Adapted in part from the MSC Centenary Publication, From Parkhall to St. Mary’s Towers, by Fr. John Franzmann MSC & Fr. Steve Dives MSC, with gratitude to the authors. Reproduced with permission. This site also wishes to acknowledge the Dharawal elders and the stories they have shared, as well as other articles from local sources.
THE TOWER’S TALE …
On 7 December 1904, Brother Robert South MSC received the keys of Nepean Towers near Wilton, the mansion Sir Thomas Mitchell had built and named Parkhall in 1842. A few days later Bishop Alain de Boismenu MSC of Papua New Guinea said the first Catholic Mass in the beautiful old Anglican chapel built by Dr Jenkins. Fifty years after our foundation in France and twenty after our arrival in Sydney to care for the Pacific missions entrusted to us, the Missionaries of the Sacred Heart (MSC) took possession of this rural property. It would be at various times a training centre for our Australian members through school, novitiate and seminary, a farm, parish centre, and retreat centre and renewal centre.
In 2004 the Towers celebrated over one hundred years of MSC life and the prior history of St Mary’s Towers as Parkhall and Nepean Towers. St Mary’s Towers holds a myriad of memories for a myriad of people. For most Missionaries of the Sacred Heart, it has been their birthplace into the Society, it has been their place of renewal throughout their life and it is also the burial place of most of our members. But it has not been a place just for Missionaries of the Sacred Heart. Many religious, clergy and lay people have been inspired by their time here at St Mary’s Towers and they have gone out to live their lives to help change the world. St Mary’s Towers stands as a great example of a place in which Mission is encouraged so that people might move out to minister to the people of God.
We are thankful for all the works and the blessings of those who over the course of one hundred years have brought us here. We also pray for the future of this place, that it may continue its important role in the world for the Missionaries of the Sacred Heart and for all who are touched by it.
Many years ago, Blanche Mitchell, the daughter of Sir Thomas Mitchell, wrote that “it was a delightful place and it has the air of sacredness and respect”. Now, in our day, we pray that it will continue to be a place that is a sign of hope, of joy, of hospitality, of true MSC spirit.
The Dharawal People
The tale of St. Mary’s Towers is incomplete without reference to the first owners of the land which the Missionaries of the Sacred Heart and many others have come to consider their home. While the MSC celebrate their presence and ministry here of more than a hundred years, a significantly more ancient spirituality and culture preceeded them at this place of the meeting of the rivers for tens of thousands of years.
The original inhabitants of the Appin, Wilton, Douglas Park area were the Dharawal people. Their country spread from Botany Bay south to the Shoalhaven River and inland to Camden. The Dharawal moved freely throughout the region and shared resources with their near neighbours. Their lands were fertile, with abundant resources. The Dharawal were custodians of this rich country and offered hospitality to people from other nations when their lands were ‘sick’. The traditional protector of the Dharawal people is the Eagle and she watched over them and cared for them.
Historical records describe white encounters with the Dharawal, which began around 1795, as peaceful. Some European settlers had close associations with them. Charles Throsby of Glenfield was accompanied by Dharawal men when he explored the southern highlands area. Throsby was a persistent critic of European treatment of the Aborigines. Hamilton Hume who, in 1814 with his brother John, made the first of a number of long exploratory trips southwards, did so in company with a young Aboriginal friend named Doual. Whereas the “mountain natives” (probably Gandangara) had a reputation of being hostile in defence of their people and their land, the Dharawal were peaceful and had no history of aggression. Unfortunately few settlers could distinguish between the two groups.
As early as 1795 cattle which had strayed from the colony at Farm Cove (Sydney) in 1788 were discovered in the Menangle-Camden area. (Explorer Francis Barrallier had reported 60 cattle near what is now known as Douglas Park in 1802). Governor Hunter visited the Camden area and name it “Cowpastures”. In 1803, Lord Camden, the Colonial Secretary, ordered Governor King to grant John Macarthur more than 5,000 acres for the purpose of breeding merino sheep, giving birth to the Australian wool industry. When Europeans took up land grants, they cleared and fenced the land, irrecoverably changing the patterns of hunting and gathering that had been followed by the Dharawal people for tens of thousands of years.
Europeans admired the people of this area. Lieutenant Collins described how, at a tribal meeting 1824 ‘the men from the Cowpastures were the most remarkable. They were rather short, stocky, strong and superbly built. The painting on their bodies, resembling some kinds of coats of mail, added even more to their martial attitude…’ From archaeology and information given by other tribes of the Cumberland Plain and by their descendants, it is thought that they hunted knagaroos and possums on the grasslands and in the forests. They camped by the rivers to fish and to catch eels and water birds. They harvested seasonal fruits and vegetables, especially yams which grew in big yam beds by the rivers and creeks.
When Governor Macquarie and his wife visited the Cowpastures in 1810, they were welcomed by “two or three small parties of the Cowpastures natives” with”an extraordinary sort of dance”. In 1814, Macquarie issued an order in the Sydney Gazette, admonishing settlers in the Appin and Cowpastures area. “Any person who may be found to have treated them [natives] with inhumanity or cruelty, will be punished?.” Yet within a few short years, orders issued by Macquarie would result in the deaths of many Dharawal people including an atrocity when an Aboriginal woman and her children were murdered at Appin.
Between 1814 and 1816 relations between Aborigines and Europeans in the Appin area became hostile, perhaps exacerbated by a severe drought which further increased pressures on the scarce food supplies. In May, 1814 three members of the militia fired on Aboriginals on two farms at Appin, killing a boy. This led to retaliation by the Aborigines, followed by further violence by whites. Over the next two years hostilities escalated and came to a head in March 1816, when members of the Gundangara attacked settlers, killing some and destroying property. It was in response to these attacks that Macquarie felt compelled to ‘inflict terrible and exemplary punishments’ on the Aborigines.
