the back of the cubicles to wake us up and make sure we got out of bed in time for early Mass, I heard her sneaking along.I put a pillow in my bed, pulled up the covers, and hid under it. As she walked past I grabbed her legs...much to her surprise. When I climbed out from under the bed after I was summoned, I looked up to see a rather amused face and at that moment realised that she was a lovely human being with a sense of humour and also that this Nun was just a normal human being with legs and ankles. This set the scene for an ongoing trusting friendship. Unfortunately she was taken away sick before the year ended. I think to St. Vincent’s Potts Point.
1st Year was made up of girls from all over the State, inter-state and overseas. We had girls from Papua, Rabaul, New Caledonia and Hong Kong. We also had two New Guinea native girls. They were a delight, with a great sense of humour. I now wish that I would have spent more time with Diana Krause and Viriginia ? who both had great stories to tell. The Chinese girls from New Guinea taught me how to eat apple sprinkled with salt. From memory the Chinese girls were Choi, Wong, Chan and Chang. The French girls from New Caledonia were Suzanne Houssard, Simone O’Callaghan, and another girl whose name escapes me (to our surprise we all found out during the year that she was engaged to be married...this also came as a surprise to the Nuns).
2nd Year with Sister Campion (Camp Pie) was a rather uneventful year except for the arrival of the Flying Saucers. One night the girls on the 3rd and 4th Class Balcony screamed and we all ran quickly to see “Blue Lights” shining down on our oval. They left as quickly as they arrived going over the horizon leaving us all in absolute amazement. The papers reported the lights as coming from “The Foo Men”. Goodness knows where they got that from, someone with a very fertile imagination I guess. I remember we went to the Minnehaha Falls for a hike on a rather cold winter day. We carried a kerosene tin down to make some bush tea to have with our frankfurts that were cooked on a bush camp fire. We all had a job to do in carrying the necessary equipment for our lunch. We looked forward to these outings with a great deal of anticipation. On one such excursion poor old Sister Campion fell in the mountain stream which I am sure would have frozen her to the bone. Much to the laughter of the girls, the nuns hid her whilst they tried to dry off her very heavy woolen habit and under(whatevers) which were hanging on the bushes near the fire that they made. On that day we realised that the nuns wore undergarments that looked like parachutes!
Sister Ruth was my 3rd Year teacher and she was just wonderful. She was a very intelligent woman. She was studying for her Masters I think during that year. She gave so much to the girls and I look back with much affection for this wonderful woman who gave us her all. She was the stand out person of my time at Mt. St. Marys. I think Vatican II claimed her and she left the Charity Order and later became a Principal at a girls' College in Melbourne.
On one of our excursions, this time down to Federal Pass, we happened upon some Waratahs. We proceeded to break some of them off to bring back to put on the altar. A Nun (not to be named) decided to hide them under her habit when we came up the Scenic Railway so that we could put them on the altar. But to no avail. Another Nun (also not to be named) who was the Sacristan and who also was as cold as a fish (uncharitable I know but true) would not let the Nun who carried the said merchandise put them on the Altar. Ill gotten goods no doubt!! But to give the cold fish her due maybe she was environmentally friendly!!! Mind you...we Borders were not pleased!
On a more personal note, I would like to mention that there was an interesting incident on my way to catch the train to go to Sydney with my sister Betty to see my mother who had had an operation. Betty had left to go to the train earlier than me and I was running late. One of the seniors ran to the train with me only to find that the train was about to leave when I was only near Gearins Hotel. I ran over and climbed through the Railway gate that held back the cars and I jumped in front of the slowly moving train about to leave the station. I stood in front of the train waving my arms and said “hey mate wait for me” he put on the breaks to halt the train, the Guard leant over the side of the platform and said “ up you come love”, I ran along the platform and jumped into the carriage. If that happened today there would be a Royal Commission. Thankfully the train driver saw me. Nothing was ever said to me. Maybe the Nuns never found out!
