Archived News Item

A Century of Caring

St Joseph’s Cowper, formerly known as St Joseph’s Orphanage, Cowper, NSW, has given one hundred years of continuous service to the families of the North Coast, and beyond.

The Orphanage was established in 1913 when the Bishop of Lismore, Bishop Carroll, asked the Sisters of Mercy to convert their boarding school into an orphanage. The decision to close the boarding school disappointed many residents of the district as it had come to be regarded as a “Finishing School for Young Ladies”. However the Sisters considered the change as being very much in keeping with the aim of their foundress, Catherine McAuley.  Closing the boarding school meant an almost complete loss of income for the Sisters but they accepted the challenge to provide food, clothing, an education and love for the children in their care.

The first children were accepted into the Orphanage in 1913 and initially there were only four children in residence. The numbers quickly grew and reached one hundred and twenty at its maximum. More than one hundred Sisters of Mercy have worked at St Joseph’s since 1913 as teachers, carers or in administration, attending to the needs of well in excess of 2,000 children who have come into their care.Initially the Orphanage was licensed to take children from the age of three years, but following the end of the war in 1945 pressure from the community resulted in the regulation being relaxed so that children from the age of six months could be accepted.All available cots were soon occupied. Sister Mary Vianney Henry, who spent fifty two years of her life working at St Joseph’s between 1932 and 1985 records in her memoirs that “there were three cots in my bedroom and five in the nursery adjoining my room. It was a lot of extra work by day and night”! 

Many of the stories of life in the Orphanage at Cowper are legendary. On the evening before wash days the Sisters and children carried water from a well two hundred metres across a paddock to fill the eight laundry tubs and two coppers. The Sister doing the washing started at 3am with the assistance of one boy whose job it was to stoke the fires and keep the coppers boiling. Some girls came at 5.30am to help peg the clothes on the line. Usually the washing was finished before school but if not the task was completed after school.

Floods always proved a worrying time for the Sisters and children. Caring for and entertaining over one hundred children on the first floor of the building for up to ten days, with flood waters covering the ground floor, often tested the Sisters’ resilience.  In the 1950 flood thirty two snakes were killed in and around the building.The fact that the Orphanage survived and continued to flourish despite the floods, as well as fires and cyclones, is testimony to the outstanding commitment of the Sisters and the wonderful generosity of the local community, Parishes throughout the Diocese and service organisations.  The children themselves played a big role in supporting the Orphanage financially by growing vegetables and running a poultry farm. On one occasion a crop of beans was grown and sent to the Sydney markets to raise funds to start a Library for the children.

 A High School was opened in Cowper in 1950 but when it closed four years later the girls began travelling to St Marys in Grafton to complete their Secondary education and some boys went to the Brothers at Westmead to complete their schooling. This situation, coupled with the increasing challenge of providing suitable medical support for the children and the deteriorating state of the buildings at Cowper, prompted Bishop Satterthwaite to decide that a new home should be built for the children in Grafton.

By this time the number of children being cared for had fallen to about forty and in January 1972 the Sisters and children moved into their new premises in North Street Grafton. The children were housed in four cottages, with each cottage providing accommodation for ten children and a Sister to care for them. The Sisters taught in the local schools each day and cared for the children at night.Sisters like Sr Vianney, who no longer taught in the schools but worked in the Administration area, cared for the under school age children during the day.

The years since 1970 have seen many changes in the State regulations around the provision of Residential Care for children. Today children and young people are referred to St Joseph’s by Family and Community Services. Most of the funding also comes from Family and Community Services, with community support allowing for some added extras for those in care. By law the young people in residential care must be over twelve years of age, unless the Children’s Guardian grants special permission. St Joseph’s has established a reputation for providing a new start in life for some of the most needy and challenging teenagers in the State.

Since 2005 St Joseph’s has operated under a lay CEO supported by a dedicated lay staff, but remains a work sponsored by the Sisters of Mercy. Its Mission Statement calls on those involved to endeavour, in the Mercy spirit, to empower disadvantaged young people and their families through service provision, support and advocacy in a safe and nurturing environment.
Making sure the children and young people receive the best possible education remains a priority, but St Joseph’s has also expanded its services to include Foster Care, Respite Care, a Mentoring Program, a Students at Risk Program, a Supported Independent Living Program and a Family Restoration Program. Many of these programs are funded through the generous donations of the community.

St Joseph’s Cowper is an integrated part of the history and fabric of the Clarence region. From volunteers for things like ironing, sewing, haircuts and gardening in the early Cowper days to Board members and business houses who donate their time and energy today, there is and has always been a willingness to support. St Joseph’s Cowper, after 100 years, is celebrating ongoing traditions such as the Clarence Valley business houses who provide Christmas presents to the young people in residential and foster care – some of them having done so every year for the past 40 years, with the same person organising that collection for the entire time! St Joseph’s celebrate the family in Sydney, who literally stumbled upon St Joseph’s Cowper in the phone book, and who wanted their own children to grow up being aware of those less fortunate and each year provide wonderful equipment to allow the young people to experience new things. Also celebrated are all those people who have so generously made donations over the years,  to assist in the provision of excellent standards of care for each young person whom St Joseph’s Cowper are fortunate to assist.      

Celebrations to acknowledge one hundred years of outstanding work by the Sisters of Mercy and the lay staff, together with the wonderful generosity of the whole community, occurred on Sunday March 3 2013 at Cowper, the site of the original Orphanage. The celebration took the form of a Mass in Mary Immaculate Church, followed by lunch. A display of memorabilia was set up in the Hall, which formed part of the original school and a book compiled by Sr Judith Weiley detailing the history of St Josephs from its establishment in 1913 up until the move to Grafton in 1972 was launched. In excess of 320 people attended the celebrations from dignitaries, priests, Sisters, past residents, current staff and many supporters – a wonderful community celebration enjoyed by all. 

Messages to Sue McKimm – CEO

Top left: St. Joseph’s, Cowper
Top right: Floods of the 1950’s
Lower left: L-R Bishop Jarrett, Sue McKimm (CEO), Jim McDougall (Board chair) at the celebrations.
Lower right: L-R Srs Jan Holahan, Bernadette Eckersley, Patricia Smith & Barbara Bolster at the celebrations.