The proud reputation Catholic schools enjoy today is based on the strong tradition built by the Religious Orders who founded Catholic education. The history of Catholic education in the Cairns Diocese was characterised by the exceptional personal commitment and perseverance by the many religious and lay women and men who moved to a tropical climate to open Catholic schools.
In more recent decades the availability of government funding to support capital development and operating costs of Catholic schools has led to much-improved conditions for those working and learning in Catholic education. The quality of facilities available in Catholic schools has risen to meet the expectations of an increasingly complex world, to provide contemporary, 21st-century education.
Catholic schools continue to develop and grow in quality and public esteem and have proven over successive generations that they contribute significantly to the development of the Australian community.
The Religious Orders have since decreased significantly in numbers and today most Catholic schools are administered by lay principals and staff. However, they aspire to the same distinctive mission and ideals of maintaining high academic standards within a faith-based education framework. The ethos of Catholic schools as communities of faith, communities of learners, and communities serving their parish and wider communities has endured, and will remain a defining feature of Catholic education.
Catholic education is continuing to thrive, with enrolments in the Cairns Diocese increasing every year. Such growth is an indication of our strong commitment to providing for the needs of ALL students in an inclusive, life-giving and supportive school community environment. Catholic schools welcome all who wish to share in a vibrant, well-resourced learning environment, based on Catholic faith and values.
A Brief History of Catholic Education in Far North Qld
|1869||Bishop Quinn (Brisbane) began lobbying Rome to send priests to FNQ particularly to evangelise Aborigines.|
|1871||Georgetown established as the centre of the Etheridge goldfields.|
|1872||PJ MacGuinness – First Priest arrived.|
|1873||Cooktown established as port for Palmer goldfields.|
|1874||MacGuinness became first Priest in Cooktown.|
|1876||Cairns established as port for Hodgkinson gold fields. McDonough replaced MacGuinness as the only priest in FNQ.|
|1877||Rome sent 3 Italian priests to work with Aborigines in Cooktown under the supervision of Fr Lecaille who was in Geraldton. (Due to communication problems and distance he never arrived!).|
|1878||Italian priests went back to Rome – too many Irish in FNQ! Dr J Cani from Brisbane replaced them until 1881.|
|1882||Rome appointed Mons P Fortini as church leader in FNQ. He antagonised everyone! Local Irish took him on in Herberton over finances. He excommunicated the whole town. An Australian first!|
|1884||Fortini was recalled to Rome. Irish priests were sought for the large Irish population- Augustinians came to FNQ led by Fr John Hutchinson. Augustinians were strong on education – a teaching order – and pushed education in the region.|
|1880’s||Outreach to Aborigines gradually petered out as Hutchinson believed they would disappear eventually.|
|1887||Irish Nuns opened St Mary’s School in Cooktown- first school in FNQ (convent now James Cook museum).|
|1890||St Monica’s opened – first school in Cairns.|
|1910||Nuns moved from Cooktown to Herberton as gold rush declined and tin mining boomed.|
|1910||Schools opened in rural areas throughout FNQ as 1950s result of industry and population – especially sugar, tobacco, timber and post war migration. Demand for boarding schools high to cope with remoteness.|
Our Lady of the Sacred Heart School, Thursday Island – 1887
Our Lady of the Sacred Heart School, Thursday Island began its history in 1887 as an orphanage built by the Missionaries of the Sacred Heart and conducted by the Sisters of Our Lady of the Sacred Heart. Its charter was “to receive children of every race and denomination to be boarded and educated.” It continued in this role until 1961 when it was converted to a school and amalgamated with the Catholic School on Hammond Island in 1964. In 1967 the school was handed over to the Diocese of Cairns and conducted by the Sisters of Mercy until 1987 when lay teachers assumed responsibility for its management. Except for a short period in the late 90’s when the Patrician Brothers undertook its leadership, it has remained under the care of lay teachers employed by the Diocese.
