EDUCATION

FROM PARK HALL TO ST. MARY'S TOWERS: A CENTURY OF HISTORY

Rev. J.D. CONLIN, M.S.C., M.A.

            STUDENTS of history well know the story of the Reformation in England, when the splendid monasteries and abbeys passed from their rightful owners into the hands of the lay nobility. In Aus­tralia, on the contrary, the reverse has generally been true; for many beautiful and historic old homes have been taken over by religious orders and turned into schools, colleges, or orphanages. An interesting case in point is St. Mary's Towers, at Douglas Park, once the country home of the celebrated explorer, surveyor, and road builder, Sir Thomas Livingstone Mitchell - a man who played a very important part in opening up and developing the colony of New South Wales.  Feb­ruary 17, 1945, was the hundredth anniversary of Sir Thomas Mitchell's taking up residence "Park Hall," which the builders had just completed for him.  A rather laconic entry in his diary on February 17, 1845, records the words: "Took the family to Park Hall."   Sir Thomas Mitchell's family was a large one, six sons and five daughters.  But could the great explorer re­turn to-day, he would find the old place in posses­sion of a much larger family, embracing the Students of the Apostolic School, the Novitiate, Lay Brothers, and Priests of the junior training centre 0£  the Australian Province of the Mission­aries of the Sacred Heart.  This historic property to-day pulsates with a new and vigorous life.

 

PARK HALL from 1842 to 1860.                        SIR THOMAS LIVINGSTONE MITCHELL

            The story of Sir Thomas Mitchell is well known. Suffice it to say here that he spent an ex­tremely active career as a soldier, map-maker, surveyor,  explorer,  builder,  artist  and  man of letters.   He was born in Stirlingshire, Scot­land, in 1792, and died at his residence "Carthona" Darling Point, Sydney, in 1855.  On one of h~s overland  expeditions  in  New  South  Wales, Mitchell, with the keen eye of the explorer and surveyor, chgse the site now occupied by St. Mary's Towers as a good place for a country residence. In. 1834 he received a grant of 2,500 acres, later increased by an additional 1,250 acres, in what was then known as East Bargo.  (The present name, Douglas Park, comes presumably from a certain Henry Grattan Douglass, M.D., who, for some forty years, played a prominent role in themedical, social, political, and educational affairs of the colony. He was buried in St. John's Anglican cemetery, at Camden.   The "Sydney Morning Herald," of December 2, 1865, refers to him as "the late lamented philanthropist of Douglass Park.")

In 1842 Mitchell hired stone-masons, carpenters and labourers to begin work on Park Hall.  In spite of certain misconceptions, there is ample historical evidence to prove that no convict labour was employed on the building.  The house was designed by the same architect (one Blore), who prepared the plans for Sir Walter Scott's beautiful home at Abbotsford, and the present Government House in Sydney.  Major Mitchell surrounded Park Hall with vineyards of Madeira grapes from which he made his wine.  The house was com­pleted in 1845, and its owner took up residence. The stones of the old building are beautifully cut and dressed by expert labour, and Sir Thomas's Coat of Arms may still be seen sculptured on the eastern gable.

Park Hall was at this time a rather plain, solid,  two-storey building,  which stood upon rising ground and was surrounded by a natural park of great beauty.  An interesting sketch of the building as it then stood may be seen in "The Illustrated Sydney News" of 1854.  The drawing is reproduced in this booklet.

By a curious coincidence, Mitchell enclosed in the foundation stone of the building a Latin docu­ment, of which the following is a translation:-

"Thomas Livingstone Mitchell, Knight, Hon. Doctor 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 foundations of this house, in a land now almost divided from the world, but which may one day equal in all the arts of civilisation the illustrious regions of his native country."

He was not to know that one day this house would form the nucleus of a college, wherein Clas­sics, Literature, and Science would be taught to youthful aspirants to the Priesthood.  Perhaps it may not be too much to claim that Douglas Park has indeed become a centre of "all the arts of civilisation"--that true civilisation which has re­ligion for its firm foundation.

