Bishop Dunne laid the foundation stone for St Vincent’s Church on Sunday, 26 February, 1905 and the Very Reverend M.J. O’Reilly, president of St Stanislaus College, Bathurst conducted the ceremony of blessing and opening on Sunday, 6 August, 1905. Fr Flanaghan initiated the building of the church from his first visit on Sunday, 22 February, 1903. Fr Heath who succeeded Fr Flanaghan, was parish priest at a time when Portland was rapidly expanding. In 1901 the village had a population of 543 people and 170 dwellings and in 1911 when he left the parish, the town had a population of 2370 people and 523 dwellings.
The growth in population was based largely on the family unit. This meant an increasing number of Catholic children whose religious and secular education could not be adequately addressed in the secular state school. So Fr Heath spent the first two years of his ministry raising support and finances to build a Catholic primary school. Not only did he build the school but enlarged it in 1911 prior to his departure.
‘In the early hours of the morning, only the rhythmic beat of a horse’s hoof pounding the parched ground broke the morning silence. A sulky bringing a precious cargo to the fledgling settlement - Catholic nuns to set up a makeshift school in a tent and teach the children about their religion and Irish ancestry. The year 1905 - the place, Portland.’
There is no evidence to support the establishment of a Catholic school at Portland before 1908. The first official reference to the school is in 1908 when SM Alexius, one of the founding Sisters, recorded the names of the Sisters who founded the Convent. Much has been written about the history of the Josephite order. Colloquially known as the Black Joeys - established at Perthville in 1872 by Mathew Quinn, the Bishop of Bathurst, they remained faithful to the ideals of their founders, St Mary of the Cross MacKillop and Fr Julian Tenison Woods. Bishop Dunne formally opened St Joseph’s School, Portland on Sunday, 23 February 1908. One hundred and fifty students attended the school by the conclusion of 1908. The construction of the school occurred during a period of unprecedented growth and activity for the young community and Fr Heath must have been convinced that the town had a secure future as he committed substantial funds to the construction of a brick school.
However, from the style of construction, Fr Heath must have envisioned the school being constructed in stages to reflect the funding capacity of the parish and an increasing level of enrolments. For many years, the rear of the school was the main entrance and it was fitted with an ornate verandah that was to be removed late in 1929 to allow for the installation of five large steel framed windows at the rear of the school. ‘The Record’ in March 1930 reported that the windows were to provide ample light and ventilation and that before the end of the year further additions were expected to the school building. It is probable that these additions were the front verandah. The final stage of construction occurred in 1949 when two additional rooms were added to the left-hand side of the school at a cost of two thousand, eight hundred and ninety-seven pounds.
Over one hundred Sisters of St Joseph have served at the Portland Convent either teaching at the school or administering to serve the needs of the community. Not all of the Sisters in the Convent taught in the school. There were always one or two who were dedicated music teachers. It was through the teaching of music that many non-Catholics were exposed to the sisters and Catholicism for the first time. The Portland community stood by its Sisters and provided what assistance they could, be it food during the Depression, wood for fires or raising funds.
Teachers differ little in the memories of adults looking back in time. The deeds of the Sisters of St Joseph are a legend in Portland and the memories of their students add a touch of humanity to that legend. Descriptions of these Sisters remind us that they were ordinary women who chose a challenging lifestyle in order to serve God and the children of the rural communities in which they lived. In a report regarding his Visitation to the Portland Convent on 17 August, 1959 Bishop John Norton wrote:
“It is consoling that the school roll stands at 204 and recently was higher still. Confirmed, 121, was the highest for some time and made an unforgettable ceremony. Little wonder that the people of Portland show their gratitude for all that is done for their children by being generous to the Sisters.”
The Wyndham System of Secondary Education was introduced in the 1960s when, at the same time, much needed State Aid was provided to Catholic Schools. The Sisters of St Joseph did not have the resources to implement the requirements of the Wyndham Scheme at Portland and the Secondary section of the school closed at the end of 1967. Although the funding for Catholic Schools had never been better, maintaining adequate staffing levels was becoming a real problem. The number of teaching Sisters was decreasing due to a number of resignations post Vatican 11 and an ageing population. This resulted in the recruitment of Lay teachers. The first Lay Teacher was appointed at Portland in 1972. The Sisters of St Joseph continued to work in the school through the 1980s. A demountable classroom and office was added at the rear of the main building in the early 1980s. This was replaced with a new Library and Multi-Purpose Hall in 2008.
Today St Joseph’s School is fully staffed by the Laity. 2005 marked the centenary of the laying of the foundation stone at St Vincent’s Church in Portland. The parish and school communities combined this event with a whole town celebration and this was truly memorable. Three years later, in 2008, Mass and the placing of a commemorative plaque inside the school took place.
Composed by Sue Kearns Principal 2000-2020
Acknowledgement of Sources:
St Vincent’s Catholic Church Portland
Centenary History 1905-2005