Macquarie ordered three military detachments to deal with the ‘Natives’ by ‘punishing and clearing the country of them entirely, and driving them across the mountains’. Captain Schaw was to lead a punitive expedition against the “hostile natives” in the Nepean River region. Lieutenant Charles Dawe was ordered to do the same proceeding to the Cowpastures. Captain John Wallis had similar orders and was to march from Liverpool to the Districts of Airds and Appin. Wallis’s guides were John Warby and two Dharawal men, Budbury and Bundle. Warby had explored the Cowpastures, the Burragorang Valley and Bargo area, establishing a close working relationship with the Dharawal.
All Aborigines encountered by the military were to be made prisoners. In the event of their refusing, they were to be fired up and any “native” men killed were to be hanged on trees in conspicuous parts of the country where they fell. Budbury and Bundle were both unwilling guides, and Warby likewise showed his distaste for the military operation by saying he would take no responsibility for the Dharawal men. The following night Warby “winked at the escape of Bundle and Budbury”. “I was exceedingly annoyed” wrote Captain Wallis.
The next day (April 12) a number of Aborigines came forward unarmed, but the names of two (Yallaman and Battagalie) were found to be on the wanted list. Settlers named Kennedy and Hume quickly reassured Captain Wallis that Yallaman and Battagalie were harmless and innocent. Hume even lied, claiming he had seen the Governor erase their names from the “wanted” list. On April 13 Warby disappeared. Suspicion lingers that he may in fact have set off to warn the Dharawal. Warby reappeared the following day, but was still uncooperative.
Wallis then travelled to William Redfern’s property, chasing rumoured sightings of Aborigines there, only to find that there was no-ne at the property. He spent several days searching the George’s River in Minto and Ingleburn before receiving word that seven outlawed Aborigines were camped at William Broughton’s farm, Lachlan Vale near Appin. He marched his soldiers through the night of April 16th only to find a deserted campsite. Hearing a child’s cry and a barking dog in the bush, Wallis lined up his soldiers to search for the fugitives. In the moonlight they could see figures jumping across the rocky landscape. Some of the Aborigines were shot and others driven off the cliffs into a steep gorge. By the daylight of the 17th of April at least fourteen were killed and the only survivors were two women and three children. Among those killed were the mountain chief Conibigal, an old man Balyin, a Dharawal man called Dunell, along with several women and children. Heads of two of the Aboriginal men were removed and sent overseas. The skulls have recently been repatriated back to Australia.
There is evidence that civilians continued killing Aborigines after the military forces returned to Sydney. How many might have died that night will never be known. Local elders say the number was much higher than reported and that the dead were mainly women, children and the elderly, as the men had separated to protect them.
Five prisoners were taken. One was Hume’s friend, Doual. In August 1816, Macquarie banished Doual to Van Diemen’s Land “in remittance of the death sentence imposed upon him”. Macquarie had started out as a sympathetic friend to the Aborigines. In the end, more than fourteen (including women and children) met violent deaths as a result of his orders.
The massacre annihilated the Dharawal people destroying their way of life and social structure. Their numbers had already been decimated by disease and hostilities since European occupation but after the massacres of 17th April, 1816 it is estimated that there were less than 30 remaining. The site of the massacre near Broughton Pass, over the Cataract River, on the road to Appin (William Broughton’s Farm was on the Appin side of the River) is only about 5 km from St. Mary’s Towers.
Twenty six years had passed when in 1842 Sir Thomas Mitchell laid the foundation stone for his country residence, “Parkhall“. He did however know local aboriginal men, who are recorded as assisting him as guides in some of his expeditions. Mitchell’s country residence “Parkhall” was built on Dharwal land at a place near the meeting of the Nepean and Cataract Rivers. In Allen’s Creek to the south of Parkhall is a Dharawal rock paintintg gallery and several other sacred sites. Present day Dharawal Elders speak of the land in that vicinity as being “sanctuary”, where great inter-tribal meetings were held, sustaining thousands of Aboriginal people from the Eastern coast of Australia, who had come for ceremonial purposes, arranging marriages, and the resolution of inter-tribal disputes.
The Missionaries of the Sacred Heart enjoy good relations with the present day Elders of the Dharwal Nation. May we walk gently on this land and honour the Dharawal people, their ancestors and their culture.
Park Hall, East Bargo – 1841-1860
THOMAS LIVINGSTONE MITCHELL was born at Grangemouth in Stirlingshire, Scotland on the 15 June 1792 and died at Darling Point, Sydney, on the 5th of October 1855. The family home in Scotland was called Parkhall. He was educated at the University of Edinburgh, but the poverty of his family following his father’s death led him to join the Army in 1811 where he learned surveying. Mitchell served as a lieutenant in the Napoleonic Peninsular wars (1807-1815). During the campaign he was appointed to help survey the battlefields, and when the war was over he continued with the work of surveying and sketching, first in Spain and then back in England. He saw service in Portugal, where Sir George Murray, later to be Colonial Secretary, was the Army’s Quartermaster-General, and became Mitchell’s most important connection. In 1817 he married Mary Blunt in Lisbon. When the Napoleonic Wars ended in 1815 Mitchell returned to the dull routine of peacetime soldiering. His skilled dedication to this work led to his promotion to Major, and to his being offered the position of Deputy Surveyor General of New South Wales, where he arrived in 1827. He was then named Surveyor General to succeed the ailing John Oxley. In this post he did much to improve the quality and accuracy of surveying – a vital task in a colony where huge tracts of land were being opened up and sold to new settlers. At first frustrated in his desire to lead expeditions to explore the interior, he worked on the survey of New South Wales. One of the first roads surveyed under his leadership was the Great North Road, built by convict labour between 1826 and 1836 linking Sydney to the Hunter Valley. The Great South Road, also convict-built, linked Sydney and Goulburn. In 1834 he was commissioned to survey a map of the Nineteen Counties. The map he produced was done with such skill and accuracy that he was awarded a knighthood. He was then able to conduct three expeditions of exploration. After his third journey in 1836 to ‘Australia Felix’, (latin for “fortunate Australia”) an early name given by Mitchell to lush pasture in parts of western Victoria, and a sojourn in England, he returned in 1841 to oversee the building of an English style mansion on property that he had acquired in the parish of Wilton, County of Camden.
