Catholic dioceses across Australia have held simultaneous Masses on 24 May to mark the 200th anniversary of Catholic schools in the country.
At St Mary’s Cathedral in Sydney, Archbishop Anthony Fisher OP addressed a congregation of 1200 students, teachers, principals and other educational leaders across Sydney’s Catholic schools.
The Mass coincided with the Feast of Our Lady Help of Christians, the patroness of Australia, to commemorate the bicentenary of the opening of the first official Catholic school in Parramatta in October 1820.
“In 200 years the Catholic community in Australia has built the largest network of Catholic schools, relative to population, of any country in the world,” said the Archbishop. “Why would we do that? Why would we put so much of our energy and resources in to schools? It’s because we love you.
“God loves you, the young people of Australia, and the Church loves you.”
Archbishop Fisher OP was principal celebrant at St Mary’s Cathedral, alongside Auxiliary Bishops Terry Brady and Richard Umbers.
“Catholic schools are also a major part of Australia’s educational ecosystem and social capital,” said the Archbishop. “Steadfast in their commitment to excellence and equity, they’ve given millions of young Australians of diverse backgrounds a high-quality education and raised many from the bottom of the social pile.
“In the process they’ve helped nurture a more just, prosperous and cohesive society.”
Civic and faith leaders from across the country joined the Archbishop in paying tribute to the transformative power of Catholic education in Australia.
In a special message Prime Minister Scott Morrison congratulated Australia’s Catholic schools, early learning centres and universities on 200 “wonderful” years of teaching and learning.
Mr Morrison said he was delighted to join in celebrating the milestone.
“Over 200 years, your schools, preschools and now universities, have transformed Australia through the millions of lives you have influenced.
“I recognise the contribution of Catholic Education to Australian life and I join you in celebrating this anniversary.”
The Prime Minister also paid tribute to Fr John Therry who answered the call to educate the youth of Parramatta and Australia’s first saint, St Mary of the Cross MacKillop.
National Catholic Education executive director Jacinta Collins said the National Mass would be a highlight of the bicentenary year.
“As a faith community, our National Mass to celebrate 200 years of Catholic education holds significant meaning, particularly on the Feast of Our Lady Help of Christians, the Patroness of Australia,” Ms Collins said.
“The scale of Catholic education in Australia is unique in the world, serving over 777,000 students and employing more than 100,000 staff.
“We are blessed to have the support of governments and our families that ensures we can make a Catholic education accessible to families in every major town and city, and in many regional, rural and remote parts of Australia.”
Masses were celebrated in most of the country’s cathedrals, as well as a number of individual parishes and schools, with some being livestreamed for those who could not attend a live Mass.
Mrs Kathy Campbell, Project officer bicentenary celebrations said she was thrilled with the celebration.
“Today was a very beautiful celebration,” said Mrs Campbell. “It was an extraordinary gathering of students, staff and contributors to Catholic education with 1200 joining Archbishop Fisher and the Auxiliary Bishops to celebrate this solemnity and the bicentenary.”
The bicentenary commemorates the anniversary of the first official Catholic school in Australia, founded in October 1820 by Irish Catholic priest Fr John Therry.
The school, which Catholic historians believe was located on Hunter Street in Parramatta, taught 31 students, compared to the one in five Australian students educated in 1755 Catholic schools today.
That original school was transferred to the site of the present St Patrick’s Cathedral in 1837 and was entrusted to the care of the Marist Brothers in 1875.
Parramatta Marist High School, now located in Westmead and St Patrick’s Primary, Parramatta trace their origins back to the first school.
Over 200 years Catholic schools have educated millions of young people and today educate one in five Australian students.