St Monica’s College, Cairns – 1890
In the early days of Cairns as a frontier town, St Monica’s school opened in 1890 as a co-educational primary school. The first teachers were lay women, with Miss Kate Birmingham being the foundation teacher. The difficulties of the depression years led to the Sisters of Mercy being invited by Bishop Hutchinson to run the school. The first classes run by the Sisters commenced in October 1892, and the Mercy Sisters operated the school for the next one hundred years, adding a girls’ secondary section from 1933. In 1927, a devastating cyclone destroyed all buildings in the Cathedral precinct except for the convent, which had been built in 1913 – the official opening was March 1914. In 1974, primary classes were phased out and St Monica’s became an all girls’ secondary college, which it continues to be to the present day. In 1999, this convent building was beautifully restored, and now serves as the administration area for St Monica’s College. Also opened in 1991 was the multipurpose hall, Catherine McAuley Centre. Since 2003, St Monica’s girls also have the opportunity to board at nearby St Augustine’s College on a full time or weekly basis. A major building masterplan in more recent years has given the College a four level specialist classroom building which opened in 2013. An additional four storey building providing 10 more classrooms was completed in 2014.
Good Counsel Primary School, Innisfail – 1903
Catholic education in Innisfail commenced when the Good Samaritan sisters opened Sacred Heart Convent School in Innisfail in 1903 with 42 students. In 1938, the Marist Brothers opened the Marist Brothers School with an enrolment of 50 boys. Both schools provided both primary and secondary education to Year 10.
Good Counsel School is now a Prep – Year 6 Catholic primary school. The school, situated on the hill directly beside Good Counsel Parish Church, overlooks the township of Innisfail. The sisters remained with the school until 1992, setting a fine example in academic excellence that continues to the present day.
St Thomas’s School, Mareeba (formerly Good Counsel School) – 1909
In January 1909, four Sisters of Mercy arrived in Mareeba to begin Catholic education in the district. The school was originally named Good Counsel but in the early 1950’s was renamed St Thomas’s after the patron of the parish, St Thomas of Villanova. Enrolments began at around 50 students and during World War II, the state school was taken over by the Army and St Thomas’s accommodated the entire school population of Mareeba. The Catholic children had school in the morning from 8.30 until 12.30 and the State School children had it in the afternoon from 1.30 until 4.30.
Mount St Bernard College, Herberton – 1921
Parish Priest Rev Fr Bernard Doyle was very keen to establish a boarding school in Herberton. After discussions with the Sisters of Mercy and a range of local identities a suitable parcel of land (additional to the St Patrick’s site) was acquired and work commenced. On 21 September 1921 the Mount St Bernard College was opened as a day and boarding school for girls, with Mother Mary de Sales Hoey as Principal. In 1922 the school became one of the few registered secondary schools in Queensland. In the years since then, Mount St Bernard became a girl’s only boarding school and a co-educational day school. In 2009 and 2010 MSB underwent significant renewal, construction and renovation. Since the start of 2010, the College now also offers boarding for boys. Day students attend from a number of outlying Tablelands communities, while boarding students include First Nations students from remote communities. MSB has been designated as a school of special character within the Cairns Diocese and is the Diocese’s principal outreach to young people of the Far North’s First Nations communities.
St Joseph’s School, Atherton – 1923
On 29th January, 1923, the Sisters of Mercy began St Joseph’s School, Atherton with a roll call of 50. The landmark church and convent were built in 1931 and the current administration/library building was opened in 1953. St Joseph’s is now a Prep to Year 6 primary school where the traditional values of an education built on knowledge, faith and love remain constant.
St Michael’s School (formerly St Alphonsus School) – Gordonvale – 1923 / 1959
When the first Catholic school in Gordonvale was originally opened and blessed in 1923, it was placed under the patronage of St Alphonsus, and was known by this name during its years of service. The original school was located in Muir Street and has now been converted into a Parish Hall. The present St Michael’s School was opened in December 1959 and was staffed by the Sisters of Mercy from 1923 to 1990. Today St Michael’s is a Prep to Year 6 school staffed by dedicated lay people. It has undergone significant redevelopment, including the refurbishment of the convent building to an administration area and the completion of three stages of building work between 2009 and 2013. This has included seven new classrooms, a new library and IT resource area, as well as new toilet facilities, uniform shop and storage areas.
St Rita’s School, Babinda – 1926
St Rita’s was opened by the Sisters of Mercy on 25 January 1926 with an enrolment of 34 students. As there were no school buildings, lessons were taught in the church. A temporary convent was set up in 1928. The foundation stone for the present school was laid in 1945. Secondary education, including a commercial course for girls that was innovative for the time, was taught at St Rita’s from 1948 to 1951. The first lay principal was appointed in 1988 and the Sisters of Mercy withdrew from the school in 1989.