As a major on half pay, Thomas Mitchell was entitled to a grant of 2560 acres in the colony. He had selected property in the County of St. Vincent soon after he arrived in1828, but in the next year exchanged this for land at East Bargo, in an unnamed parish that would soon be the parish of Wilton. The land was the traditional country of the Dharawal people, a place of meeting aboriginal people and for the reconciliation of disputes.
Mitchell soon purchased a further1950 acres adjacent to the grant. This was the country through which he believed the Great South Road was to pass, but a different route through the Camden area was chosen and it was not until one hundred and fifty years later that the F5 Freeway to Canberra and Melbourne cut off a portion of his property.
In memory of his happy childhood home, he dreamed of erecting a new Parkhall on the land, but nothing was done until he returned in 1841 from his visit to England. In April 1842 he was able to lay the foundation stone, with a cavity containing a parchment inscribed in Latin:
Thomas Livingstone Mitchell, Knight, Honorary of Civil Law in the University of Oxford, accompanied by Charles Nicholson, Doctor of Medicine, in the year of grace 1842, and in the reign of Queen Victoria, laid the foundation stone of this house in a land now divided from the world, but which may one day equal in all the acts of civilization the illustrious regions of his native country.
The house was patterned on ‘A Villa in the Cottage Style’ from an English book of designs described as Gothic Picturesque, with tall chimneys, pointed gables, dormer windows, crenellation, tracery and turrets. Mitchell and the builder James Hume modified the design to make it somewhat simpler, and added the observation tower. It was built with local materials: shingles cut from the bush, sandstone from Clements Creek; but it was to be a little bit of the old country in the new colony, and a fresh start for a noble Briton in a new untainted land, away from the strife of the city.
Mitchell’s feelings can be seen in his (incomplete) poem, Lines Written at Broughton Pass:
Here limpid streams surround untainted earth
Secure from tyranny since Nature’s birth
To such steep rocks, the sons of freedom fly
“Lords of the lion hearted and eagle eye”
No other road besides this rugged Pass
Admits the roaming herds to steal the grass
No highway here for highwayman to ply
A th riving trade …
No wrangling …
No shop keeper …
No public here …
No mob …
Nor brazen statues, brazen lies to bear
No public meetings called with private crews
No nouveaux riches…
No quakers anxious to save human life
Save when their shepherds with the blacks have strife…
No civil officers so deep in debt
That only creditors aught good can get.
Here from all these, O Nature, keep keep me free
Beyond this Chrystal stream my dwelling be
Thy shady forest dark and meadows green
Refresh the soul where no such men are seen
Here harvests yield the unaluminous bread
No sky blue here, but milk from udders shed
Seated beneath the fig and climbing vine
We quaff the unadulterated wine
Or heaped with blazing logs our ample hearth
Resounds with social hospitable mirth
As in the olden time Come Briton come
Be no man’s servant make the woods thy home
National Estate Listing: ‘A two storey Gothic Revival sandstone house (c. 1842-4) built for the Surveyor General Sir Thomas Livingston Mitchell, to a design from Francis Goodwin ‘s ‘Rural Architecture’ and supervised by James Hume. There is a fine geometrical stone stair with cast iron balusters, several original chimney pieces, and Mitchell Arms on the eastern gable. An arcade, tower and chapel were added sometime after 1860, Blacket being commissioned to add the arcade. Apart from its importance as Mitchell ‘s country residence, “Park Hall” is one of the last stylistically significant houses built before the depression of the early 1840s.”
Parkhall (also sometimes written as Park Hall) was to be his country retreat; at the same time he was building a Sydney residence ‘Carthona’ at Darling Point. Parkhall building must have lived up to Mitchell’s expectations, but his plans for the whole property were not so successful. Encouraged by Caroline Chisholm, he sought to settle farmers on small plots along the township line of Wilton, but this was not successful, the settlers giving up their farms within a short time, and the town allotments not selling. At Parkhall Mitchell raised horses and produced a Bargo from his vintage.
Surveyor and Explorer
Major Sir Thomas Livingstone Mitchell was surveyor and explorer of south-eastern Australia. His exploratory career saw four expeditions, which opened up much of land for freehold settlers.
In 1831, George Clarke who had lived in the area for several years claimed that a river that the Aborigines called Kindur flowed north-west from Liverpool ranges in New South Wales to the sea. Charles Sturt said that the Murray-Darling system formed the main river system of New South Wales and Mitchell wanted to prove Sturt wrong. Mitchell then set off on the 24th of November 1831 to find the Kindur River. In his party was 2 surveyors, 15 convicts and his personal servant, Anthony Brown who came with him on every expedition. Between the 30th of November and the 11th December he got to Wallamoul Station near Tamworth. Mitchell used 20 bullocks, three heavy drays, three light carts and 9 horses. Most of the time the animals were used as pack animals. A little while later an Aborigine named Mr Brown joined his party and led them into unexplored territory. Mitchell found a deep, broad river but it was not the Kinder it was the Gwydir. On the 21st January, Mitchell split his team. One group followed the Gwydir River but Mitchell’s group headed north. Two days later Mitchell found a large river and then sent for the other half of the party and began to build a wooden boat. Meanwhile Mitchell explored the river from land but he eventually decided it was the Darling River, with no need for exploration on water. The person who was meant to bring supplies arrived but without supplies because Aborigines had killed two out of the three of his men. Mitchell then had no choice but to call off the expedition and go home.
Mitchell’s next expedition was on the 7th April 1835. This expedition was put together to trace the course of the Darling River to the sea. In his party, there was an assistant surveyor, James Larmer, botonist, Richard Cunningham, Mitchell’s personal servant and 20 other men. After the murder of botanist, Richard Cunningham, who was killed by Aborigines while he was by the Darling River, Mitchell decided to continue his expedition. They then followed the Bogan River downstream led by an Aborigine. Mitchell decided to explore the Darling River with two boats they had lugged all the way there with them but is as it was shallow they continued over land. After one month of following the river, Mitchell believed that it was the Darling and didn’t want to continue. He came back on the 14th of September the same year. His expedition had achieved very little because he didn’t trace the Darling River to the sea.
