Early Catholic Education was an on-again, off-again affair in Penola.
The first school in Penola was run by a Catholic, but was not a Catholic School. It started in 1855 but closed a year later.
Fr Julian Tenison Woods became Parish Priest of Penola and district - an area of 20,000 square miles - in 1857. He saw the need for Catholic education for the children of his parish and looked for opportunities to bring this desire to a reality.
During this period Fr Woods met Mary MacKillop and saw her teaching prowess while she was governess to her cousins in Penola and when she was living and teaching in Portland. Mary was inspired by Fr Woods and shared her desire with him to be religious, but family circumstances intervened to prevent this from happening.
Over this period, they shared the dream of founding a religious order to educate young Catholics in remote areas. In 1861, a Catholic school run by two ladies was later established, but closed in 1865.
This opened the door for the dream to take shape.
Mary and her sister Lexie arrived in Penola in 1866. Her sister Annie had come in the previous October.
“They were faced with the problem of where to teach the children. Mary decided on the stable. … it needed considerable work and she had no money. However her brother John came to their rescue and changed the draughty, dirty old stables into a schoolroom by removing the horse stalls and lining the walls. It is interesting that the stable had originally been the schoolhouse.” (Parish History 6)
On St Joseph’s Day, 19th March 1866, Mary and her two sisters started St Joseph’s School Penola; the dream had begun to take shape! During 1866, Fr Woods had a stone building built on the corner of Portland Street and what is now known as Petticoat Lane.
The School House, which still stands as a testament to Fr. Woods and the early Sisters of St Joseph, was opened in 1867.
St Joseph’s School operated from 1866 to 1871, when the sisters were disbanded due to the excommunication of Mary. It re-opened in 1877 and functioned until 1885.
1936 was a year that stands out in the memory of the people of Penola for it saw the return of the Sisters of St. Joseph, members of the order founded by their now most famous resident, Mary MacKillop, who was beatified in 1995. The Sisters, who had been away since 1885, travelled back by train and the scene at the Station was remarkable and there were some who claimed they witnessed extraordinary signs in the sky that day. It was certainly a day that had very special meaning for the Catholics of the town.
The school operated under the name St Joseph’s School from 1936 to the Golden Jubilee in 1986, when to mark the unique place Penola has in the history of the Josephite story and of Catholic Education in Australia the name changed to Mary MacKillop Memorial School.
The school has always been an integral part of the parish community. In 2010 the celebration of the Canonisation of St Mary of the Cross was an example where school, parish and town united in a common purpose.