A very brief and simplified history of the place of Catholic schools in Australian Catholicism up until the early 1960s

This material was written and illustrated by Dr Graham English.

The Catholic Church began in Australia with the first Catholics soon after European settlement in 1788; there were no regular priests here until after 1824. These first Catholics in Australia were mainly convicts. They and any free Catholics were poor and underprivileged and as people were regarded with suspicion by the protestant British who controlled the colony. The religious prejudices and arguments stemming from the Reformation and the subsequent history of the British Isles were transported here with the convicts.


The first Catholic priests were a mixture of English Benedictines and Irish secular clergy. In some cases, their home dioceses and monasteries were happy to have them come to the colonies. Here they travelled widely, lived tough lives on the whole, and identified with their Cathoic communities who were at the lower class, poorer end of society. On the whole these early Australian Catholics respected the clergy. Some simple Catholic schools were set up, taught by lay people; but mostly they were of doubtful quality which was rather typical of schools generally in the country at this time. Fights between and within the Christian churches here did little to raise the level of education in schools.

By the 1860s, the churches and the colonial politicians were arguing for and against having state education -- up to then, practically all schools were run by the various churches. State funded denominational education was held to be the best solution by some. In the end it became clear that state education, ‘free, compulsory and secular’, was likely to prevail. The Catholic bishops, by now predominantly Irishmen, chose to set up Catholic schools in opposition to state public education. They deliberately chose to make the schools both a sign of Catholic identity and unity, and a way of establishing a strong Catholic Church in Australia. They did this in the beginning by strongly rejecting state education. This spirit of opposition lasted for a long time.

The bishops’ plan involved having every Catholic child in the country go to a Catholic school. This meant having a Catholic school in as many places as possible even in the smallest villages and towns. Often these schools took a few boarders. So in Wombat, Murrringo, Penola, Hughenden, Wilcannia and countless other places there were to be Catholic schools. Then Catholic parents were to be obliged to send their children to these schools. While most Catholics went along with this rule, there were always Catholics who chose to send their children to public schools for a variety of reasons.

There had been religious sisters and brothers in Australia before 1870. The Sisters of Charity came in 1838 and the Christian Brothers in 1843. But now they were to become the 'engine' of Catholic schooling in Australia. Mary MacKillop and Tenison Woods began the Sisters of St Joseph; orders from Ireland, England and France were drafted into the scheme. They were inexpensive, obedient, mobile and very hard-working labourers who for the next eighty years spread all over Australia and established not only Catholic schools, but also they contributed significantly to the the kind of Catholic church that was ‘Australian Catholicism’ by the 1950s. By then almost all Catholic teachers were memebers of religious orders and Catholics presumed that had always been so and always would be.


This Catholicism, even in the 1950s, was mostly working class. Its members were almost all of Irish or British descent. It spread all over Australia but was concentrated in working class suburbs and in particular country districts like the southern highlands ans western slopes of NSW, western Victoria, and southern Queensland. It was family based and centred on the local Catholic school and church. Catholics socialised together and rejoiced when one of their children entered a seminary to train for the priesthood or entered a novitiate to become a sister or a brother.

Catholic schools celebrated and publicised their victories. They set themselves over against state schools. They taught religion from a conservative apologetic position as they reflected the style and the ideology of Rome and the European Church after the first Vatican Council

Catholics also encouraged each other in the particular style of religion they were developing and strongly discouraged anyone who tried to break away from it or be different.

Besides their attendance at Catholic schools, Catholics many religious/social practices that made them distinct. They did not eat meat on Fridays. This led to the supposition that they always ate fish. In one regional city in NSW Catholics, sometimes affectionately and sometimes not, were called ‘fishies’. They were pious and wore various signs of their religious allegiance. They stressed identity.

They also stressed weekly attendance at Mass so that in the 1950s over 60% of Catholics were at mass each week.

For Australian Catholics their religion became a distinctive way of life.


Catholic education from 1870 until about the early 1970s was a time of ‘making Catholics’. These words might be fairly applied to its aims and intended outcomes: IDENTITY, PIETY, UNIFORMITY, THE RIGHT ANSWERS, HANDING ON THE TRUTH’. It was a religious education based firmly on a conservative view of hermeneutics.
But there were always Catholics that were culturally and religiously different from this initially dominant Anglo-Irish pattern. Increasingly both before and after World War II immigration meant that Catholics came into Australia representing a wide range of cultural origins:- Italy, Poland, Hungary, Greece, the Middle East, Philippines, Asia etc etc. From the 1970s Catholicism in Australia was strongly multicultural.

The history of Catholic schools is found in a number of books.
Dwyer, B. & English, G (1988) Catholics in Australia: our story Melbourne: Collins Dove. This is a school text that gives a simple account of the schools as they were in the 1950s.
Campion, E. (1988) Australian Catholics Melbourne: Viking Books.
Fogarty, R. (1959) Catholic education in Australia 1806-1950. Melbourne University Press. This is still the classic account of the history of how and why Catholic schools proliferated in Australia after 1870.