St Francis Xavier Primary School is one of Ballarat’s most highly regarded schools. We provide an enriched education founded on values of mercy, respect, compassion, excellence and justice to more than 400 students. Our historic campus is located in the spacious surrounds of Mt Xavier, purchased by the Sisters of Mercy Ballarat East for £1800 in 1902.
1902: The Sisters of Mercy Ballarat East purchased Fortune’s Folly from a Mrs Gregory for the sum of £1800. It was named Villa Maria by the Sisters.
1905: Villa Maria became a boarding school for junior boys.
1914: A school was established and registered as St Francis Xavier College.
1960: New classrooms were built, and the first ‘day boys’ came to Villa.
1974: Four portable classrooms were set up and the junior girls from Sacred Heart College came to Villa, thus making it a co-educational school. The cows were sold, and Villa ceased to be a farm.
1977: The last year for boarders at Villa.
1978: Our library was blessed and opened. It was dedicated to Sr M Philomena in recognition of her many and great efforts at Villa, and to commemorate her Golden Jubilee.
1984: A new convent was built ‘up the hill’ to accommodate the Sisters who taught at the school. Children did not occupy the whole of ‘Old Villa’.
1986: Jimmy’s hut was removed to make way for the new classrooms and assembly hall.
1988: The end of an era – the Villa school and Convent became separate entities. The Sisters who teach in the school (Alice and Margaret) no longer live at Villa, but come out from Ballarat East each morning.
1989: Villa is to become the novitiate for our two postulants, Beth Nolen and Liz Dowling. Community members – Srs Gerardine Cooney, Clare Forbes, Mary Meade and Mag Mahoney.
Our Mercy Connection
The first Sister of Mercy – the foundress of the Sisters of Mercy – was an Irish woman of great faith and compassion for anyone in need. Catherine McAuley was born into a well-to-do family in Dublin, Ireland, on 29th December, 1778. At that time there were laws which made life hard for the poor and Catholics in particular. Catherine’s father was a devout man who taught his daughter to be conscious of the needs of the many homeless, sick and uneducated people around her, particularly young women. Catherine also inherited from him a practical wisdom and strength of character.
When Catherine was five, her father died and for the next 20 years, she lived on charity in the homes of relations. Finally, she became companion to a Mr. and Mrs. Callaghan, both of whom were so touched by her charity and Christian witness that they were baptised on their death-beds. Catherine was then the “Heiress of Coolock House”, inheriting the Callaghan house and fortune. She set about to fulfil her dream of giving care and shelter to the many homeless people of Dublin. This, the “House of Mercy” was opened on 24th September 1827 (the feast of Our Lady of Mercy) and her work for the poor knew no bounds. Many eager helpers gathered around her to teach, to train girls in practical skills of caring for a home, and to prepare them for a variety of employment. Instruction in the Catholic faith and the visiting of the sick and poor in their homes, were works very near to her heart.
As time went on and despite Catherine’s original desire, her group of women became a new religious congregation in the Church. On 12th December 1831, the first Sisters of Mercy pronounced their religious vows with Sister Catherine as their leader. The works of Mercy grew as the Sisters extending loving compassion to all in need – they cared for the sick; took charge of hospitals in time of epidemics; gave shelter to orphans; and were always ready to assist anyone in distress. Catherine was a great Christ-centred woman who tried to fill the needs of people crying out for spiritual and material assistance, for love, justice and knowledge.
The Sisters of Mercy soon spread to England, the United Stated of America and the Colonies. No hardship was too great for these women as they followed Catherine’s example “to implant Jesus Christ into the heart of the poor”.
Sister Catherine McAuley died in Dublin on 11th November, 1841. Her life had been one of great generosity, spent in serving others. She had given her wealth to provide for their welfare, to lessen their sufferings, while herself enduring much misunderstanding, many trials and hardships.
Sisters of Mercy have been in Australia for 140 years and have been at Ballarat East since 1881. In addition to education, they are committed to social justice, working in areas such as: Aboriginal Missions in Northern Australia, supporting HIV and AIDS sufferers, refugees and asylum seekers, women, youth and homeless people.
On 9th April, 1990 after much research into Catherine’s life and work, and lengthy discussion on all aspects of them, a Commission of Cardinals and Bishops in Rome agreed that she had led a life of heroic Christian virtue. This being so, they bestowed upon her the title of Venerable Catherine McAuley… and indication that one day she may be declared a saint of the Church. Catherine was thus acknowledged a woman of God – one who simply followed the voice of Christ in relieving the suffering and injustices around her.
