Port Fairy convent's century of care

Port Fairy Good Samaritan sisters (from left) Maureen Stone, Camilla (Margaret) Gall, Marie Jones and Claire Dwyer at the convent.

Port Fairy Good Samaritan sisters (from left) Maureen Stone, Camilla (Margaret) Gall, Marie Jones and Claire Dwyer at the convent.

ONE of the biggest changes to the way we live is the constant and rapid improvement in the lines of communication.

But no matter what the time in history, if the message is important enough, it will get through.

Next Tuesday Port Fairy is celebrating the centenary of the town’s Catholic convent, located in William Street.

While 100 years is a big achievement, the story of how the building finally came to be goes back many more years.

It was 1844 and Port Fairy was then the new township of Belfast, an area full of Irish-Catholic immigrants.

John Polding was serving as the first Catholic Archbishop of Sydney and somehow the word filtered through to his office that the little settlement of Belfast was in need of some formal Catholic structure.

Archbishop Polding found his way to Belfast and quickly realised the need for a Catholic clergy was strong in the town.

From this the Belfast Mission was built on the current site of the convent in 1849, with the mission including a small church and school.

The school, a forerunner to St Patrick’s school, was staffed by lay teachers and stayed that way until 1906.

From this point a group of sisters from the Sisters of St Joseph of Cluny came to take over teaching duties and stayed until the end of 1912.

A group of lay teachers took over again for 1913 and it was during this period that Bishop Higgins, of Ballarat, asked Mother Superior Berchmans of the Good Samaritan Sisters in Sydney to send some nuns to run the school. Five sisters — Mary Joseph Fanning, Mary Finbar Addy, Mary Gabrielle Daly, Mary Augustine Allman and Mary Annunciata Omedei — came to the town,  now renamed Port Fairy.

It was fitting the Good Samaritan sisters had come to Port Fairy, given it was Archbishop Polding who founded the order.

For their first six months in the town the sisters stayed at the Brady family home on the corner of Cox and William streets while their new convent was built. The convent was built where the St Patrick’s School Hall now stands and the sisters were able to move into it in 1914.

The official opening of the convent was a grand affair and was officiated by the Archbishop of Melbourne, Dr Carr.

The Port Fairy brass band provided the musical interlude with the Australian and Union Jack flags flying proudly.

The Irish connection to the area was clear to see, with the Irish welcome “Cead Mile Failte” in a scroll above the doorway and the Irish flag flying high. 

Over the ensuing years the sisters ran the school alongside lay teachers, with a major expansion in the 1960s to accommodate the growing population.

The biggest change in the history of the convent came in 1983 when the school decided it needed a hall in its quest to best serve its pupils.

The hall was to be built on the site the convent sat on and the convent moved to the block next door to the south.

The convent building was moved in pieces and gently replaced next door to its former address.

Since that time the convent has continued to house Good Samaritan sisters, who have had ongoing roles and a strong connection with the school.

The convent is home to sisters Claire Dwyer, Marie Jones, Maureen Stone and Camilla (Margaret) Gall.

The four sisters will be special guests at the centenary celebrations to be held on Tuesday.

The celebrations include a Mass in the school hall at 10am, with the Bishop of the Ballarat Dioceses Paul Bird and Koroit parish priest Father Bill van de Camp in attendance. 

After the Mass, refreshments will be served and a display set up showcasing the convent’s history.

Sister Camilla (Margaret) said it was exciting to be celebrating 100 years.

“This is one of the last original convents,” she said. “There are not many left.

“And to have it at the school hall is very important. The convent and the school have such a great history together and the school staff have been so supportive.

“And, of course, having the bishop and Father Bill here will be wonderful.

“It will be a marvellous occasion.”

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