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

BRIGID Dwyer was the first Australian-born teacher and her story has come to life through a biographical dictionary from the 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 history of Catholic education in the country since 1820.

There are already 43 biographies published on the online resource.

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

For Brigid Dwyer, her story in education began with the death of her father.

His mother had no means to support her family, so they moved to Sydney to guard the home of the historic priest, Father John Therry – who was instrumental in establishing the cathedral parish Sainte Marie.

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 the government during her first eight years of teaching, but received half a penny a day for each student actually attending,” the entry on Brigid reads.

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

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

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

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

John died in 1870 and Brigid in 1878.

They were buried with three of their four children at Goulburn.

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

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

A few years after completing her service as Executive Director of Catholic Schools in the Diocese of Parramatta, ACU Honorary Professor Anne Benjamin approached Dr Brian Croke, then Executive Director of the NSW Catholic Education Commission, about of the gap in academic literature around the history of Catholic education.

Researchers: Dr Jo Laffin, ACU Senior Lecturer (Theology), 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 devised several strategies to fill this gap, one of which was the idea of ​​a biographical dictionary on Australian Catholic educators.

Prof Benjamin developed the idea of ​​a biographical dictionary in a proposal, later involving former head 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,” Prof 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 Prof Benjamin and Mr O’Grady were published in a book, Not Forgotten: Australian Catholic Educators 1820-2020, published in December 2020.

While religious institutes and congregations are an important part of the BDACE project, the research revealed the surprising and significant involvement of lay people in the early years of Catholic education.

“We collected a lot from religious people as they all have archivists and are well organized with their records, but outside of religious congregations we suspect that information about lay educators might be less systematically recorded,” Prof Benjamin said. .

“We are used to appreciating the contribution of men and women religious to Catholic education in Australia. What is less well known is that in the early days of colonization there were prominent lay men and women who stepped forward to educate the children of Catholics.

“Then, of course, the lay people come back to themselves 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 audio interviews with Catholic education advocates who still live in Australia.

Professor Benjamin said hosting the BDACE through the ACU would support the project in the future and give the project national reach.

The BDACE comes a 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 noon with guest speaker, historian Fr Edmund Campion, Professor Emeritus of the Catholic Institute of Sydney.

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