Expedition 3 started on the 18th of March 1836. Mitchell was instructed once again to follow the Darling River to its end. In his party there was 25 men including his personal servant. At one point Mitchell decided to take a small group west. He found no other rivers so he decided to turn back to camp. On the 23rd of May, he reached the Murray River. His camp was attacked three times by Aborigines. They came across 200 Aborigines who they thought were going to attack. Mitchell’s men started to shoot at them and killed seven. He continued to explore and then decided that Sturt was right that the Darling did flow into the Murray River. He was determined to leave the Darling and explore the Murray River.
While he was exploring the Murray, Mitchell decided that the area to the south east looked interesting so he began to explore it. That’s how he discovered the Grampians. They then found a river that Mitchell called Glenelg, which Mitchell chose to follow and it led to the sea. They returned to their camp and continued to explore the coast line. They soon discovered the Henty brothers’ farm, who were the first permanent settlers in this area. They gave Mitchell supplies and Mitchell headed for home. He returned to Sydney and was happy that he had discovered a vast, fertile region which would undoubtedly ensure his fame as an explorer.
Retirement and Death
In retirement Mitchell published the journals of his expeditions, which have proved a rich source for historians and anthropologists, with their close and sympathetic observations of the Aboriginal peoples he had encountered. These publications made him the most celebrated Australian explorer of his day. But he was a famously difficult man to get on with. In 1850 Governor Charles Augustus FitzRoy wrote: “It is notorious that Sir Thomas Mitchell’s unfortunate impracticability of temper and spirit of opposition of those in authority over him misled him into frequent collision with my predecessors.” Mitchell died in Sydney in October 1855. A newspaper of the day commented: “For a period of twenty-eight years Sir Thomas Mitchell had served the Colony, much of that service having been exceedingly arduous and difficult. Among the early explorers of Australia his name will occupy an honoured place in the estimation of posterity.” Some of the places Mitchell named on his expeditions were: the Avoca River, Ballonne River, Belyando River, Campaspe River, Cogoon River, Discovery Bay, Glenelg River, Grampians, Muranoa River, Mount Arapiles, Mount King, Mount Macedon, Mount Napier, Mount William, Nyngan, Pyramid Hills, St George, Swan Hill and Wimmera River. Among other ways, Mitchell is commemorated by the town of Mitchell in Queensland, the electorate of Mitchell, and in the name of Mitchell College in Wodonga, Victoria. The Major Mitchell’s Cockatoo is named in his honour, as well as Mitchell’s Hopping Mouse, Mitchell Falls, Mitchell Highway, Mitchell Park, Mitchell Plateau, Sir Thomas Mitchell Road in Bondi Beach, Mitchell’s Lookout and Mitchell River.. Mitchell is also the namesake in the highest honour of the New South Wales Surveyors Awards, the Sir Thomas Mitchell Excellence in Surveying Award.
THOMAS OCTAVIUS MITCHELL. On Sir Thomas Mitchell’s death in 1855, his son Thomas Octavius Mitchell inherited the property, and is said to have made some improvements to the property. The record of a visit by his sister Blanche speaks again of the peaceful setting of Parkhall:
“Arriving at the Pass I started off alone, leaving the gig far behind a setting off my horse at a canter felt free again and delirious with joy and excitement. Ride where I choose, jump over a log, dismount, do anything that my wish proposed. There was no one to prevent me. Far away from any human creature or dwelling, I felt alone alone in the majesty of the woods, and experienced all the delight of freedom. Pulling up for up for one instant I looked around and felt what I had often wished to feel before, loneliness. There was no sound to disturb my musings. No, not a breath disturbed the air, not the note of a bird, nor the lowing of a cow. It was delightful … all had the air of sacredness and respect.”
She also describes the small farms at nearby Condell Park. But Thomas had trouble with his tenants, and with a fire that destroyed the vineyards and garden, and with illness. In 1861 Parkhall was sold to Dr Richard Jenkins.
Nepean Towers 1861 – 1904
DR RICHARD LEWIS JENKINS came to New South Wales in 1841 as medical officer on the ship James Moran. He practised medicine on the Hunter, then owned pastoral properties on the Namoi and Peel Rivers, before moving to Sydney where he was elected to Parliament. In 1860 he retired from active Sydney life and purchased Parkhall, which he renamed Nepean Towers.
Chimneys atop what was Nepean Towers (right)
Illustrated Sydney News of 1864 (when owned by Jenkins)
“A residence of fine freestone, built in the style of the middle Ages, castellated with towers. One of the towers, sixty feet high, and adapted for astronomical observations is a fine specimen of good masonry. The whole premises is justly considered to be one of the finest private residence in the colony, and strongly reminds the visitor of the ancestral homes of England.:”
(left) Stained glass window designed by William Macleod in Jenkins’ chapel.
Though Dr Jenkins had left political life, he did not retire from the intellectual or social life of New South Wales. He intended to make Nepean Towers “a centre of social, intellectual, religious, pastoral and agricultural activity.” He continued to cultivate vineyards, sowed other crops (including an unsuccessful attempt at cotton growing), and raised prize winning Durham Shorthorn cattle. He developed further the lawns and gardens and improved the grand avenue.
To the house he added the colonnades on the north and east sides, a low square tower, and a beautiful chapel. These additions were designed by the celebrated architect Edmund Blacket.
A deeply religious member of the Church of England, Dr Jenkins gained a licence from the Bishop of Sydney for worship in his chapel.
Nepean Towers also became briefly the centre of social life in the colony when the Duke of Edinburgh visited in 1868, arriving by train and following the zig zag road to the property, where the social set went rabbit shooting.