Mother Scolastica (Sister Mary Freeman) was the Principal at Mt. St. Marys during my time there. She was Arch-Bishop Freeman’s sister. She was in care at Auburn and died during 2012. Sister Mary Grata was second in charge. Grata was our Music teacher. We had Sister Amard who was retired and also deaf! We loved having her on Study Duty...she couldn’t hear us having a chat and a good time when we should have been doing our work! Sister Joachim was the veteran who taught 4th and 5th Year. How times have changed. The only lay teacher that I had right through my education was Miss de Lose who taught Dressmaking.
We had parents of Boarders who often arrived with meat from their properties and eggs from their Poultry Farms and vegetables and fruit from those who grew them. We had girls who were blind and many other physical disabilities. We also had children from fractured families and of course many of us from average (whatever normal is) families. These little girls were given a great helping hand by giving women who sacrificed much for their vocation to the Religious Life. To these wonderful ladies I say thank you for my time at Mt. St. Marys. I cherish these memories.
MY TIME AT MT ST MARYS - Contributor Elaine (Robinson) Smith (Student)
Mother Scholastica was the head nun at Mt Sts and Sister Carmelita, followed by St Rosalia at St Canice’s. The nuns who taught at St Canice’s were: Sister Amard (Kindergarten); Sr Peter St Rock (1st/2nd); and Sister Carmelita and then St Rosalia (5th/6th) used to walk to and from the school. Mr Bob, the handyman at Mt Sts, used to bring their lunches down daily. We also had Mrs Dalgliesh for 3rd/4th Grades [Editor’s Note: I too had the joy of being taught by Mrs Dalgliesh a true lady and a clever one at that.]
Mt Sts was an all-girl boarding and day school.
Being born and bred in Katoomba, one can imagine the fascination of meeting the many boarders who hailed from exotic places such as Rabaul, Madang, Noumea and other places far and wide. Diana Kraus and Veronica Limena were most entertaining when relating home stories, e.g. Diana who was from Rabaul sometimes had to check for crocodiles at the bottom of their steps before venturing out! Veronica had tales of the New Guinea Highlands. Geraldine Choi, also from Rabaul, was one of the sweetest, gentlest girls one could wish to meet. As her name suggests, her ethnicity was Chinese but she was born and raised in Rabaul. I recall Sr Ruth asking her one day in 3rd Year if her thinking process was in English or Chinese and Geraldine’s reply was ‘in Chinese’. I gathered from that that she was constantly translating lessons and responses – what fortitude she and the other Chinese girls had!
In 1st Year we had Sr Alphonse for most subjects. What a fabulous teacher she was; learning was a joy under her splendid tuition. And so many new things to learn in 1st Year – Algebra, Chemistry, French, Latin etc. – it was very exciting and very enjoyable. I recall an instance when on Sister’s return to her desk after a brief absence she spotted a thumb tack on her chair. This act brought the wrath of Mother Scholastica upon the whole Class and I think we were kept in until the perpetrator confessed.
In 2nd Year we had Sr Rita. Poor Sr Rita lost her voice for quite some time but still managed to teach us. This was another delightful lady who I am sure has been remembered fondly by many. I’m fairly sure St Rita taught Chemistry. Ours was a small L-shaped Chemistry room with a few desks along one side and an area for experiments along the other. We loved doing experiments and I don’t recall many disasters.
Sr Ruth taught us in 3rd Year and what an incredible teacher she was. I think she was also doing post-graduate studies at the time. Her workload must have been huge with teaching all day, her own studies, Convent obligations etc. but she always had so much time for us. We also had classes on Saturday mornings towards the end of 3rd Year and I loved coming to school on those mornings in mufti and often high heels. I did hear some years later that Sr left the Order and was Principal at a girls’ school in another state. [Editor’s Note: Sr Ruth also taught me. After leaving school I saw Sr on a programme on the ABC where she spoke about not having children as the only thing that she had missed in life. And some years after that I heard (from a reliable source) that Sr had left the Order was teaching elsewhere and met and married a widower with children.]
Sr Joachim taught 4th/5th Years. She was older than most of the other nuns but had an outstanding record of success. I seem to recall hearing somewhere she was one of the first women to attain a Masters Degree in NSW.