St Joseph’s School, Parramatta Park – 1927
St Joseph’s School is the oldest operating Catholic primary school in Cairns. The Sisters of Mercy staffed the school from July 1927 when the first students, a group of 22, were enrolled. The two-storey Church School in the suburb of Parramatta Park, was constructed of materials remaining from Catholic buildings from the St Monica’s precinct destroyed in the 1927 cyclone. This building was blessed and opened by Bishop Heavey OSA in 1928. Large numbers of migrants during the 1950’s took the school enrolment to in excess of 500 students. The school was partially damaged by fire and rebuilt in 1985. This was the beginning of another phase of expansion and beautification of the school site. The first Catholic Preschool in the Diocese was opened at St Joseph’s in 1991. St Joseph’s was a school built on the swamp, amidst rich stories of faith, hardship, support for those in need, and of pride in its many successes. The Sisters of Mercy ran the school until 2003 until the first lay principal commenced. Significant building works have been undertaken in recent years, providing well-appointed and contemporary facilities.
St Clare’s, Tully – 1928
Tully was originally part of the Innisfail Parish. The earliest Masses were celebrated in private homes by Rev Fr Clancy OSA. St Clare’s Church was built and opened in 1927 and Tully became a separate parish in 1935. The Good Samaritan Sisters arrived in Tully in January 1928. They opened a school on 3 February 1928 with an enrolment of 35 pupils. The first classes were held in the church and in an old cottage that was modified for use as a school. Mr George Kendall, the first lay Principal, was appointed in 1977. St Clare’s is presently a Prep to Year 6 school and has undergone significant building works over recent years including the development of large undercover area, a new hall, a new library and some new classrooms.
St Therese’s School, Edmonton (formerly Edmonton Convent School) – 1929
The first Catholic school in Edmonton, Edmonton Convent School was established on 29 April 1929 with an enrolment of 30 students. The buildings were those moved from the former St Nicholas School at Chillagoe, which had closed in 1927. In 1965, Edmonton was established as a separate parish – St Therese’s Parish and the school was renamed St Therese’s School. A new school was opened by Bishop Torpie in July 1969. In 1976, the Sisters of Mercy who had staffed the school throughout its history, withdrew from the parish. The rapid population growth of the areas around Edmonton and the corresponding increased demand for Catholic schools led to the relocation of the school to its present site in Centenary Park (now Bentley Park) in 1995, as it outgrew the available space at the original Edmonton site.
Saint Augustine’s College, Cairns – 1930
St Augustine’s College has played a prominent part in the life of Cairns since it was established by the Marist Brothers in 1930. The College, which originally included a boys’ primary school for students in Years 4 – 7 until 1986, is now a day and boarding secondary school for boys. During World War II the boarding section of the college was relocated to Lake Barrine on the Atherton Tableland as a safety measure, with everything needed by the boys moved by truck to the Tablelands. After only one year, Cairns was again considered safe, so all was returned back to the Draper St site. St Augustine’s College is the only Marist school in Far North Queensland and is the second oldest Marist school in Queensland. The school draws its students from the local region and from across the north of the state and overseas. The College’s old boys continue to play a significant role in the civic, commercial and cultural life of the region.
St Rita’s, South Johnstone – 1932
In 1932, the Sisters of the Good Samaritan Order, with the assistance and foresight of Fr Clancy, established St Rita’s Catholic School at South Johnstone. The Hing family home was purchased by Fr Clancy to serve a dual purpose – living quarters for the Sisters above and classrooms for the students below. Lessons commenced on 1 February with an enrolment of 74 students. The cramped school conditions in the original school building, together with the need for a Parish Church forced the local community to raise funds to build on the vacant allotments between Green and Driscoll Streets. Bishop Heavey laid the foundation stone for the new church and school on November 27, 1932. After the blessing and opening ceremony on April 2, 1933, the school students moved across the road leaving the convent free for the Sisters. Since then, the school has continued to grow, has undergone many structural changes and has endured several major cyclones. It still sits proudly on the Green Street site today.
St Augustine’s School, Mossman – 1934
The original St Augustine’s School, consisting of two rooms and housing 70 children, church and convent buildings were opened in 1934 under the care of four Sisters of Mercy. Due to the wet season, the school and convent were not completed on time so classes were initially held under the Presbytery where the Sisters lived. A distinctive feature of St Augustine’s has been the quality of renovation and refurbishment of these original buildings. They are currently being used as classrooms, administration block, staffroom and Parish Centre.
