Fr Julian Edmund Tenison Woods was born in England in 1832and came to Australia in 1855. He was ordained a priest in South Australia and began his work as parish priest of the vast area around Penola in South Australia in 1857. He travelled around his parish on horseback and was disturbed by the numbers of children of the bush who were not receiving any education, no government schools being yet established in the area. While he was a novice with the Marist Fathers in France earlier in his life he had encountered groups of Sisters of St Joseph who lived simply in rural areas and their work among the poor of Le Puy impressed him very much.

Mary MacKillop was born in Melbourne, Victoria in 1842. Mary came to Penola as governess to her uncle's children. She was a very practical young woman, full of faith, common sense and good judgement and had been given a solid and well rounded education by her father. She became a very capable teacher. She confided to Fr Woods her desire to become a nun but did not wish to join the orders that she knew. Fr Woods remembered the Sisters of St Joseph of Le Puy and together they dreamed of starting a religious group. They would model their new group on this order.

Mary started living as a religious sister in Penola. In 1867 she and some companions moved from Penola to Adelaide where Fr Woods had been summoned to establish a Catholic education system.

During the next few years they endured many tribulations including a wrongful excommunication by the ill and badly-advised Bishop of Adelaide, Bishop Sheil. Bishop Matthew Quinn was appointed (among others) by the authorities in Rome to investigate the situation in Adelaide. He was much impressed by the work of the Sisters and invited Fr Woods and Mary MacKillop (now called Sister Mary of the Cross) to make a foundation in his diocese, the Bathurst Diocese in New South Wales.

In 1871 Fr Woods set out for Bathurst to prepare for the foundation. The site chosen was Queen Charlotte's Vale, referred to as The Vale (later to become known as Perthville).

The leader of the group, consisting of three religious Sisters and one aspirant, was Sr Teresa, born Margaret MacDonald. She was the eighth woman to enter the order in Adelaide and a close friend of Mary MacKillop. She was born in Scotland. The date of her birth is uncertain, possibly in 1842. She was not a physically well person and Mary had written to Fr Woods in 1872 that she was "not well enough able either for the school or to teach the Sisters who may be with her but her knowledge of the spirit of the rule is beautiful, and with her in Bathurst I think all would be well".

The others in the group were Sr Joseph, born Mary Dwyer in Ireland in 1850, Sr Hyacinth, born Bridget Quinlan in South Australia in 1850 and a lay woman Ada Braham born in London in 1854, a convert from Judaism.

These Sisters arrived at The Vale on 16th July 1872, to begin their mission. As their convent had not been completed, they set up a convent in part of a little wooden church and a week later took over the existing Church school that had been conducted by a lay woman. Classes were conducted in another part of the church. From humble beginnings has grown the Diocesan Congregation of Sisters of St Joseph.

Pictured right: The original convent, opened in 1872, consisted of the four front rooms of the ground floor. In 1890 extensions were made to the ground floor and an upper storey and attic added.

Bishop Matthew Quinn, Bishop of Bathurst, had already expressed his idea of having a religious institute under his charge and dedicated to education. In 1875 he arrived back from Ireland with nine postulants whom he expected would be the nucleus of his new order. He found Sr Teresa very ill. Mary MacKillop also arrived back from overseas and visited the Bathurst foundation. She had presented the rule written by Fr Woods for approval in Rome and had been given instead a new rule written and given tacit approval by the Roman authorities. Believing this to be the will of God, her commitment to this rule did not allow her to accept changes made to it.

The Bishop of Bathurst who was used to the Irish model of Religious life with control centred in the Bishop of the diocese wanted to retain control of an already established group of Sisters of which the Bishop would be the head. On the last day of the December retreat 1875, he addressed the Sisters assembled in the church and told them that only those who accepted the rule as "originally drawn up" could remain in the diocese, though, in this rule central government was a major tenet and the Bishop did not want this.

Sr Teresa's health continued to fail and she died on 13 January, 1876, aged about 36. She was buried in sight of the convent at the Vale.