Fortune’s Folly – who lived there?
The gold rush attracted many people from across the world to Ballarat, one of those being a man by the name of Henry Fortune. Henry was a 23 year-old man who migrated from Kingston upon Thames in Surrey, England, He sailed on the ship The Champion of the Sea, arriving in Melbourne on December 24, 1854, before making his way to the Ballart goldfields in the hope he would strike it lucky.
Henry was successful in his quest for wealth and was one half of a fruitful partnership working as a merchant/builder whilst every now and again fossicking for gold. He married widow Susan Wright in 1858 and became a father to her young daughter, Emily. Nine more children were added to the Fortune family over the years.
Mr Fortune bought a plot of land in Mt Xavier and this is where he built his home, an elegant mansion which he aptly named Fortune’s Folly. Henry was a risk taker, and gambled with many business ventures.
The train line from Melbourne to Ballarat was to run straight past his property. He built his home close by, banking on the idea of Mt Xavier becoming the first stop and his land would be developed in to a little village. Unfortunately the train didn’t stop at Mt Xavier and Mr Fortune’s dreams never eventuated. To rub salt into his wounds, the bank foreclosed on his loan. A shipping strike had occurred and he was unable to acquire more funds and produce from relatives in England leaving him with only one option – to sell his beloved Folly to pay his debts.
Legend has grown around the Folly over the years and the well-recognised tower that stands so prominently above the home. It is said that Mr Fortune took his home life and how haunts the folly.
Henry Fortune suffered through many dark days. He lost his fortune through bad business deals, he lost five children in infancy and his wife at a young age. This would be enough to spiral anyone into despair. The stories of him taking his own life are untrue, as he died many years later after the sale of Fortune’s Folly at his home in Peel Street, aged 58, in 1889.
Mr Gregory migrated from England, arriving in Australian soil in 1859, aged 26. Joshua bought the unfinished Folly and lived there with his wife Annie and seven children. It was Mr Gregory who built the tower that graces the folly. The tower was built as a study and quiet refuge from his noisy children.
Joshua was a prosperous business owner of a large grocers in Main Road (his shop was situated near the skate park in Eureka Street) and reportedly also bought and sold gold. He imported his goods from an uncle in Hertfordshire, England, and also served as a councillor on the Ballarat East Council. He was held in very high regard with fellow Ballarat people and was remembered with the naming of Gregory Street in his honour.
Mr Joshua Gregory died at Fortune’s Folly on February 9, 1892, after a short battle with liver cancer. Sadly, two months later, his son Henry was killed in a tragic accident aged 19. It was shortly after the deaths of her beloved husband and son that Annie moved out of the Folly. She then leased it to a farmer, R.W Fleming, who paid a rate of 22 shillings per week. Mr Fleming moved off the property in 1901, and it remained empty until 1902.
The year 1902 saw the Sisters of Mercy purchase Fortune’s Folly for the sum of £1800. The stately home with its circular driveway and beautiful surroundings was to become a convent for the sisters, and they renamed it Villa Maria.
Records show that, in 1857 at a place called Palmer’s Hill, a school named Saint Xavier’s was in operation – “one of the most respectable schools on the goldfields…built of the best pine, and shingled.” Thirty-five boys and 51 girls were receiving their education in its two rooms. Within two years, the school had given its name to the locality, henceforth known as Mount Xavier.
Throughout Victoria, St Francis Xavier has a reputation for being on of the best in caring for the earth and the community. When the sisters of Mercy bought the property in 1902, they established a farm. Up until 1974, it supplied the Victoria Street convent, the boarders at Sacred Heart College and the boys at Villa Maria with dairy produce and vegetables. Sisters looked after the animals, did the milking, respected the earth and its seasons and lived in harmony with the land.
Now, when students at SFX raise their chickens and grow their vegetables, and make sure their actions are ecologically sound; they are carrying on the tradition established more than 100 years ago by the sisters. There is a strong link between the practices of the students today, and the sisters of yesteryear.
The Sisters of Mercy were founded to educate the poor of Dublin. Catherine McAuley, our foundress, having studied educational methods in France, made sure that her school in the fashionable part of Dublin used the best techniques to give the poor they education which they had been denied. From Ireland, Catherine’s Sisters came to Australia in 1846 and to Ballarat in 1881. They brought with them their skills in education and pastoral care and, by 1900, they had established more than 50 foundations all over Australia.