Mother of Good Counsel School, North Cairns – 1936
Fr Phelan, an Augustinian priest, saw the need for a Church and primary school in North Cairns in the 1930’s. Mother of Good Counsel School began operations on 1 April, 1936 in a two storey cement building. The Sisters of Mercy began teaching downstairs in four classrooms separated by glass partitions. In 1976, Mr Jim Graham became the first lay Principal. The Marist Brothers took over the running of the school between 1986 and 1990. Today, the school is staffed entirely by lay people.
St John’s School, Silkwood – 1947
In 1947, Parish Priest, Father Natali purchased for 500 pounds, an old solid concrete building which was converted into three classrooms to serve as the school. In 1948, five Missionary Franciscan Sisters of the Immaculate Conception (three Irish and two Australians) commenced lessons with an enrolment of 20 students. The official opening of the Silkwood Convent and School took place on 9th May, 1948. In 1967, a new school building was blessed by Bishop Cahill. This building was funded by the efforts of the Three Saints Committee. The Franciscan Sisters withdrew from St John’s in 1987 but the lay teachers who followed have successfully maintained the Catholic ethos of the school.
St Teresa’s School, Ravenshoe – 1950
St Teresa’s School, Ravenshoe commenced on 6th February, 1950. The spirit of its founding Sisters of Mercy is embodied in the school motto ‘Knowledge, Love, Truth’. St Teresa’s boasts the position as the ‘highest primary school in Queensland’ set in beauty above the Atherton Tablelands, and with a mild climate to match. The staff and students, both present and past, set high standards and strive with the same courage and determination to promote Christian ideals, achieve success and enjoy participation in the local community.
St Francis Xavier’s School, Manunda – 1961
St Francis Xavier’s School was opened by the Sisters of St Joseph in January 1961. Initially, the building was used as a school during the week and a church on the weekends. The school began with an enrolment of 54 in Years 1 to 4 in its first year and has steadily grown to offer Prep to Year 6. Additional classroom blocks were added in 1966 and 1976, with further works in the 80’s and 90’s. The school has undergone significant capital works every year between 2002 and 2013 including new library, music tuition rooms, Performing Arts teaching space. Prep and Junior playgrounds and multi-purpose undercover court. It is now one of the largest Catholic primary schools in Cairns.
Our Lady Help of Christians School, Earlville – 1964
In 1964 a request was made by Bishop Cahill to the Sisters of Mercy to open a school in the fast growing region to the south of Cairns now known as Earlville. Our Lady Help of Christians commenced on 28 January with 51 students from Years 1 to 4. In those early days the school doubled as the parish church. In 1984 the school became co-educational from Years 1 to 7 and a preschool was added in 1994. Today the school offers Prep to Year 6, to students who come from a vast range of cultural and social backgrounds.
St Anthony’s School, Dimbulah – 1964
The Sisters of St Joseph established St Anthony’s in the small country town of Dimbulah in 1965, officially opening on the 24th January 1966 to serve the growing Catholic migrant population. The presence of the Sisters of St Joseph is no longer apparent with the last of the Sisters leaving in 1987. Over the years, the school has undergone refurbishment and continues to serve the community in the Dimbulah area. Today, St Anthony’s boasts modern facilities and a vast range of resources including the latest technologies which are utilised on a daily basis by students and teachers and are considered essential tools in preparing students for life beyond the 21st Century classroom.
Good Counsel College, Innisfail – 1975
Good Counsel College commenced in 1975 following the amalgamation of the two existing Catholic secondary schools, Sacred Heart Convent run by the Sisters of the Good Samaritan and the Marist Brothers School. The new school used the original Marist Brother’s buildings on Owen Street. In 1983 the Marist Brothers withdrew from Innisfail after 45 years of service to the community. Initially the College was a junior College and in 1986 the first intake of senior students commenced, so that classes now run from Year 7 to Year 12. Recently the College has begun the process to reform with Marist Schools Australia. The growth of the College has been one of the success stories of Catholic education in North Queensland. Good Counsel College has a catchment for students from Tully in the south and to Babinda in the north. Of note when visiting the College is the striking example of modern architecture with Mary’s Place as the central area of the College.
St Mary’s Catholic College, Woree – 1986
St Mary’s doors first opened to students on 29 January 1986, as St Mary’s College and the first co-educational Catholic secondary school in Cairns. Officially opened on 9 March the same year, the college is the diocese’s largest secondary college. Named after North Queensland’s first Catholic convent school which operated in Cooktown between 1878 and 1941, present-day St Mary’s has benefited from the dedication of Marist Brothers, Josephite Sisters and Missionary Franciscan Sisters of the Immaculate Conception.
