No. 1472 - Cygnet - St Mary's School (1876) and Sacred Heart Convent (1896)

This article is one of a series about buildings associated with Tasmania’s historical churches.These buildings include Sunday schools, parish halls, convents, schools and residences of the clergy. Ancillary buildings are often overlooked and rarely feature in published histories. My aim is to create a simple record of these buildings, including those which no longer exist.

Cygnet is a small coastal town situated about 70 kilometres south of Hobart. It is named after the adjacent bay of Port Cygnet which was 'discovered' by D'Entrecasteaux and named ‘Port des Cygne’ (meaning the port or harbour of swans). The settlement was known as Port Cygnet until 1895 when it was changed to Lovett. In 1915 the town’s name was changed again becoming Cygnet.

In 1875 a ‘special correspondent’ for the Hobart Mercury published an article titled “The Huon District: Its Conditions and Wants”. The report contains a detailed description of the settlement at Port Cygnet including the religious life of the inhabitants:

“The houses of Port Cygnet, nearly all built of wood, are somewhat scattered, but the nucleus of the township consists of some thirty or forty tenements clustered near the head of the bay, and containing, perhaps, a hundred and fifty inhabitants. Here all the business of the town is transacted. There are two hotels (one near the wharf, kept by Mr. John Russell, and the other at the junction of the Cradoc road, by Mr. William Allen), four stores (the storekeepers being also butchers), one jam manufactory, two small brick yards, three shoemakers, two carpenters, three blacksmiths, two bakers, and representatives of one or two other handicrafts. But though the population of the township itself is comparatively small, Port Cygnet is the centre of a large and flourishing district, dependent upon it for supplies….Port Cygnet was formerly a penal station, no fewer than six hundred or seven hundred convicts having been located there at one time. But none of the prison buildings remain, excepting the Old Bush Inn, now turned into private residences, and the large assembly room behind the Port Cygnet Hotel….Coming now to religious and educational establishments, there are in Port Cygnet an Anglican and a Roman Catholic Church and two schools, one under the Board of Education and the other a private establishment recently opened under the auspices of the Catholic community…”.

Of the establishment Catholic education at Cygnet, Catholic Church historian Terry Southerwood writes:

“Although Father O’ Flynn brought the Sisters of St. Joseph to Cygnet on January 18, 1896, Catholic education in the town and district predated their arrival by forty years. In 1856, a Catholic private school opened at Cygnet with a Mr. McGowan in charge. This followed an unsuccessful attempt by Bishop Willson to have a Catholic appointed headmaster of the public school….”.

The opposition of Protestant clergy to Willson’s proposal led to the establishment of a private Catholic school. However the community was too poor to sustain the school for long.

In the mid 1870s a new Catholic school was established. This was known as St Mary’s Catholic school which was officially opened on 6 March 1876. This was the first permanent Catholic school established in the Port Cygnet district. The local corresponded for the Hobart Mercury wrote a lengthy report about the new school:

“On Monday, March 6th, a new school was opened at Port Cygnet under the auspices of the Catholic community. The pastor of the district, Rev M J O'Regan, finding that there was a growing desire on the part of the Catholic inhabitants to have a school in which their children would be brought up in the principles and tenents of their own faith, at once set about the good work, in which he received every assistance from the people of the neighbourhood. With the generosity and truly Christian zeal characteristic of his family, M. Fitzpatrick, Esq , had the new school erected on a gentle elevation of his land, which commands a charming view of the pretty bay at the entrance to Port Cygnet. Fronting the main road which runs through the township, the new building is situated in one of the most convenient spots of the district for educational purposes, and comprises the school- room, 29 feet long by 20 feet broad, which, with the residence attached, will cost about £200".