JOHN WETHERILL came to Sydney from his native Lincolnshire about 1850. He was a successful draper in Pitt St, and one of the founders of the Australian Mutual Fire Insurance Society Limited. He bought Nepean Towers in 1883 after the death of Dr Jenkins. John’s son Arthur lived there as caretaker.
When he subdivided the estate in 1904, the main portion of 1720 acres was sold to the Missionaries of the Sacred Heart. They renamed the estate St Mary’s Towers.
There is a place,
Gum wooded in its brown valley,
River bounded, Englished to green and colour at its core,
Sandstoned, bricked and timbered, castellated and barned,
Jumbled to a symmetry of form
that off handedly ignores its parts
Into a triumphant whole.
It is a place where a tilted cemetery dreams of a kingdom
Now and then encountered; a place of silence
Where the sorehearted traveller rests the limbs
Of bruised life
It has been a place of men,
and holds the soft, hard flavours
Of Australian maleness; casual and forgiving
Gruff, astringent, awkward; strangely gentle
With the broken ones who claim its austere sustenance.
It is a place
Of healing, where the Spirit of its first people
Has long walked; where weariness has met delight,
Where chance transmutes to Providence, and one is cradled
Quietly, with no fuss
It is, above all, a place
Of God; whose voice, clipped to clearness as a muffled bell
Is always heard.
For here the inner ear
Is tuned by the long habit of the place itself
Which has learned, and teaches, listening.
St Mary’s Towers MSC Training Centre 1904 – 2004
THE MISSIONARIES of the SACRED HEART were founded by a young priest Jules Chevalier at Issoudun in France in 1854. He was convinced that the hope for a struggling world was to be found in belief in the compassionate love of God revealed in the heart of Jesus, and he used all means to impart that message. In 1881 he accepted responsibility for missions in Micronesia and Melanesia, and a few of the members of his small congregation of priests and brothers sailed for the Pacific, setting up a foundation in Sydney as a base for missionaries. They were soon entrusted with parish responsibilities in Botany, Randwick and Kensington, and in the 1890s established a grand monastery on the hill in Kensington to be a training house for their members. It was to cater further for the needs of their new members that they purchased St Mary’s Towers in 1904.
Four MSC priests were due for ordination at the end of 1904, but a dozen new novices were expected in 1905, and so despite a substantial debt on recent buildings, more space was needed. The superior Fr Treand already had the approval of his superiors in Rome to spend up to £4000 on a new wing (to include a chapel), and another £1500 on a country house for holidays and for convalescence from the illnesses that were prevalent in Sydney and had hit the society’s young members hard. He considered that he could buy the Douglas Park property with this money, and also save the £50 he spent on renting a place in the Blue Mountains for the summer holidays each year.
The property already had a fine chapel, and would be very suitable as a venue for the scholasticate (seminary for preparation for priesthood). The farm too would provide produce that would make for savings for Kensington. So the MSCs purchased the major portion of the Nepean Towers Estate, (spending more than had been originally proposed). Fr Vandel arrived there on 7 December with Brothers Robert South, Fernand Arnboult and Felix Tremayne, and next day, the golden jubilee day of the foundation of the society, Brother Robert received the keys from Mr Arthur Wetherill.
A few days later Alain de Boismenu, missionary bishop in Papua New Guinea, said the first Catholic Mass in the Jenkins chapel.
Over the next hundred years, St Mary’s Towers was to be at various times a venue for training members of the MSC society at all levels: an apostolic school (a secondary school for aspirants), a novitiate for both clerical and lay brother trainees, a brothers’ technical training school, and a scholasticate (seminary). Though purchased originally for the scholastics, it was used by them for only a few years. Thirty scholastics arrived in December 1904 with Fr Vandel as superior, but he had to go back to Kensington to look after the novices. When the seminary professor Fr Lynch fell ill, Fr Vandel was needed to teach the scholastics, so they returned to Kensington also.
The scholastics holidayed each summer at St Mary’s Towers, and remained there for the academic year in 1910 with their professors Frs Vandel and Lynch and two senior scholastics. But next year they were back at Kensington.
They returned to Douglas Park in 1918 with Fr Vincent Tyler their prefect of studies, moving into a newly completed building (“The Ark”) behind the main house. But then it was judged that Douglas Park was too full, with too many separate communities (thirty seven in the school, seven novices, thirteen scholastics); and now that students were coming into the seminary after studying in the apostolic school, it was thought that twelve years of preparation in the same isolated county place was just too long; so in 1921 the scholastics returned finally to Kensington, where further building had taken place to accommodate them.
The novitiate operated at Kensington until 1908. From 1908 to 1916, there was no novitiate, because a heavily indebted province could not afford it. By 1913 plans were being laid to open a novitiate at Douglas Park, first for lay brother aspirants. Fr Vandel was the novice master. The clerical novices came in 1917, with Fr Cochard the novice master. They moved in to the wooden structure at the back of the old house, while the Ark was being built for them further back from the established buildings. When the scholastics came in 1918, the novices stayed in their old building, and the scholastics took the Ark for a few years. There was also need for a bigger chapel. At first it was proposed to extend the existing chapel, but then a new site was chosen behind the main buildings. It was planned to build it in stone, but finally a timber structure was built. The novitiate remained at Douglas Park for many years under successive novice masters Frs Troy, Kerrins, Fleming, Hoy, McGuane, Butler and Mitchell. In 1970 the programme for training aspirants was subjected to the same scrutiny that Vatican II caused to be given to all aspects of Church life, and new systems and venues were tried. But from time to time since then the novitiate has returned to Douglas Park, most recently in 2001.
