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‘Half a penny per pupil’ – Meet one of the lay women who helped build Catholic education in Australia

BRIGID Dwyer was Australia’s first native-born female school teacher and her story has come to life thanks to a biographical dictionary from Australian Catholic University.

The Biographical Dictionary of Australian Catholic Educators chronicles the lives and works of people – lay, ordained and consecrated – who have contributed to the country’s Catholic education history since 1820.

There are already 43 published biographies on the online resource.

The stories contained in the dictionary, like Brigid Dwyer’s, showed the ups and downs of Catholic education over the decades.

For Brigid Dwyer, her story in education began when her father died.

Her mother had no way to support her family, so they moved to Sydney to keep the house of historic priest Fr John Therry – who was instrumental in establishing St Mary’s Cathedral parish.

Later, Brigid became a governess and then a teacher at the local Chapel School and also taught at Castlereagh Street School.

“Brigid received no fixed salary from government during her first eight years of teaching but was granted a half-penny per day for every pupil in actual attendance,” the entry on Brigid said.

“A salary of 20 pounds was paid to her in 1834.”

In 1837, she married John O’Sullivan, who was an outstanding Catholic business adviser and a friend to priests and bishops, including Fr Therry.

The couple lived in Goulburn for 30 years and John helped to bring the Sisters of Mercy to the town, providing lodgings for them until the convent was habitable.

Brigid and John retired to Hunter’s Hill in 1866.

John died in 1870 and Bridget in 1878.

They were buried together along with three of their four children in Goulburn.

Brigid’s life’s work, like dozens of others featured in the dictionary, has helped to bring Catholic education to where it is today.

It was in 2008 when the dictionary was first brought up as an idea.

A few years after finishing her service as Parramatta diocese’s Catholic schools executive director ACU Honorary Professor Anne Benjamin approached Dr Brian Croke, then NSW Catholic Education Commission executive director, about the gap in academic literature around the history of Catholic education.

Researchers: ACU Senior Lecturer (Theology) Dr Jo Laffin, Seamus O’Grady and ACU Honorary Professor Anne Benjamin are behind the new Biographical Dictionary of Australian Catholic Educators (BDACE) hosted by Australian Catholic University. Photo: ACU/Susanne Vesperman

Dr Croke, a historian, had already conceived several strategies to address this gap, one of which was the idea of ​​a biographical dictionary on Australian Catholic educators.

Professor Benjamin developed the idea of ​​a biographical dictionary into a proposal, later involving former Director of Curriculum at Catholic Education Office Sydney Seamus O’Grady.

“Catholic education has played a major role in the development of Australia and not just within the strict confines of education,” Professor Benjamin said.

Professor Benjamin and Mr O’Grady have spent the past eight years commissioning short biographies of the lives of deceased people in the history of Catholic education.

The first 30 biographies curated by Professor Benjamin and Mr O’Grady were published in a book, Not Forgotten: Australian Catholic Educators 1820-2020, released in December 2020.

While religious institutes and congregations make up a significant proportion of the BDACE project, the research has uncovered the surprising and significant involvement of lay people in the early years of Catholic education.

“We have gathered a lot from the religious because they all have archivists and are well organized with their records, but outside the religious congregations, we suspect that information on lay educators might be less systematically recorded,” Professor Benjamin said.

“We are well-used to appreciate the contribution of religious women and men to Catholic education in Australia. What is less well-known is that in the early days of colonial settlement, there were significant lay men and women stepping forward to educate the children of Catholics.

“Then of course the lay people come back into their own about 100 years later.”

An interesting feature of the BDACE is the collection of ‘Living Legends’.

Initiated by Mr O’Grady, Living Legends is a collection of video and sound interviews with advocates of Catholic education who are still living in Australia.

Professor Benjamin said hosting the BDACE through ACU would sustain the project into the future and give the project national scope.

The BDACE comes one year after Australia celebrated the milestone of 200 years of Catholic education.

The BDACE was launched at ACU’s Peter Cosgrove Centre, North Sydney, on July 20 at 12pm with guest speaker, historian Fr Edmund Campion, Emeritus Professor of the Catholic Institute of Sydney.

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