200 years ago, the first Catholic school in Australia was founded on Hunter Street, Parramatta. Today, 1,751 Catholic schools educate about 768,000 students and employ 98,000 staff. Overall, one in five Australians have been educated at Catholic schools! However, Catholic education was almost non-existent in the early part of the nineteenth century.
In the years leading up to the establishment of the first school in October 1820, Catholic community life was not in good shape. Australian Catholics only had access to a single convict priest and two schools that we know of – both of which didn’t last for very long. John Therry was a pivotal figure in the development of Catholic education in Australia. He was an Irish Catholic priest from Cork who resolved to help the Catholic community in New South Wales after seeing his countrymen arrested and deported to Botany Bay. Assisting Father Therry in opening the school was George Marley, a pardoned convict from County Meath who resolved to become a teacher after petitioning Governor Macquarie for his ticket-of-leave. The wealthy Catholic families of Parramatta gave Therry and Morley’s efforts great support. One of these families is believed to have loaned one of their houses on the western end of Hunter Street as the premises of the school. The school still exists today as Parramatta Marist High and has since relocated to Westmead.
Two more permanent schools were established following Therry’s arrival and were given government funding. The second oldest continuously operating Catholic school was established in Liverpool in 1837 by Bishop (later Archbishop) Polding in the parish of All Saints but was preceded by two schools which were founded in 1828 and 1834. The other school, now known as St Mary’s Cathedral College, was also opened by Bishop Polding in 1838 in Sydney.
In the late 1830s the Governors of the colonies were becoming more accommodating to the Catholic population’s desire for education. Governor Sir Richard Bourke strongly urged the British government to support all denominations of religious life in the colonies. Bourke advocated for grant money for church buildings, having salaries linked to the number of parishioners and ensuring that Protestantism was not given special rights which other denominations did not have. Unfortunately, successive changes of government in England slowed down the process of promoting religious tolerance. In 1834 the government allocated 8,000 pounds for Church of England schools but only 800 pounds for Catholic schools.
Despite the initial setbacks in these early years, Catholic schools eventually multiplied and flourished. The founders of the first Catholic schools in Australia and their successors left a legacy that looms large – so large that Catholic schools are now the largest provider of education outside of the government in Australia. Father Terry and Bishop Polding’s efforts have been credited for strengthening the Catholic community spiritually and encouraging them to fight for their religious and educational rights.
 “Catholic education in Australia marks 200th anniversary”, Vatican News, accessed 4 May 2021, https://www.vaticannews.va/en/church/news/2021-02/australia-catholic-education-anniversary-bishops.html
 Ronald Fogarty, Catholic Education in Australia (Melbourne: Melbourne University Press, 1959), p. 17
 Ian McDonald, A School of Their Own (self-pub., 2000), p. 6
 McDonald, A School of Their Own, p. 9
 John Luttrell & Marie Lourey, St Mary’s to St Catherine’s: Catholic schools of the Archdiocese of Sydney 1836-2000: celebrating 180 years of Catholic schooling in the Archdiocese of Sydney (Leichhardt, NSW: Catholic Education Office, 2006), pp. 1-2.
 Eris O’Brien, Life of Archpriest Therry (Sydney: Angus and Robertson, 1922), p. 166
 O’Brien, Life of Archpriest Therry, pp. 166-168
 “The Facts About Catholic Education”, National Catholic Education Commission, accessed 4 May 2021, https://www.ncec.catholic.edu.au/resources/facts-about-catholic-education
 O’Brien, Life of Archpriest Therry, p. 167.