Fr Julian Tenison Woods: The Penola Years and beyond


Sister Margaret Press RSJ continues her reflection on the story of Father Julian Tenison Woods, co-founder of the Sisters of St Joseph of the Sacred Heart.

Fr Julian Tenison Woods
Fr Julian Tenison Woods.
The Penola years were busy times, years which Julian filled to overflowing in his usual way. Churches were to be built and placed under the patronage of St Joseph at Penola, St Teresa in Mount Gambier and Our Lady Star of the Sea at Robe.

A parish school was conducted by two sisters, the Misses Johnson. As he rode around his parish, no time was wasted. His horse must have been both knowledgeable and trusted, as his rider continued to read one of his many books from those on science, spirituality, literature which he regularly ordered from booksellers in Melbourne. He visited every station and small settlement, joining the family at meals and often providing piano accompaniment for evening enjoyment of song and dance.

Since the heat of the day often made travel difficult, he made time to widen his knowledge of the natural characteristics of the region, to make notes and later write articles for scientific journals, some significant in subsequent development, such as that reporting on the Coonawarra terrarossa, 'suitable for viticulture' or his description of the Naracoorte caves. He corresponded with eminent scientists in order to understand the nature of the region, and to provide material for the articles and books already coming from his desk. These most frequently dealt with geological topics.

About the middle of his term in Penola, Mary MacKillop, his young friend from Portland, came to Old Penola Station, owned by her uncle Alexander Cameron, to act as governess to his daughters. She had already begun her long task of supporting her mother and younger siblings, but had dreams of giving her life to a religious order devoted to the care of poor children. When Julian Woods visited the Camerons, the two shared many a conversation and became firm and trusted friends. They spoke of their hopes of setting up a school in Penola which would serve all the Catholic children, not only those who could afford to pay for tuition. Mary had already returned to Portland and was teaching in the school there when the Misses Johnson had announced that they were both to be married soon and asked Father Woods to find someone to take over their classes.

Some frantic planning and action followed with Annie MacKillop setting up school in the Penola church with twelve pupils, then Mary and their sister Lexie joining her in renting a small cottage, barely big enough to house them, let alone their pupils. So their brother John came to convert the stable into a classroom. Once the Penola people realised the quality of the girls' teaching, the future of the school was assured, and the next step for Julian and Mary was to form a simple community. This was not yet possible, although Mary adopted a simple black dress and bonnet.

The simple beginnings of Mary and Julian's venture

Fr Julian Tenison Woods
Fr Julian Tenison Woods.
In the midst of building and equipping the stable-school, Julian learned that he was to be moved back to Adelaide as the new bishop's secretary. He wrote some simple directives for Mary and Blanche Amsinck who had come to join them, and when Bishop Sheil visited Penola before Julian's final departure, he blessed them, addressing Mary as 'Sister Mary', signalling the simple beginnings of their venture.

The bishop gave to his secretary the duty of organising parish schools, and after observing those already in existence and conditions in Adelaide, Julian could see the difficulties ahead.

One problem was the absence of any other religious group in South Australia to share the task; another would be the novelty of a religious community which lived and moved among the people they served, not traditionally enclosed or remote.

Difficulties had never deterred Julian from forging ahead with a plan which he believed was God's will for him and those he served. He wrote a more formal rule of life for Mary and those who joined her in community life in Adelaide, and Bishop Sheil signed it. She and her companions made their first vows in the tiny oratory in Pelham Cottage in June 1867.

Within a year there were 25 young women in the group, dispersed around rapidly opening country schools, an orphanage and a women's refuge. During his five years in Adelaide as its first Director of Education, Father Woods saw to the establishment of a school system. He formed an Education Council composed of both lay and clerical members, as well as parish boards. The Council dealt with the location of schools, curriculum, teacher training standards and fundraising.

The model school was located in the cathedral hall, with Mary as its head. To these activities Julian added his direction of the growing numbers of sisters and normal parish duties as well as being one of the Diocesan Trustees. Not all the diocesan clergy agreed with his methods, and the absence of the bishop for more than a year added to the dramatic, confusing events which culminated in the bishop's attempt on his return to excommunicate Mary and disband the sisters. After an episcopal investigation, they were restored to their former status, but Father Woods was no longer to be their director.

He left Adelaide in 1872, after the departure of a group of sisters to Bathurst, a new diocese in western New South Wales whose Bishop had been one of the investigators. Father Woods was asked by Bishop Quinn to give to those sisters a Rule which would establish them as a diocesan community under his control; he complied by simply repeating his original rule, and continued to visit and direct them.

The next period of Julian Woods' life was that of a travelling preacher of missions, since he needed to support himself, and to keep sending sums of money back to

Adelaide to defray the diocesan debt there, which had fallen to his lot as the sole remaining trustee. The Marist Fathers in Sydney welcomed their novitiate companion to their home at Villa Maria, Hunters Hill, and from this base he travelled around New South Wales, Victoria and Queensland in response to requests for missions.

Read Sr Margaret's earlier reflection Fr Julian Tenison Woods: 'Father Founder'

Sister Margaret Press RSJ, a Sister of St Joseph from Perthville, has spent many years in education, at secondary and tertiary levels and is a prolific writer.

Visit The Sisters of Joseph, Perthville


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