The history of Catholic education in Sunshine dates back to 1919 when Fr John Carney came to the parish and quickly realised the urgent need for a Catholic school. He lost no time in proceeding with the work and the school was built at a cost of just over 366 pounds. Fr Carney noted at the time that the labour component of the cost was 30 pounds and that profiteering was alive and well in the timber trade! The school was opened by His Grace, Dr Daniel Mannix, Archbishop of Melbourne on 12th October 1919, the 7th anniversary of his consecration as Archbishop. It needs to be noted that Archbishop Mannix’s official opening did not mark the beginning of classes. About 48 children were on the attendance roll at the school, some having entered at an earlier date.
When the school building was complete, Fr. Carney went to the State School and picked out all of the Catholic children. The official records of Sunshine Primary School show that about two dozen students transferred to “Sunshine Catholic School” on 3rd July 1919, so it is assumed that this marked the beginning of Our Lady’s Primary School. Some children of non-Catholic parents were also enrolled and were welcomed into the community.
Miss Mary Archer was the head teacher and the school’s first official Principal. She worked tirelessly in the school for two years and was remembered as a tall, well-dressed woman who possessed a lovely nature. Miss Archer taught the children songs and plays that they would perform in the Town Hall. Her brother, Perce, was injured in the war and played the piano to accompany the children when they sang. Miss Archer lived in the city and travelled to school each day by steam train.
Female teachers were forbidden to marry and remain employed in the education system, so when Miss Archer decided to get married to a farmer she had to leave the school. In 1921 Miss Archer became Mrs. Kelliher and moved to Neerim South, in South Gippsland. Mrs. Kelliher died in 1971, aged 73.
The second Principal, Miss Catherine McMahon subsequently took charge of the school. Miss McMahon lived with her mother in Yarraville. On the train to Sunshine, Miss McMahon would select an article from The Age Newspaper for use as the ‘dictation passage’ for Grade 6, 7 and 8.
Catherine McMahon is remembered as being a good teacher, but very strict. She is reported to have been fond of hitting the desk with her leather strap and using it on the occasional child. It is reported that the children once revolted and the strap mysteriously disappeared, only to be cut into little pieces before being buried! One student has recalled that Miss McMahon’s temper was famous and that she often made the students stay until 5 o’clock and even recalled them on Saturday mornings.
Miss McMahon is also remembered as being a dedicated and effective teacher and a number of the 112 children had won scholarships under her tuition. It further noted that the scholarships enabled many a struggling family to continue the education of their children. Miss McMahon is credited as giving her students a good grounding in spelling as some of her students went on to represent the school in The Sun Newspaper spelling bee.
After seven years as head teacher, Miss McMahon retired due to ill health and took up a position as a librarian at Footscray. She died in 1965 at the grand age of 81.
In 1928 the Catholic Church acquired the property adjoining the parish hall and renovated it in preparation for the imminent arrival of the Sisters of St Joseph. Their arrival was a year earlier than expected, largely due to the intervention of Archbishop Mannix who was keen for the sisters to start as soon as possible. Sr. Mildred Duncan (superior), Sr. Leo Byrne and Sr. Eustace took up residence in the new convent. A talented artist, Sr. Mildred often raffled her work to raise money for the financially struggling school. Sr. Eustace was renowned for her beautiful singing voice and a music centre was soon established. Sr. Eustace also loved cats – a fondness not shared by Sr. Mildred, who did her best to get rid of them! The community of sisters quickly grew from 3 to 20 and they often taught classes of over 100. Sr. Ursula McFarlane coped with the huge classes by taking one child home each night, concentrating all her energies on that child, visiting the home and commending the child to God through prayer.
A new brick school was planned in 1933 under the watchful eye of Fr Fennessy. Another important period in the history of the parish and school was in 1939 when the timber church burnt to the ground. This was a major setback for the parish. In 1950, the same year that Fr Egan arrived as parish priest, the number of children rose dramatically – from 369 to 623 in one year.
In order to cater for the extraordinary number of new students seeking education at Our Lady’s, Fr Egan purchased land in Station Place and, with voluntary labour over 26 weekends, built two classrooms. In 1957 the student population of 900 had a playing area equivalent in size to one basketball court. From the year 1959 onwards, he was forced to accommodate a roll call of 1,000 pupils. Further plans for extension were halted due to Father Egan’s death in 1956. Fr Murphy continued with the plans and erected a new building in 1958, in memory of his predecessor.
Various other projects continued to develop over the years. In 1987 Bishop Peter Connors and Parish Priest Father Murphy blessed new extensions. The original brick school building was demolished in 1999 after surviving many years of dedicated occupation. A famous story is told of a building inspector condemning the structure decades earlier and Sister Jean Cunningham looking him in the eye and asking, ‘Where shall we go?’ Over her shoulder 150 children were busily engaged and the inspector walked away helpless.
The parish waved a sad goodbye to the Sisters of St Joseph in 2000, when the last remaining sisters moved out of the convent in Station Place. A wonderful celebration was held in their honour and was attended by many of the sisters who had taught in the school and worked in the parish. In 1999 Bishop Grech and Parish Priest Father Lewy Keelty O.M.I. blessed the new six-classroom Junior Block. Further development was completed in 2003 when the new administration building and new classrooms were blessed and officially opened by Auxiliary Bishop Bishop Mark Coleridge, Parish Priest Fr. Harry Dyer O.M.I. and The Hon. Petro Georgiou MP.
In 2009 the School Hall was completely refurbished and was officially blessed by His Grace, Archbishop Denis Hart. During the refurbishments, extra windows and doors were added, allowing much-needed light to enter the space. The old flat was demolished and replaced with a modern kitchen. This historic building was given a new lease on life and is now a wonderful asset for Our Lady’s Community.