Somewhere in Australia there are children who are still being taught by habited religious sisters, and their parents are over the moon about it.
St Mary Mackillop College in Wagga Wagga, a K-12 school established by locals Bill and Joanne Andrews, celebrated its 10th anniversary of operation last year.
Beginning with 10 students and now up to 120, it has weathered various storms and overcome many negative predictions, to build its identity as an unapologetically Catholic, and academically successful, educational enterprise.
The secrets of the school’s success seem to lie in a combination of small class sizes, traditional-style pedagogy, a unique Religious Education program based on the Catechism of the Catholic Church and a staff of highly committed Catholic teachers, including six habited Dominican sisters who teach Religion, Maths and English.
Sr Mary Catherine, 27, who has been a member of the Ganmain Dominicans since she was 19, teaches Religion to the kindergartners and Religion and English Literature to Year 7 students. (All of the sisters have teaching degrees from various universities, and most recently some sisters are studying for their Masters in Education from Excelsior College, Sydney.)
“It’s grown immensely, and it’s such a privilege to teach children of practising Catholic parents, where you and the parents are trying to form the children in the same way,” Sr Mary told The Catholic Weekly.
“In visiting the school, the first thing people notice is the sisters, but the second thing is the interest the children take in learning; they want to learn. We are not wasting time trying to control the classes.
“And religion is definitely a favourite subject because the children can ask questions about their own lives.”
The school serves Catholic families from Wagga Wagga and outlying areas. A few have uprooted from major cities and moved to Wagga to tap into what the school offers.
Isabella and Roel van de Paar say that giving up a lifestyle close to the ocean was a sacrifice, “But it was worth it,” says Roel.
“We moved for the single purpose of sending our children to a school where they will be taught solid Catholic faith and morality. Our children are given great example by the Dominican Sisters and by the teachers who are great role models, have high standards and give attentive care to their students. And the fees are very affordable.”
Peter Curtis, 2017 School Captain, whose family moved to the school from Canberra in 2011 says that he is receiving an education that gives him confidence to face a culture out there that he calls “anti-truth”.
“I feel confident to begin my career path with a solid background of true thought and a solid understanding of true sexuality and the dignity of human life.”
Academically the school does well, featuring high on the achievement ranking of schools in NAPLAN and entering students in ICAS competitions. Last year the school ranked 4th in the State and 10th in the nation for country schools, even though it has quite large proportions of ESL students and few from socially privileged backgrounds.
John Burton, Primary Principal, said the school had strong literacy and numeracy programs and the emphasis the school places on phonics, poetry memorisation and encounters with the classics. The English studies 7-10 have a strong focus on the great writers in English literature.
Jo Andrews, the school’s director, claims that the school is the outcome of much prayer and discernment by herself and her husband.
“Parents are understandably concerned as our society becomes more secular and more toxic for children,” she says. “But the ongoing success of the school depends on more like-minded families who see the value in a school whose aim is to form saints for heaven.”
More information about St Mary MacKillop College is available at www.stmarymackillop.nsw.edu.au