Villa Maria

The Sisters of St Joseph: Catholic Education in Whanganui

The Sisters of St Joseph are an Australasian order founded by Mother Mary MacKillop and Father Julian Tenison Woods in 1873. Mother Mary was canonised in Rome in 2010.

A distinctive habit was worn by the Sisters, unchanged until the late 1960s. The habit was a sign of their consecration to God, and served to identify their unity as a group. The distinctive blue monogram distinguished their Order. Today Sisters do not wear the habit but show a symbol of their consecration with a silver ring and a lapel pin or a pendant.

4. Sisters of St Joseph

Sisters of St Joseph – Sisters Madeleine and Bernadette Murphy, 1934.  Ref: Tesla Studios 26000

The Sisters arrived in the town of Whanganui in 1880. They immediately set up a school for girls in Victoria Avenue which they named Sacred Heart Convent. It was a mixture of primary and secondary pupils, many of the older children being boarders from surrounding rural districts. Their mission was to provide education for the children of the poor. St Joseph’s Convent School, also in Victoria Avenue, had been running since 1858 staffed by lay teachers. The Sisters also took over teaching duties there. It closed in the 1940s.

As the town of Whanganui grew, so did the need for more schools. The Sisters taught in Catholic primary education and in a secondary girls’ college, working extremely hard, and for the most part, with scant resources. But what came out of their work and persistence was a wide-reaching and comprehensive Catholic school system. It provided a first class education for every Catholic child in the district, regardless of wealth, race and social status. Those not able to afford the very modest fees were never turned away. Between 1880 and 1904 seven new schools were opened.

2. Sacred Heart Convent

Sacred Heart Convent, 1912.  Ref: SCH/Misc/40

Alongside reading, writing and arithmetic, the Sisters also taught and nurtured the tenets and practice of the Catholic faith. This is what gave their schools their distinctive character. Icons or statues featured in every school as part of the traditional Catholic devotion. A crucifix, as a symbolic representation of Christ was present in every classroom. A small container of holy water was usually placed just inside the door of every classroom.

The Sisters were always busy. Religious Sisters were not permitted by the Government to attend Teacher Training Colleges so the Sisters of St Joseph gained their Teaching Certificates by studying through the New Zealand Correspondence School. The exclusion continued until the 1970s.

Sisters taught full-time, prepared and marked lessons, cleaned their own classrooms and the convent and they taught music to private pupils. The Sisters also tended to their daily devotions and played an important role in parish work and pastoral visiting, attending retreats and contributing to community life. Despite their commitments, they were always encouraged by their Order to be creative, to extend their talents and to find some time for hobbies and recreation.

1. Villa Maria

Villa Maria Boarding House and School, once known as Hutchinson’s Folly, c1900. Ref: 1962.90.12

Villa Maria opened in Cameron Terrace in 1898 to accommodate Catholic boarders of all ages and for use as classrooms for primary pupils. The building, called locally Hutchinson’s Folly for its former owner, had plenty of rooms and extensive grounds for pupils to play in. The “Villa kids”, as they were known, moved to a new site in Guyton Street in 1944 and their little school was renamed St Monica’s. It closed in 1963.

Holy Infancy School opened in 1899 in Aramoho with 40 pupils and grew quickly with the expansion of the suburb. The school was also known as Sister Rita’s School as she worked there for 40 years and was a well-known and much loved character. In 1966 Holy Infancy was renamed St Joseph’s. In 1970 it became an Intermediate School for girls, finally closing in 1979.

In 1911 a foundation stone was laid by His Grace Bishop Francis Redwood for a new school in Oakland Avenue on St John’s Hill. In 1912 the new Sacred Heart Convent and School were opened by the Bishop. The building was 188 feet long, 100 feet wide, three stories high, and had 300 windows. Heart of matai was used for the floors in the four classrooms and the six piano rooms. The convent was lit by gas and was on town water supply. It also had tanks to store 3,000 gallons of rain water. There were balconies at the front and back which, in addition to affording the best views of Whanganui, doubled as fire escapes. By 1948 the school catered for secondary school girls only. In 1982 it was demolished.

The merging of St Augustine’s Boys College and Sacred Heart Girls College became Cullinane College in 1981. It is situated in Peat Street and continues today.

The distance from town made it difficult for pupils in Castlecliff to attend a Catholic school. When St Vincent’s School opened there in 1918, the Sisters travelled from town to school by tram until the 1930s when they were taken by car. A falling roll saw St Vincent’s amalgamate with St Anthony’s in Gonville in 1947.

3. Sacred Heart Dancing Girls

Sacred Heart Convent Dancing Girls, 1931.  Ref: Tesla Studios 23804

St Mary’s School has a long history of relocating. In 1919 the school was located at the corner of Victoria Avenue and Ingestre Street. In 1927 St Mary’s moved to Hurworth, the site of an old Anglican boys’ school in Grey Street. In 1964 the school was off again, this time to the former Marist Brothers School in Wicksteed Street. Finally, in 1988, a newly built school named St Mary’s opened in Aramoho on the former Holy Infancy site and still continues.

