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misunderstanding between the bishop, the priests and the sisters was finally resolved the sentence of excommunication was revoked in February 1872 and the sisters resumed their work.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.