The novitiate was a year of learning about and practising spirituality. The quiet isolation of St Mary’s Towers was very suitable for this. Though the novices lived on the same property as other groups (school students, members of the professed community), they were kept to themselves, joining with the others only for some common religious exercises. The day was regulated: rising at 5.00am, morning prayer, an hour of meditation, after breakfast in silence some study of spiritual writers or a talk from the novice master or study of the MSC constitutions and rules, perhaps some study of Latin, examination of conscience, meals usually in silence with reading from an uplifting book such as the life of some holy person, Rosary, visit to the Blessed Sacrament, a period of manual work, perhaps a bush walk or a swim, spiritual reading in common, a couple of short periods of recreation, night prayer and early bed. The novices donned the black religious habit, usually a much patched one, at the beginning of the year, and received a fine new tailored one at the end when they pronounced their first commitment to the society. Then they left for the seminary, at first at Kensington, later at Croydon in Melbourne. The brothers stayed for a second year of novitiate before their appointment to some house of the province.
The Provincial Chapter of 1910 decided to open a juniorate at Douglas Park. This was called the Apostolic School, where boys from the ages of 14 to 18 would undertake preparatory studies before entering the novitiate to begin their journey to the priesthood. When it began in 1912, Fr Nouyoux was in charge, and Fathers Fleming, Vandel, Frank Tyler, Power and Donovan and scholastics Tom O’Loughlin and Vincent Tyler made up the teaching staff. Fr Linckens, visitor from the Roman superiors with powers to regulate the Australian Province, drew up the rule for them, based on the model already existing in Europe. Its purpose was to train young men in priestly, missionary and religious life. The daily horarium was: 5.40am rise, 6.10 prayer, 6.30 Mass, classes, study, examination of conscience, rosary, more classes, sport, spiritual reading, visit, perhaps a choir practice, and night prayer. Holidays were from Christmas Eve to I March, and from 15 July to 6 August. The boys did not go home in the winter holidays, but friends and relatives could visit them. Studies would be conducted in Religion, English, Latin, Greek, French, History, Geography, Maths and Science. There would be no newspapers. Admission would depend on a sincere desire to be a priest and religious, on good health, good character, the ability to afford the cost, and passing an entrance exam.
In 1913 when Fr Nouyoux became provincial, Fr James Power was placed in charge of the school (“Prefect” was the title), Fr Vandel being superior. Next year there were eighteen boys in the school. When Fr Power left, Fr Vandel took his place as prefect until the end of 1920. Other MSC priests who contributed greatly in the school in the first twenty years, and often held the position of prefect or of community superior, were Frs Vincent Tyler, Frank Tyler, Goodman, Fleming, Bridgwood, Hyland and Power.
The school soon outgrew the old buildings. Plans for a new stone building were made in 1915, when the enrolment was expected to swell to twenty seven. On 8 December 1915 the Apostolic Delegate laid the foundation stone of a new wing to house thirty five students, and officially opened it in November of the following year. The school population continued to grow: there were forty three students in 1917, back to thirty six in 1927. In 1935, a new building, the Jubilee wing, was built on to the existing school, finally providing suitable accommodation for a larger number of students. When Fr Tyler was prefect, the school was officially registered in the NSW system, and nine senior students sat for the Leaving Certificate for the first time in 1926. With so many students of high ability, and a small school where they could be given individual attention, the boys from the school always scored very well in the public examinations. The syllabus was slanted towards the arts, but every now and again a call was made to increase and improve the teaching of mathematics and science subjects.
As noted above, there was much more emphasis on religious observances than would be found in an ordinary secondary school, but there was also a full programme of classes, plenty of sport available, and picnics that involved long walks to Maldon or Appin or Pheasants Nest or up the Razorback Range, especially on special feast days and during the holidays.
The Church’s more important feast days provided opportunities for special holidays, with silence at meals relaxed, set study waived in favour of free reading in the library, more free time, sporting fixtures, perhaps a concert for the superior’s or prefect’s feast day. Some of the priests who were prefect of the school in later years were Frs Drake, Kevin English, Littleton and Connolly.
Fr J. F. McMahon was appointed superior of the Douglas Park community in 1954. He modernised the curriculum of the school, bringing it more into line with a normal Australian secondary school. The number of students was usually around fifty, but in 1958 there were seventy one. When the Superior General visited in 1962, he wondered if the modernisation had not gone too far, and called for a return to more strict discipline and the teaching of obedience. But already questions were being asked about the value of the school, or its relevance in Australia’s changing educational scene. A survey of alumni over ten years from 1935 showed that only about 20% continued to ordination. The increasing complexity of the school system made it more difficult for a small secondary school to perform well, and it was suggested that aspirants to the society could complete their education at one of the other MSC schools before entering the novitiate. The Apostolic School finally closed in 1966. There was some discussion about re opening, but the decision was taken not to do so.
Lay Brothers’ Formation
Young men intending to join the society as lay brothers had been coming to Douglas Park for their novitiate since 1913. There had been no comprehensive plan to train them in working skills or trades, though this was suggested from time to time. Of course some were already skilled in trades, or had learned skills from the older brothers. When accommodation was at a premium in the 1950s, the brothers built a new wing, the Brother’s Wing, which has since become the main accommodation for the community.
A plan for formal training of the brothers was finally devised in the 1960s, and a course of training to begin at the Brothers’ Training Centre was approved in July 1967.
They would have classes in religion, secular subjects and a range of basic skills during their novitiate years, then stay on for two years of technical training. The course commenced that August, but the scheme did not last very long; at the end of 1970 the brothers on the second year of the course were given other appointments, and the younger brothers had already been transferred to Croydon.
By the 1970s then, St Mary’s Towers had ceased to be the centre for training of aspirants to the MSC society, except for a novitiate in some years. The way was open for new uses for the buildings and grounds.
Centre for Spirituality & Social Ministry 1970-2004
In 1971, the traditional works of the MSC at Douglas Park had almost ceased. The apostolic school was closed, the brothers’ training centre was also closed, and the novices and postulants had been scattered between Kensington, Canberra, and Croydon in Melbourne. The old dormitories had been divided into thirty seven rooms, but they were empty. Even the farm had been cut right back to a very small operation. There was now a very small MSC presence at St Mary’s Towers.