Bishop Quinn told Mary MacKillop in a letter which she received after she arrived in Bathurst he would give the Sisters who chose the new rule the convent at Wattle Flat. The other Sisters and the new postulants were to remain at The Vale under Bishop Quinn. Sisters were given their choice. All but two of the professed Sisters, elected to go with Mary. Fr Woods and Sr Hyacinth (from Adelaide) and Sr Evangelist (local) nurtured the new congregation at The Vale in the same spirit of the original in Adelaide. The small community flourished. Women came in numbers to join the Sisters at Perthville. As well as providing Sisters to teach in numerous small settlements throughout the Bathurst Diocese, communities were sent to make foundations at Wanganui in New Zealand (1880), Goulburn (1882), Maitland (1883), Tasmania (1887) and Ballarat (1891).

Sr Hyacinth, who had been trained with Mary MacKillop and others in Adelaide by Fr Woods was to play a pivotal role. Besides assisting Fr Woods in training the new comers at The Vale, she later moved to both New Zealand and Tasmania helping to forge the spirit of the original Adelaide community in these communities as well. So, in 1967 when the leaders of these groups came together in response to the call from the Second Vatican Council, they found very little difference in their rules and practices.

From Perthville, the Sisters formed communities in the numerous settlements that sprang into existence on the freshly opened gold fields- Wattle Flat, Trunkey Creek, German Hill (Lidster). During this period of their early history, the Sisters were extremely mobile. As soon as the gold seekers moved to newer settlements, the Sisters also moved, endeavouring to live among, and with, the people they sought to serve.
Pictured right: Wattle Flat Convent built in 1873

As construction of railway tracks linked the interior of the state with the city of Sydney, numerous settlements sprang to life and the Sisters provided teachers for the children of these encampments. Eventually farms replaced the gold mines, and the settlements beside the railway tracks. The surviving small towns served as centres for the farming areas and the Sisters of St Joseph became permanent residents.

The Sisters continued to have a significant impact on the church and the small towns of the New South Wales especially in the years before state aid was given to Catholic schools.

In the late twentieth century the numbers of women joining the congregation gradually decreased. As lay teachers replaced them in the schools the Sisters diversified and concentrated on other aspects of the vision of their founders. They opened a mission at Suain in the diocese of Aitape, Papua New Guinea in 1967 and later were at Vanimo and Goroka. Besides teaching in the school they had set up, they helped the indigenous people gain basic skills to run businesses as progress towards self-determination advanced. The most important work was the training of church leaders who led local communities in prayer in the absence of a priest. Thirty years later they handed over the mission at Suain to the national Sisters.

Sr Margaret Schiemer, (Sister of St Joseph, Perthville), spent three years in a small prayer house called "The Burning Bush" in the Eastern Highlands of PNG. The staff was inter-congregational, established initially for the use of the missionaries, but later adapted to the emerging local church needs, and the ministry was extended to indigenous priests, religious and catechists.

Pictured above : Staff at Goroka House of Prayer in 1989.
L to R: Sr Margaret Schiemer rsj, Alrys Klign SVD, Sr Mary Eamon rsm

When Sr Margaret's contract ended at Goroka, she was invited by the Bishop of Wewak to establish a House of Prayer in that Diocese, modelled on the Goroka one. With Sr Colleen Casey (Sister of St Joseph Lochinvar) and Sr Elizabeth Dowton,(Sister of St Joseph, Perthville), she moved into the newly built house in mid 1992.It proved to be a new development in this ministry as 95% of the clients were national religious, priests, seminarians, catechists and lay church leaders who "claimed" ownership of the House of Prayer. A further pleasing development was the appointment and ongoing training of national staff members. Training programs for national spiritual directors were introduced and ongoing supervision provided. The House of Prayer contributed greatly to the enlivening and growth of the church within the Diocese. It was unique in that it was entirely run and staffed by women. The Josephites worked there until December 1998.

Without question the Perthville Josephites have left their mark on the history of Central and Western N.S.W. as well as on the Dioceses of Aitape and Wewak (Papua-New Guinea), and other areas wherever they have ministered.

Though reduced in numbers, today they continue to play a vital role in the life of the church and society and are involved in other educational ministries. They are particularly active in parish ministries, in education for justice and in ministry to the frail, the lonely, the sick and those in need. They rely more and more on lay help in their ministries.

"Little did either of us dream of what was to spring from so small a beginning"

(Mary MacKillop, Letter to the Sisters)