Holy Cross Catholic School, Trinity Park – 1987
Holy Cross Catholic School is situated at Trinity Park, to the north of Cairns. Holy Cross began in 1987 with 28 children in Years 1, 2 & 3. It now has enrolments in Prep to Year 6. The first Principal was Mr Bob Scilironi and an original member of staff was Sister Theresa Murray rsj, a Sister of St Joseph. The land on which the school is situated was originally owned by a local cane farmer, Mr Tom Dillon. The school’s sporting house names – Mallon, Robinson, Petersen and Dillon, acknowledge four of the early non-First Nations pioneering families in the Smithfield area. In recent years, Government and local parish contributions have allowed new facilities to be established at the school. A new multipurpose sports facility, library and new and improved administrative and staff areas are now part of the school infrastructure.
St Gerard Majella School, Woree – 1988
St Gerard Majella School was established in 1988 to cater for the needs of the Catholic population in the Woree area of Our Lady Help of Christians Parish, Earlville. The school, therefore, forms an integral part of the parish and parish life. The Franciscan Sisters were given the responsibility of establishing the school, with Sister Celine O’Donovan being the first principal. Today the school is staffed by lay teachers and caters for students from Prep to Year 6.
St Andrew’s Catholic College, Redlynch – 2001
St Andrew’s Catholic College was established in 2001 in the Redlynch Valley, Cairns, on a picturesque 25 hectare site. This co-educational College was constructed in stages to cater for students from Prep to Year 12 in 2009. As a school with a strong focus on engagement with its local community, St Andrew’s focuses on developing the full educational, spiritual and personal potential of each student. Among the many emphases of the school include a focus on the environment and a thriving music programme.
St Stephen’s Catholic College, Mareeba – 2006
After many years of hard work and commitment by local residents, St Stephen’s Catholic College opened at McIver Rd in Mareeba in 2006, with Year 8 classes. A year level was added each year and the college reached Year 12 in 2010. Named after the first martyr of the Catholic Church, St Stephen’s provides academic and vocational pathways for students, including a strong focus on technology. The opening of the Trade Training Centre in 2012 increased the number of certificate courses available to students in the industrial technology area.
Holy Spirit College, Manoora – 2015
Holy Spirit College is a Youth Assistance College for disengaged young people in Cooktown and Manoora. The College caters for students aged between 11 and 17 who have disengaged from education or for whom enrolling in a mainstream secondary school is not the best alternative. The Cooktown campus has day students and weekly boarders, drawn from the wider community including Hope Vale and Wujal Wujal, and the Manoora campus caters for day students only.
MacKillop Catholic College, Mount Peter – 2016
MacKillop Catholic College, Mount Peter opened on January 27, in time for the start of the 2016 school year. The $5.7 million first stage of the new Prep to Year 12 Catholic college near Edmonton in the Cairns southern growth corridor opened with 86 students in Prep to Year 3. The college will grow into a full Prep to Year 12 college by 2025 to meet the needs of the growing community. MacKillop Catholic College will be a multi-stream school and, when complete, is expected to have enrolments of more than 1,500 students (similar in size to St Andrew’s Catholic College, Redlynch).
St Joseph’s Parish School, Weipa – 2016
St Joseph’s Parish School is a Prep to Year 6 Catholic primary school that opened in Weipa on January 27, in time for the 2016 school year. St Joseph’s opened with 74 students in Prep to Year 3 and a composite Year 4 to 6 class, on the site adjoining St Joseph’s Catholic Church in Boundary Road. The school now has one class per year level and is expected to grow to between 180 and 200 students.
Newman Catholic College, Smithfield – 2022
Newman Catholic College is a secondary college that opened in 2022 with Year 7 and the Cairns Diocese’s 30th school. It is the first Catholic school in Australia to be co-located with a university – on the Cairns Campus of James Cook. Newman Catholic College will grow a year level each year until it reaches Year 12 in 2027. Stage 1’s four-level building of approximately 7,000m² was designed to support and nurture innovative thinkers and contains five design technology classrooms, four science lab classrooms, a library and administration area, and an indoor PE court. It also features open and collaborative learning environments with sweeping landscape views and quiet retreat spaces.