At the beginning of 1972, St Mary’s Towers began a new life as a retreat centre. It was decided to concentrate on prayer weekends and retreats for laity and for older school students, because there were many former convents already that were being converted to prayer centres for religious. These would not be the first retreats for lay people at Douglas Park: back in the 1930’s there had been a series of retreats for laymen. In 1972 there were a few weekend retreats for year twelve students from some Sydney schools, but planning and administration was still rudimentary. The centre was also used for annual retreats for MSC, and for an MSC renewal programme. In 1974, Fr Leo Hill was appointed superior with the task of developing the retreat centre. He advertised in parishes and schools with great success. Lay people came to weekend retreats, school groups came usually for two days (one group Monday Tuesday, another ThursdayFriday), and in the school holidays religious men and women came for their annual retreats. During the Christmas holidays, there were retreats and renewal programmes for MSC members. In that first year, about 2000 people attended programmes at St Mary’s Towers. The fees charged more than covered the daily running costs, but could not also pay for continual upgrading of the buildings the province bore that cost.
The centre could cater for fifty adults, another forty more rudimentary rooms were suitable for school students. Old school rooms were rearranged and refurbished as a new chapel and discussion rooms, laundry and washing facilities were improved, a big effort was put into improving the gardens. School groups were usually of about 40, but on one occasion there were 120 students at the retreat! There was also an agreement with some schools for them to use some of the land for school camps.
In 1976 Fr Harvey Edmiston succeeded Fr Hill as superior. He began to develop his plan for MSC Spirituality Services, which would be an overall plan for the delivery of retreats and spiritual guidance in several MSC houses, by the MSC priests who were now trained or being trained in spirituality as formators and retreat directors and spiritual counsellors. St Mary’s Towers would be a major centre for this. The emphasis moved to adult retreats, with resident directors. The first non MSC directors were Sisters Rita Hanley in 1978 and Diana Woods in 1979. Douglas Park was also a centre for the MSC Renewal team, and for the newly formed Religious Education Team, which visited the MSC schools to give retreats and conducted retreat weeks for members of their staffs at Douglas Park.
St Mary’s Towers has become an important centre for spirituality. The centre was so well known and highly regarded that it was too busy, and the offering had to be cut back in 1984. The directors continually refine their offerings as the needs of the community in each generation become clear. The offerings have included week long directed and guided retreats, 30 day retreats, Heart of Life institutes, Life’s Journey retreats, retreats for special groups: men’s retreats, spirituality for the older person.
Fr Vyn Bailey prayed and gave guidance in Christian Yoga at his Ashram in the surrounding bush. It is not difficult to meet one’s God in the peace of the surroundings, the quiet of the prayer rooms, the gentle guidance of the staff, and the kind hospitality of the community.
One person wrote at the end of the Life’s Healing Journey retreat: “When I analyse my experience at Douglas Park I find that three elements make it an encouraging experience: first, the profound silence and the peace that this creates within the House; then the professionalism of your own personal direction, which always seems to ring bells in my own experience; and thirdly, the care and love which the staff give for our accommodation and hospitality needs.”
As St Mary’s Towers developed as a retreat centre, people began to appreciate its potential as a home for a prayerful community and as a base for other ministries. In the late 1970s,the Provincial Council considered several ideas about establishing a Living Christian Community at Douglas Park. In 1976 the Tertiary Catholic Federation of Australia began looking to it as a place of retreat, after experience with Fr Michael Fallon, chaplain at University of New South Wales. He was working with youth from the university, using Douglas Park as a place for retreat and reflection. They held two weeks of reflection and discussion there at the end of 1977, meditating on the Gospels and the MSC Documents of Renewal, developing the idea of an association of laity who would live as a community with a simple life, not as celibate or monastic religious, but as lay people fully engaged in their ordinary life of work or study. The community developed in Sydney around Coogee and Randwick, but they held monthly retreat weekends at Douglas Park, and some longer periods of discernment there.
In 1988, Fr Frank Andersen presented to the Provincial Council a proposal for a lay community at St Mary’s Towers. His community would be modelled on Taize in France, a core community of young adults who would live simply, a praying community that would invite others to come and share with them. In liaison with Catholic Youth Services of the Sydney Archdiocese, he saw that this community could also take up a ministry of social recovery for young people, perhaps based on the farm. He came to see that St Mary’s Towers should not be a set of separate communities (main MSC group, novitiate, retreat house, lay community), but a single community united by a life of common prayer, hospitality and social outreach. Using ideas from “Structure for Live-in Associates” previously developed by Fr Edmiston, a small group of interested members refined their plans and at the beginning of 1989 established the community that was to be known as the Kindly Light Community.
The group of seven lay people with Fr Andersen remained at Douglas Park for two years, making use first of the Ark and some parts of the community house. They developed a common life of prayer and community decision making, worked to help the rest of the St Mary’s Towers community and at various other tasks to bring in revenue to the common fund. They welcomed forty five visitors in their first year. However, little progress was made on a ministry of social recovery. There were suggestions that the group might also host a spiritual year for young people between school and university.
Some members left during or at the end of the first year, and the community disbanded at the end of 1990, though there were still other people attracted to it and keen to join. Some years later the Cana community also negotiated to live at Douglas Park, but this eventually did not happen.
At the same time as the Kindly Light community was formed, another project of social recovery was being planned. Fr Edmiston had discussed using part of the property as a rehabilitation village for recovering drug addicts, in partnership with St Vincent’s Hospital. After his death, the project was resurrected in 1988 as the Edmiston Village, to be constructed on land between the old Mt Keira Road (Mitchell place), the new Mt Keira Road, and the new freeway. There was to be a peppercorn lease.
Later negotiation moved the site to near the gates on the old main avenue, with some land donated and some leased. This project did not come to fruition; necessary government grants were not forthcoming, and there was also some hesitation from nearby residents. There had earlier been some social outreach by the St Mary’s Towers community, with men from Ozanam House in Melbourne visiting for extended stays.