St Anthony’s School opened in Gonville in 1925. At first the new school building was used for Mass on Sundays. In 1930 a nearby house was purchased and converted into classrooms. A crisis in resourcing led to the Catholic schools of New Zealand whilst retaining their special character, being integrated into the national education system, supported by government. In the ensuing reorganisation, St Anthony’s was moved to Marcellin School in 1982.

A new school opened on the old Marist Brothers site at Totara Street. Marcellin School drew in the intermediate pupils from the newly closed St Joseph’s in Aramoho, as well as the St Anthony’s pupils. It is still operating today.

St Anne’s School in Wanganui East first operated from a house on the corner of Kawakawa and Nixon Streets. It opened in 1942 with just seven juniors and two young nuns. A new school was built in Raine Street in 1976. The school is still going strong today.

The Sisters of St Joseph finished teaching in Whanganui in 1988. During the course of 108 years the Sisters were involved in 10 primary schools, three of which remain today to carry forward the Catholic tradition so ably laid by the Sisters.

Now the Sisters of St Joseph’s family of schools is staffed by lay principals and staffs. The world of the Catholic nun has changed and the Sisters turn their considerable talents and experience to other forms of education. They continue to give support in their community wherever it is needed.


Libby Sharpe is Senior Curator at Whanganui Regional Museum and Helen Doyle is a Sister of St Joseph.


A House with a History – Hutchison’s Folly, Villa Maria

George Hutchison was born in Scotland in 1846 and came to New Zealand when he was 20.  He would later become a Member of Parliament but began his career practising law in Wanganui and Wellington.  In 1874 he married Agnes Barbour Hogg, daughter of the Wanganui Reverend David Hogg, and soon thereafter commissioned the building of a house for his new family.  Construction began in 1875 and the building was completed the next year.

North elevation; detail from the building plan

North elevation; detail from the building plan

The Italian villa was built at a time when good quality timber was plentiful and reasonably cheap.  It was large covering an area about 70ft square, and the two-storeyed structure with a two-storeyed tower atop was built of heart rimu.  It stood on Wicksteed St between Cameron St and Guyton, St where St Mary’s Catholic Church now stands, and the height made the building a visible landmark on the townscape.

A view looking across central Whanganui with Hutchison's Folly to the left of the Church steeple, c1888

A view looking across central Whanganui with Hutchison’s Folly to the left of the Church steeple, c1888

It was commonly referred to as ‘Hutchison’s Folly’; possibly a response from the locals who didn’t appreciate a wealthy English lawyer imposing his Victorian mansion on the centre of their town.  Nonetheless, they could not help admiring the building.

The house had a concrete verandah with a cast iron rail and heavy wood balustrade around three sides of the building.  These were fairly standard features for big homesteads of the time, but the second-floor balcony around three sides of the house, accessed by French doors and with views of the town, river, and Mt Ruapehu showed a little more luxury than was usually experienced.

Hutchison spared no expense on the lush interior: parquet floors (with both English and New Zealand timbers), plaster doorframes and detailed capitals stained to match the wood, a large wine cellar, crystal chandeliers, ornate tinted plastered roses on the ceilings, fireplaces with marble surrounds and tinted glazed hearth tiles are noted features of the house.  It was also practical, with a large indoor-water tank fed by the roof and internal lead pipes to take the water where it was needed.

Plan for the parquet floor; detail from the original building plans

Plan for the parquet floor; detail from the original building plans

It is not known exactly how much the building cost at the time; however a retrospective estimate made in 1944 stated it would not have been less than £10,000 using materials at that time – equating to more than $800,000 in 2014.

The family resided there only 13 years before relocating to South Africa where Hutchison had been serving military staff duty and decided to move his law practice there.  The house was rented to Dr Saunders of Wanganui until he passed away.  In 1898 it was sold to the Catholic Church when it was renamed Villa Maria and became the temporary accommodation for the boarders of Sacred Heart Convent until 1911.

Villa Maria Catholic School, shortly after being sold by George Hutchison

Villa Maria Catholic School, shortly after being sold by George Hutchison

The building had other uses; the second floor (base of the tower) was converted into a music room for the students of the convent, and the remaining rooms were used as headquarters by other institutions including St Vincent de Paul and the Maori Missioner.

An unknown gathering outside Villa Maria.

An unknown gathering outside Villa Maria.

The house became a primary school from 1927 until it relocated to another building on the same block in 1934, then after some alterations Villa Maria became St Augustine’s Secondary School opening in 1944.

Until then the building had remained much the same, but a lot of change was carried out over the next few years to accommodate the needs of the school, until it relocated to new premises in 1967.  From then Villa Maria continued its service as the headquarters for various organisations and societies run through the Catholic Church.

Villa Maria shortly before demolition in 1974, with the tower already removed.

Villa Maria shortly before demolition in 1974, with the tower already removed.

Villa Maria was demolished in 1974 and the new St Mary’s Catholic Church opened in 1976.