Sr Grata taught music and also took us for singing after Wednesday Assembly. Sr also went along the class lines we stood in when the bell rang at the beginning of the school day. Our finger nails and general attire were inspected. A slap with the ruler would land on the hand of any who did not conform.There was another wonder Nun at the school, Sr Syra who I think taught some junior Grades in the building off to the side towards the tennis courts. Though Sr never taught me, for some reason we got on and kept in touch for quite a few years after I left school.
I think it was about 1960 when there was a most interesting French lady who came weekly to coach us for the Alliance Francais Examinations. It was a great adventure for us to be escorted to the train to Sydney by one or two of the Nuns for those exams. Mrs Morris taught tennis and many an envious look would follow the girl whose turn it was for a tennis lesson as she left the Class room.
There were 4 House Teams – Xavier, Lourdes, Aikenhead and La Salette. Every year there would be a big Sports Day on the oval with presentations to the winning house team at the end of the day. We had some great athletes at the school and one year Marjorie Jackson paid us a visit. I was no good at sport at all but I remember Helen Watt, Margot and Jane McNiven amongst others were all very athletically gifted.
The Boarders, and often the Nuns, played Netball. A lot of girls had roller skates and spent recess and lunchtime on the concrete area at the back of the school rolling around. I seem to recall there were a few accidents much to the Nuns’ consternation.
I always felt sorry for the Boarders from PNG and the Islands in Winter as many of them suffered dreadfully with chilblains. Apart from the cold, it must have been very hard for them to be only able to go home at the end of each year, many having to remain at the school during term holidays.
The social highlight of each year was ‘The Ball’. We would all be dressed in our best waiting for the boys from St Bernard’s to arrive and hoping we’d be asked to dance. We were all quite adept at the Pride of Erin, Barn Dance, Canadian Three Step etc. etc. and were most pleased when the Nuns allowed some Jive/Rock’n’Roll. I think the Brothers had been giving the boys a few hints as there weren’t too many who trod on our toes.
The gardens at the front of the school were lovely and we often spent quiet time there during our yearly Retreats. I think we were all especially drawn to The Grotto. The Chapel was another favourite place for some quiet contemplation and prayer.
At the end of each term and particularly at the end of the year we would be co-opted to perform the big cleanup. Some of particularly loved to get the job of sweeping the stairs in the Tower. Not much sweeping happened but a lot of sitting on the stairs and bumping all the way down on our bottoms did amongst much laughter. It was quite novel for us ‘day bugs’ to have access to the Boarders’ domain even if it was only to clean.
I believe during WWII there was an Air Raid Shelter under what became the Oval. Perhaps the Shelter was removed when the Oval was made, or perhaps it is still under the Oval? Is there some historian out there who can shed more light on this? [Editor’s Note: In 1964 my friends and I found (?) the entrance to ‘The Tunnel’ that was supposed to link the school to the Railway Station - all underground - around the back of the school near what was the Music Room in our day and daringly went in as far as far as we could to a bricked up part of The Tunnel which was the same size and shape as one that was bricked up at the Station. It was still there in 1967…any other stories ladies?]
1967 THROUGH MY EYES - Contributor Catherine Roberts (Student 1964-1967)
Suddenly our all girl school was invaded by the dreaded boys! The same boys we had left behind after 2nd Class to live in a boy free zone (at least during school hours) while we finished our schooling were suddenly back again, "taking over our school" I seem to remember my classmates and myself complaining. In retrospect, it can't have been any bed of roses for the boys either!
School recess and lunch breaks became really boring for boys and girls alike. We girls had to give up the use of the oval during Recess and Lunch (no more French Cricket, Rounders, long skipping ropes and Chasies) so that the boys could use that area. Gone for them was their use of handball courts, archery sets and regular football, cricket and athletic sports (normal everyday pursuits back at their Merriwa Street School). Gone also were The Cadets and the Band.
It was probably a big shock for the Nuns as well. All of a sudden they had to cope with older boys and almost grown men (12-17 years of age) instead of the 5-7 year olds they normally had charge of at some time in their teaching years.
1967 SCHOOL CERTIFICATE COURSES OFFERED AT MOUNT SAINT MARYS
Dressmaking (girls only)
Commerce (boys only)
The sports photos on this page were contributed by Sandra Rouse (ex-Student).
The Mt St Marys photo on this page was contributed by Graham Bennett (Old Boy).