Although the attempt to establish a formal lay community was short lived, from the 1970’s the community at St Mary’s Towers was a mixed community, with MSC priests and brothers, religious sisters and lay people. It has stayed like this ever since. There is a permanent community of lay and religious, and people who have the need for some time to recover from problems in their lives have found a temporary haven of peace in the community.
A Rural Catholic Community Centre
SIR Thomas Mitchell’s Parkhall was a country house on a property of 4500 acres. His attempts at encouraging farmer tenants were unsuccessful, and the property was largely untended, though he grew grapes and stone fruit trees. Dr Jenkins continued to cultivate vineyards up on cemetery hill, sowed other crops, and raised prize winning cattle. He also planted the avenue of trees along the avenue leading from the main gate up to the house.
The Missionaries of the Sacred Heart understood that a working farm would be a bonus on their new property. Perhaps the community would be self sufficient, and the farm could also supply Kensington monastery and the other houses in Sydney. A water pump was installed at the beginning, upgraded in 1922, and a few years later drilling for bore water was also undertaken. In 1911, there were 13 horses, 17 cattle, 422 sheep (they sheared 262), and 13 pigs. There were also poultry, beehives, a few fruit trees, and a vegetable garden. In 1918 it was decided to get rid of the sheep, because the province could not afford the new fencing that was needed. There was also concern about the deteriorating condition of the stables and dairy, but all of this became insignificant in the last days of 1922 when a major fire swept up the avenue destroying the pine trees, threatened the main buildings, and destroyed stables and harness rooms, worker’s rooms, haysheds and hay, the sawmill, silo, oil engine and tools and much timber. The farm had to be rebuilt. Electricity was connected and a traction engine purchased in 1926 27.
A dairy herd was purchased in 193 1. At that time there were more than one thousand poultry, the farm was producing mutton and beef for the community, fruit trees were producing. The farm could supply Kensington with meat and butter. But even this early there was concern that if the work of the farm became too demanding, it could interfere with the regular life of the religious rule. Newspaper stories and reports in various years tell of a well managed, self sufficient property. There was a big poultry farm that won prizes at the local show. Christmas gifts of dressed birds were sent to other MSC houses and to benefactors.
The dairy provided finance. The brothers slaughtered stock for meat. There was a ten acre orchard producing fresh fruit, and one year enough for a ton of jam! There were beehives, a large vegetable garden, a grain silo. With all this went a large laundry, tailor shop, bootmaker. In 1952 the property received an award as the most improved private property in the state.
Around 1950 there were 50 cattle and 170 sheep, a few horses, and crops of corn, lucerne, barley, oats and millet. In the 1950s the lucerne paddocks were irrigated and stock numbers could be increased.
In 1960 the dairy was modernised and restocked, and within ten years the annual cheque from the milk board was $11000. Irrigation meant that the land could carry a good number of stock. However the Provincial Council was worried about the constant demands of the farm on the time of the smaller number of brothers now in residence, and it decided to phase out all of the farm work except for the dairy. But priorities were changed and the dairy herd and the milk quota were sold and the farm changed to beef, which would further lessen the constant daily work. Drought and fire caused the herd to be sold in 1978, but the property was restocked a couple of years later. A lay farm manager was employed later. Farming is now a much smaller operation than it was in the early days.
The Coal Mine, The Freeway
Prospecting for coal under the Douglas Park land took place in the 1920’s. By 1960 AIS had determined to begin a mine, and in 1965 purchased 234 acres for their base. Tower Colliery opened in 1975.
The company has always dealt fairly with the MSC community, and has contributed to improvements, especially for the chapel. It seemed that the MSCs would also benefit from royalties on the coal mined from under the property, possibly about $150 000 per year. But the NSW government cancelled royalties to private owners.
At the other end of the property, the Department of Main Road resumed 93 acres for the F6 freeway in 1974, in the process cutting off the northern end of the property. These negotiations were quite difficult. The old mile long main avenue was cut short, with the entrance gates moved closer to the house.
The property is still large enough that the noise from the freeway causes minimum disruption to the quiet of the retreat house.
In the time of Dr Jenkins, Nepean Towers was a centre for Anglican worship, with eighty people attending Sunday service conducted by a clergyman from Appin. With the arrival of the Missionaries of the Sacred Heart, the worship conducted at St Mary’s Towers was that of the Catholic liturgy. Some times more than others, St Mary’s Towers was a centre for the local Catholic parishioners.
An apostolic schoolboy in the 1930s wrote to his parents that they attended two Masses each Sunday, the second being celebrated mainly for the benefit of the local people. In 1973, the Picton parish priest asked the MSC to take care of the Menangle and Douglas Park sections of his parish. Fr Stan Tyler took care of the parish duties, and Fr Tom Whitty also came to help soon after. Their responsibilities for the district were increased, when they took charge of the parish of Appin, which included Menangle, Douglas Park and Wilton; the parish church was St Bede’s in Appin, but Douglas Park was the centre of most activity.
Involvement with Appin and Menangle ceased at the end of 1987, but St Mary’s Towers remains the Mass centre for Douglas Park and Wilton. At various times the old chapel has been refurbished. A major upgrade is taking place at the present time, with builders building, painters painting, electricians rewiring and installing air-conditioning. The parishioners are raising funds for this.
The small but very close knit and friendly parish community meets for Sunday Mass, and often stays on to yarn afterwards. The congregation is growing as many young families are moving into the district; new members join the community, babies are baptised, and now the church is nearly full every Sunday.
Click here for more information regarding the Parish Mass Centre.
There is one more community at St Mary’s Towers: that of deceased members of the Australian MSC province buried in the cemetery. There was an old cemetery on the hill behind the buildings in the time of Mitchell and Jenkins, but the headstones are gone from there. The MSC cemetery is the last resting place for most of the members of the province, just on two hundred, and those buried elsewhere are remembered there. Many members come to pay their last respects, and visitors remember old friendships as they wander among the graves.
Douglas Park Township
When people speak of St. Mary’s Towers they often just refer to “Douglas Park”, but this actually is the name of the neighbouring township, the history of which is deeply interwoven with The Tower’s and its people.