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St Joseph's Native School and Orphanage, New Norcia


St Joseph’s Native School and Orphanage, New Norcia, dates from 1861 when it established by the Benedictine Fathers. From 1904 until it closed in 1974, it was run by the Benedictine Missionary Sisters. Aboriginal girls and young women lived and went to school there.

Tilbrook (1983) reports that sisters ‘Elizabeth and Helen (or Ellen) Tainan arrived at St Joseph’s Orphanage for Girls in 1865, four years after it opened. They were looked after by the first schoolmistress at the orphanage, Mrs Judith Butler.’ (see page 189, with photograph).

By 1847, the government had a policy of placing the children of single Aboriginal mothers at New Norcia mission:

Mary Helen or Ellen Pangieran was born in Bunbury in 1847. Because her mother had been deserted by Mary’s European father, the government authorities considered that she was unable to bring up her daughter on her own. As a consequence, Mary was sent to New Norcia Mission to receive an education. Mary grew up at New Norcia, where she met Benedict Cooper or Cuper. The couple were married and had a small family. In 1873 the telegraph line from Perth to Geraldton was completed as far as New Norcia, and Mary Cooper was appointed as the first telegraphist and post-mistress. She ran the small post office, and tended to her house which was built adjoining the office, until her early death from tuberculosis in 1877. (Tilbrook, p.177).

Children were also sometimes placed by their parents in St Joseph’s New Norcia, as shown in the following example.

Widower Charlie Fitzgerald found he was unable to look after his family and at the same time tend to his [Chinese vegetable] gardens. Wishing to do what was best for them, he made an arrangement with New Norcia mission for some of the girls to be sent there, where they would be cared for and receive an education. The girls were placed on the train, and were to be met at the station and driven to New Norcia by their uncle. On the same day that they were travelling, a number of children were being sent to Moore River Settlement on the train. When they arrived at the railway station, the girls’ uncle was late. The station master assumed that they were really meant to be going to Moore River Settlement and so bundled them off with the other children. When their uncle arrived, he found no nieces and thought that their step-father had changed his mind at the last moment. It was one month before the error was finally sorted out, and the girls reached their intended destination, New Norcia Mission. (Tilbrook, p.137)

In his 1899 Report (p.12), the Protector of Aborigines said that the girls’ school had 30 pupils who were taught by ‘women of colour, under the superintendence of one of the Brothers’. Girls at the school were given a working general education in reading, writing, and arithmetic, and thorough education in domestic work. The goal was for girls from St Joseph’s to go on to work as domestic servants.

From 1904, St Joseph’s was run by the Benedictine Missionary Sisters who had come from Spain for that purpose. They ran St Joseph’s until it closed in 1974.

In 1909, the buildings were replaced.

Throughout the 1950s and 1960s, St Joseph’s was sometimes short-staffed. By this time, trained teachers were attending the school and there were difficulties in retaining them. Additionally, the Sisters were aging and there were few young recruits, and the number of children coming to St Joseph’s declined.

By the 1970s, attitudes had changed towards larger institutions such as those at New Norcia, with more emphasis on group homes thought to better mimic the family environment. These attitudes, plus the declining number of nuns and teachers by then, led to St Joseph’s closing in 1974.

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  • Alternative Names

    St Joseph's Orphanage for Girls

    St Joseph's School for Aboriginal Girls


  • 1861 - 1974

    St Joseph's Native School and Orphanage was located on the Great Northern Highway, New Norcia, Western Australia (Building Still standing)


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