 

NEPEAN TOWERS, from 1860 to 1883              DR. R.L. JENKINS

A new phase in the history of St. Mary's Towers began with its purchase by Dr. Richard Lewis Jenkins about 1861.  Dr. Jenkins came of an old Welsh family of Monmouthshire. Arriving in Aus­tralia in 1841, he was married at St. Philip's Church, in 1852, and practised as a doctor in Sydney. After his purchase of Park Hall, he made considerable improvements to the house and estate.  A beau­tiful stone colonnade, or cloister, was added to the northern and eastern walls. A private chapel was built, together with a low, square stone tower. These additions, undoubtedly architectural im­provements, rendered the house admirably suited to the purpose for which it was later to be used, namely, as a monastery. A beautiful stained glass window, designed by the late William Macleod, a  distinguished  artist,  painter,  sculptor,  and designer of windows, whose name was for long connected with the Sydney "Bulletin," was placed in the chapel, where it still remains. The window has as its central motif, a chalice, with grapes and wheat, surrounded by the texts: "I am the Vine; ye are the Branches"; "I am the Bread of Life"; and "Do This in Remembrance of  Me."  (It is said that these additions were added with a view to the property being taken over as a seminary; but this may be merely a rumour, although this was the ultimate fate of the house as it turned out.

 

PARK HALL was at this time renamed Nepean Towers.

Dr. Jenkins' chapel, later converted to Catholic uses, was long used as the Community chapel. Eventually it became too small for this purpose and a new one was built. The original chapel now serves as a dining hall for the students of the Apostolic School, and in it, on the many occasions when it is permitted to talk at meals, one may hear the clatter of plates and the lively din of youthful conversation.

To the original dining room Dr. Jenkins added a stone mantelpiece, upon which are still to be seen his Coat of Arms and family motto: an in­scription in Old Welsh; which reads: - "FE DAL AM DARO": (He will pay for striking).

        The fine old dining room still serves its purpose as a monastic refectory, for the Priests and Lay-brothers of the Community.  During recent years parquetry has been laid down over the old floor­boards, and the interior of the house wears quite a rejuvenated air!

Under Dr. Jenkins "Nepean Towers" became famous for its herd of Durham Shorthorn cattle, which were well known throughout the colony. The doctor successfully grew vines and crops and (less successfully) cotton. He laid out lawns and gardens, and planted the grand avenue, thus attracting many visitors from Sydney.

Gay indeed must have been the scenes at Nepean Towers in those days!  It was a social centre of the district, and many guests were entertained by Dr. and Mrs. Jenkins, and their daughters; all of whom, it is pleasant to read, made successful marriages; one of them becoming the wife of the late Sir Hubert Murray, Lieut.-Governor of Papua. In 1868 Queen Victoria's second son, the Duke of Edinburgh, stayed at Nepean Towers, where he planted a tree (or trees) at the head of the avenue. These two giant pines reached a height of well over 100 feet.  During the Duke's visit the sur­rounding settlers were invited to The Towers; horses, carriages, and boats were placed at the disposal of the guests, while picnics were arranged on the Nepean River.  The festivities, we read, culminated in a Monster Kangaroo Drive!  This must surely have been the climax of social activi­ties at Nepean Towers.

Many of Dr. Jenkins' improvements have sur­vived to the present.  "The Towers" still pos­sesses its own herd of cattle, which supplies milk and butter for the Community.  Sheep are also grazed on the property, while, less romantic, but extremely useful, is the flourishing poultry yard run by Brother Robert (of whom more later on.) The cultivation of the vine has been given up, but fruit orchards have taken the place of the vine­yards. Some of the old trees of the Park have died off during the dry years, but many still remain, while a good number of ornamental trees have recently been planted.  Kangaroos (alas!) have long since become extinct on the property, though one may still surprise a lonely wallaby in the more remote creeks.  The elaborate stables and wine­cellars added by Dr. Jenkins were destroyed by fire.

