St Mary's Dominican Convent

St Mary's Dominican Convent

Mary MacKillop and Fr Woods founded the Institute of the Sisters of St Joseph, a Catholic religious order dedicated to Catholic education and welfare work within Australia. The Sisters of St Joseph, led by Mary, helped set up the Catholic system of parochial schools for the poor. Mary MacKillop died on August 8,1909, and has been declared a saint by the Catholic Church.

Fr Woods met Mary MacKillop in Penola in the early 1860s when he was priest-in-charge of the south-east of South Australia and she was teacher in the local Catholic school. They shared the same vision of Catholic education and in 1866 obtained permission from Bishop Sheil of Adelaide to implement their ideas. The bishop transferred Woods to Adelaide and appointed him director general of Catholic education, chairman of the Diocesan Board of Catholic Education and inspector of schools. Mary MacKillop followed him to Adelaide in 1867 and together they established the institute.

The first Josephite convent was at Pelham Cottage in Grote Street, which Mary MacKillop and the first sisters occupied in June 1867. There were then only three nuns, however the order expanded rapidly and the Grote Street cottage was soon too small. The order moved to church-owned cottages on the corner of Franklin Street and West Terrace to the north of the archbishop’s house. They made a further move to Franklin Cottage, which stood immediately in front of the present chapel.

Soon after this last move the idea of a school for non fee-paying children arose. MacKillop and Woods opposed the notion of a poor school as it fostered class distinction but eventually bowed to pressure from the Catholic administration and the Poor School was built.

The basis of the present building was opened in 1869. This two-storey building abutted Franklin Cottage (now demolished), with the ground floor used as a classroom for 150 pupils and the upper storey as a dormitory and chapel for the sisters.

The present chapel was built in 1871. The Sisters of St Joseph occupied the building until September 1871, when Bishop Sheil excommunicated Mary MacKillop and tried to disband the institute. The details of the affair are complex, but W. Modystack states that the bishop was turned against the Josephites by priests who were anti-Josephites, after which he tried to change the sisters’ rule. They were forced to vacate many of their 45 convents and schools. In the five months during which Mary MacKillop was excommunicated she and the sisters stayed faithful to their rule, even though 51 – almost half their number – were expelled from the institute. When the misunderstanding between the bishop, the priests and the sisters was finally resolved the sentence of excommunication was revoked in February 1872 and the sisters resumed their work.

At about the time of Mary MacKillop’s excommunication, Bishop Sheil decided to transfer the Poor School and its attached convent to the Dominican sisters, who took possession of the building in November 1871. The Josephites found rented accommodation near St Ignatius’ Church at Norwood then bought a property nearby on Portrush Road at Kensington, where they built a new mother house.

The Dominicans bought these buildings in 1896. They demolished the original Franklin Cottage and opened the new convent and school in June 1898. This wing, in the Gothic idiom, was designed by E.J. Woods and built by C.H. Marting, and cost £5172.


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This building is of great historical importance because its earliest sections (facing Gray Street) were associated with Mother Mary MacKillop and Father Julian Tenison Woods and the development of Catholic education in South Australia.

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Images of St Mary's Dominican Convent

  • St Mary's Dominican Convent, 2014
Edward Woods
C H Martin
Building materials
Brick, Stone, Bluestone
Architectural styles
2 Victorian Period (c. 1840–c. 1890), 2.12 Free Gothic
1869 - 1871 

Additional Works

Western Wing added

Construction commenced
Construction completed
Architecture and design features
Edward Woods, slate roof, quoins, plinth
Engineering features
West End
Council Ward
Alternative Addresses
Town Acre
Planning Zone or Policy Area
Original owners
Institute of the Sisters of St Joseph
Original occupant
Later occupant/s
Purposes and use
Religious, Convent
AS2482 classification
15500 - Religious Building
Public Access
Limited public access
State Heritage ID
ACC Reference No.
DPTI Heritage No.
Certificate of Title No.
CT 5842/466 F181171 A329
NTSA file exists
Heritage Status
State Heritage listed
State heritage listing
State Heritage listed
Date of State heritage listing
Local heritage listing
Date of Local heritage listing
NTSA listing
NTSA classified
Date of NTSA listing
Section 23 (4) crtiteria
Risk status
Historic Themes
6.3 Worshipping
6.3.2 Church schools
Mary MacKillop, Julian Tenison Woods
Australian Curriculum references
Year 5: The Australian Colonies


  • ACA, Assessments, Smith Survey 1880; Advertiser, 3 December 1984, 27 November 1986; The Advocate, 17 December 1987; Age, 16 September 1985; Foale, Sister M., 'Think of the ravens', BA Hons. thesis, University of Adelaide, 1981; MLSA, Historical photographs (Town Acre 254); Modystack, W., Mary MacKillop, a woman before her time, 1982, pp. 58-
  • 65; Southern Cross, 13 November 1936; Weekend Australian, 9-10 February 1985.

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