As the first school in Australia to be founded by a religious congregation and the home of Western Australia’s first purpose-built school, the present site of Mercedes College is of unique historical import. This pioneer building is still standing near our Victoria Avenue gates. Yet as remarkable as these dual records may be, it is what has unfailingly taken place on these grounds in the last one hundred and seventy-five years that has shaped and defined its spirit, steeped in a shared living of the Mercy values and traditions.
Mercedes College traces its origins back to 1846, the early days of the Swan River Colony, when a community of six Sisters of Mercy, under the leadership of Ursula Frayne, arrived from Ireland on the barque Elizabeth. The Sisters of Mercy had been founded fifteen years earlier in 1831 by Catherine McAuley. Inspired by their foundress Catherine McAuley who had devoted herself and a substantial inheritance to the relief and education of the poor and responding to the need of the fledgling colony where supposedly thousands of European children and two million Aboriginals “awaited the bread of instruction”, the Sisters of Mercy established the pioneer teaching order in Western Australia.
After initial difficulties in finding accommodation, Ursula and her community moved into a small cottage on what is now St George’s Terrace, near Victoria Avenue. On 2 February of that same year, the Sisters opened their first school with one student! By the end of that historic day, however, five more students had joined them. Undaunted, the Sisters went out into the community and canvassed for pupils. By the end of 1846 there were one hundred children in the school, which had by that time moved up to the present Victoria Square site.
Those early years were a time of great struggle as well as sadness for the Sisters, as one of their original community had died six months after their arrival in the Colony.
In the period that followed the founding of the first school, the diocese found itself in severe financial difficulty with Bishop Brady unable to provide any real support for the school as well as the Sisters’ other works of mercy among the poor and sick. In order to see them through these early financial troubles, the Sisters were forced to use money sent from Dublin which had originally been set aside for them to return home, together with two hundred pounds given by the father of one of them on her profession. This money was used to build the first Convent of Mercy in Australia. The building now known as Holy Cross, with its Foundation Stone dating from 1847, is still in use today and stands as a testimony to those dedicated pioneers whose love and faith in God inspired them to continue God’s work. Two years later, in 1849, the Sisters began what was the first purpose-built secondary school in Western Australia – the school now proudly known as Mercedes College. The name Mercedes is Spanish for Mercy.
With great courage, facing primitive conditions and enormous hardship, the College was to flourish – the sisters would recognise this as “the fruit of trust in Divine Providence”. From the Mother House at Victoria Square, the sisters were to undertake the establishment of schools throughout the state and beyond.
Ursula Frayne died in 1885. She is remembered as an outstanding educator of great vision and a warm, caring Sister of Mercy. Her work, and that of those early pioneers, has had a profound and lasting effect on the history of Catholic Education in this State.
Those who have followed in successive generations have been entrusted to carry the mantle of Mercy in the authentic spirit of Catherine McAuley and Ursula Frayne. Today, Mercedes College is the bearer of a proud heritage where the Mercy traditions and values of compassion, justice, excellence, integrity and service are at the heart of our Vision and permeate everything we do. If you would like to know more about the history of our College, a full length history “Out of These Stones” by Sr Maureen Cream RSM, is available for purchase.
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