Archived News Item

Perth heritage weekend much more than bricks and mortar

Joan Smith RSM was one of a number of sisters and associates of the Perth Congregation who helped to prepare the historic 1871 Sisters of Mercy Convent for a public viewing during the City of Perth Heritage Weekend on November 13 and 14. Joan says, at last count 645 people visited the convent.

A “Sneak Preview”, so read the articles in the newspapers, and this attracted 645 visitors at the last count!

In mid-2010, Perth’s Director of Heritage and the Strategic Planner for the City of Perth requested that the Mercy Heritage Centre at Victoria Square be opened to the community during, at least part of, the City of Perth Heritage Weekend.

At the time it was felt that this project would not be ready, however they put up a convincing story and promised to advertise as a “sneak preview” prior to the official opening in 2011. The City of Perth did all the marketing, organising newspaper interviews, photographs, radio interviews and posting signs outside the venue.

Flute, piano, clarinet, oboe, guitar, vocal and saxophone sounds played by students and ex-students wafted through the ground floor of the convent and many visitors recalled their music exams in the same room. It was in this room that Rolf Harris took many a music exam, having been taught by Sister Mary Majella.

The Erhard Pedal Harp was admired by all. With only three others in the world, the story of the harp (1824) and its maker attracted much attention, as well as the stories of the sisters who taught and played the harp.

Quiet time in the original convent chapel, with its stained glass windows and children’s chairs donated by Governor Weld and his wife, was much appreciated.

The floor boards and the feature staircase, all hand carved by the Fenians, came in for much conversation and admiration, especially as they celebrate their 140th birthday in 2011.

An interpretation plan prepared by four consultants pointed out the significance of the bells in the life of a Sister of Mercy.

A stand was designed and made at the WA Foundry where the the ‘big’ bell could be hung and rung! And a place for the smaller bells that woke us at a very early hour and also rang at the meal table, was moulded into the centre. Yes, this was a popular feature during the weekend!

Visitors spent time in the partly furnished “Heritage Room” admiring the various artefacts that ranged from circa 1840s to present day.
During January and February 2010, the Archdiocesan archaeologists supervised the ‘diggings’ carried out in the grounds of the Sisters of Mercy Victoria Square site, in preparation for new college buildings. Two cabinets displayed some of their ‘prize’ findings – 20 ink wells in perfect condition, beautiful old jugs and plates, and slates with names of students from early 1900s still on them!

Many sisters and associates, especially from Mercedes College, have been involved in preparation of the Mercy Heritage Centre and assisted as guides, security persons, and with many forms of hospitality. The “sneak preview” could truly be called a ‘Circle of Mercy’ as many visitors recalled their experiences of Sisters of Mercy throughout Australia, New Zealand, Papua New Guinea and Ireland. Most visitors requested to be contacted about the date of the opening.

Bricks and mortar? The experience showed us that this event and the future is about people who have many stories they wish to share. Some about themselves and many about relatives and the family tree they wish to complete. Elderly men were keen to point out where they had their First Communion photo taken. Young children were mesmerised with the building and spent much time looking at everything and had innumerable questions. The follow-up of gathering the information requested will be an exciting time.

Generally there was an appreciation that this oasis existed in the middle of the City. An oasis that has been so much part of the development of the city and from this site education centres opened in 104 places around the State and now the community can share in its story and learn more of their heritage.

From: Joan Smith RSM (Perth)