"At the time appointed for opening the school, the children, numbering over a hundred, assembled in the new room with their parents, who manifested the liveliest interest in the whole proceedings. Father O'Regan explained to them the object of the church in establishing Catholic schools, and expressed a hope that the same happy results which followed a Catholic training in other parts of the colony, might ere long be visible in their own district….Much to the delight of the audience a number of hymns were then sung, after which the children were regaled with the abundance of good things provided for them on the occasion, by some of the ladies on the township….The school is conducted by Mrs. Philips, assisted by Miss Jarvey, both of whom are great favourites with the children. The former lady taught with ability and marked success a number of catholic children before the opening of the new building, to her, therefore, is due the merit of initiating a Catholic school at Port Cygnet”.

This building was in use for only 10 years when it was replaced by a new school in 1885. In May 1885 the Mercury reported that Mr G. Walters of Hobart had been “engaged to erect a Catholic school and teacher’s residence on Catholic Church property”. The building was completed before the end of the year. The local correspondent for the Hobart Mercury described it as “one of the prettiest wooden structures in the township”.

A detailed description of the school appears in the Catholic “Monitor” in May 1897:

“We now have one of the finest, if not absolutely the tiniest schoolroom in any country parish in the archdiocese. It is 50x18, walls 14ft. high, floor to ceiling 20ft., the whole lined with T. and G. Pine, and all the windows…open outwards to give free ventilation throughout. There are two fireplaces for use in winter…The number of children on the roll is over 100 and there are three Sisters of St. Joseph in charge…”.

The Sisters of St Joseph had arrived in Cygnet in 1896 and remained at the school until the 1970s. In 1922, a new red brick school building was opened which the Sisters used until 1955.

The Christian Brothers arrived in Cygnet in 1944 to establish an Agricultural College which they named Lourdes Hill Agricultural College. The Brothers taught boys from Year 5 upwards, taking over the red brick building. After 1955 when the Sisters moved to new classrooms where they taught girls and junior boys. In 1973 the two schools were combined and renamed St James’ Convent School. Since 2009 the College has been known as St James Catholic College.

The 1885 school building still exists and stands on Mary Street to where it was moved in 1922. The Huon Times recorded the removal of the old school:

“Buildings of any size are usually considered stationary objects, but Cygnetites during the past few days have witnessed the novel sight of - a building leaving a site it has occupied for many decades and gradually, approaching the main street. The building in question is the old convent, school, and residence, which has not been used since the new school was completed. As it would have a value for commercial purposes if it abutted on the street, it was resolved to move it, and a gang of workmen, with Mr. Wm. Bennett in charge, have been engaged on the work. The school is a large one, but it was lifted up from its foundation, rollers inserted under the woodwork, and the whole structure hauled by a ‘Digger winch’ to its new location. The work, owing to the size and age of the building, presented many difficulties, and its successful completion reflects the highest credit on all concerned".

The old building has used by a number of businesses over the years and is presently occupied by a shop selling art supplies.

  Cygnet Catholic School house with three nuns out front. Source: - Object number: CLH_10098 (record is provided by Cygnet Living History Museum)

Cygnet in 1914 with the convent school in the background. Source: Lorraine Cowan (Pinterest)

The building in 2023 (Google street-view)


Mercury, Thursday 9 March 1876, page 2
Mercury, Monday 6 April 1885, page 4
Mercury, Tuesday 19 May 1885, page 3
Mercury, Monday 6 July 1885, page 3
Mercury, Saturday 10 October 1885, page 2
Mercury, Saturday 5 December 1885, page 1
Mercury, Tuesday 21 January 1896, page 4
The Monitor, 17 May 1907, page 8
The Monitor, 5 July 1907, page 10
The Mercury, Wednesday 12 October 1921, page 10

Huon Times, Friday 17 November 1922, page 5

Southerwood, W. T Planting a faith in Tasmania : the country parishes. [W. T. Southerwood], [Hobart], 1977.

Coad, David, A history of Tasmania. Volume 2, Port Cygnet 1860 -1900 / [David Coad] D. Coad Kingston, Tas. 2010

Brady, J.M.; Sisters of St Joseph: The Tasmanian Experience. (Doctoral Thesis) Australian Catholic University 2004.


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