St Joseph’s Catholic School, St Georges Street, Willunga

By July 1867, although there was a Catholic girls’ school with a third class licence in Willunga, there is now no memory of its location. Parishioners had begun to build a schoolroom but the new Director General of Catholic Education, considered it too small, the work poor and its location low, damp and inconvenient. Much to their chagrin, he advised them to start again and chose the present site on St Georges Street. In November the work on the schoolroom was underway. Along with Penola and Brompton schools, it was purpose built. It was constructed with sandstone and cut freestone facings, its floor made of Baltic Pine, the beams of Oregon and the trusses of Cedar and was designed to accommodate 150 children.

Although the schoolroom was officially opened in September 1868, Fr. Tennison Woods had visited in February and granted a second class licence, commenting that the schoolroom was in use, but not quite finished. At its opening, there were 40 children attending and the Sisters of St Joseph, recently established by Mary MacKillop, had begun as teachers, using the curriculum developed by the Council of Catholic Education in Adelaide. There followed a busy year of fundraising concerts, sales and raffles to repay the debt, and the nuns grappled with isolation from their religious confraternity and few educational resources. They began celebrating feast days; banners were made and the students would gather to walk through the town in procession singing hymns, followed by games and tea. However, hardships were mitigated by parishioners’ support and visits from the parish priest, Fr Theodore Bongaerts, Fr Tennison-Woods and Mary MacKillop, their Mother Superior.

The school closed in 1882 when reduced attendance left it a one-teacher school and the Superiors were reluctant to leave one nun living in isolation. Twenty-five students transferred to the Willunga Public School on Aldinga Road. The building became the social centre of the parish where socials, dances and balls took place until the 1930’s. During the 1940’s at least one family made the hall their home, and it had a lean-to kitchen attached to the north end of the western wall. In 1985, after years of neglect, a group of parishioners decided to restore the building, which, with the later addition of a new kitchen, has been used ever since for religious instruction lessons, meetings, community classes and social occasions.

This building is on the City of Onkaparinga’s local heritage list as part of the St Joseph’s Catholic Church complex (SA Heritage Places database #5514).


1867 ‘ROMAN CATHOLIC EDUCATION.‘, The South Australian Advertiser, 4 July, p. 3. , viewed 08 Jan 2024,

1868 ‘CATHOLIC EDUCATION COUNCIL.‘, South Australian Register , 18 January, p. 3. , viewed 08 Jan 2024,

1868 ‘CATHOLIC EDUCATION COUNCIL.’, The South Australian Advertiser , 13 February, p. 3. , viewed 08 Jan 2024.

Willunga National Trust – papers and documents available at the Willunga Courthouse Museum.

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