It was Dr. Jenkins intention to make "Nepean Towers"a centre of "Social, Intellectual, Relig­ious,  Pastoral,  and  Agricultural  Activity." Strangely enough, all these activities are flourishing here at the present time, in a way which Dr. Jenkins could scarcely have envisaged.    The Apostolic School has indeed become a centre of Catholic intellectual activity, while St. Mary's Towers has surely become one of the well known religious centres of New South Wales.  Nor are the agricultural and pastoral pursuits neglected, as anyone may see who cares to inspect the farm work carried on by the Laybrothers. If The Towers are no longer one of the chief social centres of the district, still on those days when a large number of visitors come to Douglas Park (and they are not rare) one may yet glimpse something of the social activities of the past, as groups of people stroll about the lawns and gardens as in the days of yore.

In 1883 Dr. Jenkins died in Brisbane, and Nepean Towers passed into the possession of a Sydney merchant, Mr. John Wetherill, whose private home it remained for several years. In 1904 the estate w-as subdivided.  The main portion of 1720 acres, together with the house, was acquired by the Missionaries of the Sacred Heart, through the negotiations of Mr. (later Rev. Father) Leonard Dew.  The rest of the property was taken by a well known firm of land agents, Harry Rickards and Co.  Three Laybrothers (Brothers Robert, Felix, and Ferdinand) came from Sydney on December 7, 1904, and on the following day, the Feast of the Immaculate Conception, Brother Robert received the key from Mr. Arthur Weth­erill, at that time acting as caretaker of the estate. Brother Robert, now nearing 70, is still a vigorous and active member of the Douglas Park Com­munity, and a valuable link with the past.

 

ST. MARY'S TOWERS, from 1904 to 1945:  The Missionaries of the Sacred Heart

Walter E. Bethel wrote in an article on Sir Thomas Mitchell, published in "The Sun" (June 20, 1931) as follows:--

"The Roman Catholic authorities have added this fine property ("Nepean Towers") to the many that are the instruments of  their educational pur­poses, and that is the best guarantee that the ex­istence of this old home will be prolonged into the far future."

With the coming of the Missionaries of the Sac­red Heart, a new era began for the old estate. Brother Robert recalls how the three Brothers placed a statue of Our Lady upon the altar of the old chapel and recited their prayers before it. Within a day or two His Lordship Bishop de Bois­menu, M.S.C., the Vicar Apostolic of Papua, came to Douglas Park and blessed the house, celebrating the first Mass to be said on the premises. (i)  The name Nepean Towers was changed to St. Mary's Towers, which it has since remained.  Soon after­wards, Priests and Scholastics arrived, whereupon regular community life began. St. Mary's Towers was intended as a training house for students for the Priesthood.

Many improvements have since been made to the property.  A pumping plant and pipeline to the Nepean River, a mile distant, were installed, thus assuring a regular supply of water.  This pumping plant has since been replaced by a new and more modern one. In 1912 Father Peter Mary Treand, to whom our Australian Province owes such an immense debt, opened the Apostolic School at Douglas Park.  Father Joseph Madigan, M.S.C., at present stationed at Kensington Mon­astery, has the honour of  being the first Apostolic Schoolboy in the Australian Province.  New ac­commodation becoming necessary, on December 8, 1915, His Excellency Archbishop (later Cardinal) Cerretti, laid the foundation stone of a new Apos­tolic School, built of stone quarried on the pro­perty. The new building was blessed and declared open on Sunday, November 5, of the following year, also by Archbishop Cerretti. It is interesting to note that one of the first students to occupy the new building was Dr. L. Rumble, M.S.C., whose work for the Church in Australia has been so singularly blessed.  A new chapel and Novitiate, temporary structures, mainly of wood, were added to St. Mary's Towers about the same time.

On December 31, 1922, a disastrous bushfire swept the property, destroying many trees and burning down the valuable coach-house  and stables, which had been built by Dr. Jenkins. The old house, as well as the wooden buildings, were in the gravest danger, but fortunately the fire was checked, and thus an irreparable loss was averted.

In 1927 electric light was installed for the first time at St. Mary's Towers.  At first The Towers possessed its own electric power plant, but in 1935 the house was connected up with the Port Kembla Transmission line.  With the advent of electrical power such modern conveniences as electrical laundry machinery and refrigerators have made their appearance in the historic old home, whose builders never dreamt of such scien­tific wonders!  Nor was the intellectual side neg­lected.  In 1924 the Intermediate Examination was introduced for the first time at Douglas Park, and in 1926 the Leaving. A good record of  passes in the Public Examinations has been achieved by the Students of the Apostolic School, though, of  course, the chief stress is laid upon character training and spiritual development, so essential in those who aspire to the Priestly and Religious life.

In 1935 a new wing was added to the Apostolic School; a handsome stone structure providing up­-to-date class-rooms and airy dormitories for about 80 boys in all.  The new wing was blessed and opened by His Grace Archbishop M. Sheehan, on Sunday, October 6. Present on that occasion were the late Rt. Hon. J.A. Lyons, then Prime Minister of Australia, and Dr. Jenkins, a son of the former owner of Nepean Towers. About Easter, 1944, an enlarged Community Cemetery was solemnly blessed by His Lordship, Bishop F.X. Gsell, M.S.C., of Darwin.

            What of to-day? For over forty years St. Mary's Towers has fulfilled its purpose admirably, as the junior training centre of the Australian Province of the Missionaries of the Sacred Heart.  In the Apostolic School young Australians pursue their studies at all stages from First Year to Leaving Honours.  From the nature of the place, great stress is laid upon the languages, English, Latin, Greek, and French holding an honourable place on the curriculum.  History is regarded as an essential study, while Mathematics and Science are by no means neglected as a large and well-equipped Science Room can testify.  The spacious grounds provide ample rooms for field sports and recrea­tion, while in the Nepean River, a mile away, is to be found one of the best natural swimming pools in the district. This latter proves a real boon dur­ing the summer months, and full advantage of it is taken by the boys (and sometimes by older members of the Community, too!)  In the Novi­tiate the Novices, separated from the rest of the Community, spend twelve months of intensive spiritual training in preparation for their Religious Profession.  The manifold duties of farm work, cooking, laundry, workshops, sacristy, and the household are carried out by the Laybrothers, without whose devoted interest it would be im­possible to keep so large an institution running so smoothly.  The Priests of the Community are occupied chiefly in teaching the Students of the Apostolic School, and by assisting during the week-end in various parishes where help is needed.

"All service ranks the same with God"- provided it is done with the intention of pleasing him. All these varied works would be of little value were it not for for the spirit of prayer which inspires them.  At regular intervals the tower bell sum­mons all the members of the Community to prayers and spiritual exercises in common.  The life 0£  the Community centres above all around the morning Mass and the Blessed Sacrament, which is so intimately connected with devotion to the Sacred Heart. There dwells the Divine Master to whose honour all these activities are directed. As Park Hall, then as Nepean Towers, and finally as St. Mary's Towers, this fine old house has seen a hundred years of history. To-day it is a centre of spiritual activity where the best monastic tradi­tions of prayer, study and manual labour are carried on.  May it long remain so under the blessing and protection of the Sacred Heart of Jesus!

 

NOTE: The writer wishes to acknowledge the following articles which he has drawn upon for information:-

"St. Mary's Towers," late "Nepean Towers," and originally Park Hall. Captain J.H. Watson, R.A.H. Society.

"St. Mary's Towers:  Its Founders and Owners."- Rev. Father T.J. O'Brien, M.S.C.

"Thomas Livingstone Mitchell."- Mr. C.W. Salier.

"Sir Thomas Mitchell: Man of Parts and Achievements." ­Walter E. Bethel.

 

DOWNLANDS COLLEGE, TOOWOOMBA

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DARAMALAN COLLEGE, CANBERRA

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ST JOHNÕS COLLEGE, DARWIN

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