Sisters bring Tenison Woods to life

Father Julian Tenison Woods left an indelible mark on Australian life, most notably education, and as 7 October marks the 130th anniversary of his death, it is fitting to recall some of his ground-breaking work.

The Congregations of Sisters of St Joseph have delegated a committee to raise the profile of Fr Tenison Woods and to recognise him as their founder, along with Mary MacKillop, whose 110th anniversary is also this year.

As well as being a priest, scholar, founder, scientist and educator, Fr Tenison Woods was the first director of Catholic education in Australia and created a system that is the model, be it with adaptation, in all Australian dioceses.

Fr Tenison Woods missioned widely in the Diocese of Maitland-Newcastle. After 10 years as parish priest of Penola in South Australia, four years in Adelaide as director of education and instructing and establishing the Sisters of St Joseph, he then missioned for 11 years in eastern Australia from north Queensland to the south of Tasmania.

In our Diocese he preached missions in Newcastle, St Mary’s on the Hill, St Joseph’s (The Junction), Hamilton, Lambton, Raymond Terrace, Maitland (many times), Morpeth, East Maitland, Paterson, Branxton, Muswellbrook and Murrurundi. He preached retreats to the priests of the Diocese and the Dominican nuns. In the former Sacred Heart church at Hamilton (site of the present cathedral café and hall) he preached an eight-day mission ending on the feast of the Sacred Heart. His missionary work here, as well as the work of Sisters of St Joseph in our Diocese, gives special relevance to recognising him in this anniversary year.

He was also a keen scientist and had an abiding interest in the environment. Alongside his missions he continued scientific work. From Morpeth in 1878 he wrote to a friend that he usually gave one hour to science each day. Such was the result that he was awarded the Clarke Medal in 1888 for the best natural science paper. He died the next year, aged 56.

Fr Tenison Woods was keenly aware of the natural environment, its beauty and wonder, and the need to care for it. His views and concerns are especially relevant now, with growing environmental awareness. A Sister of St Joseph has written comparing the teaching of Pope Francis to Fr Tenison Woods  Fr Tenison Woods own writings can be found on the same website. He wrote of “the peerless and priceless” Tasmanian forests and their value to the whole environment. His words resonate now with alarm at the fires in the Amazon.

He saw with new eyes. “Every rock, every leaf, every insect has something beautiful, nay wonderful to tell ... The flowers will unveil the hidden secrets of their beauty, the stones reveal their crystalline structure and the tiniest insect display wonders of mechanism … All new, varied and instructive, and tending to raise the mind to higher and nobler conceptions of what creation does to declare the glory of its Author.”  

The Sisters of St Joseph he founded with Mary MacKillop in Penola and Adelaide made their first foundation in NSW in Perthville near Bathurst. From here in 1883 four young Sisters made a foundation in Lochinvar. From this our local Sisters of St Joseph have grown and spread through our Diocese, with some foundations north and in Sydney. The Sisters have lived and worked in towns and especially in rural centres for the past 136 years. 

There are many secondary schools and primary schools continuing from foundations made by the Sisters. As well, many ex-students of the Sisters join others in educational and charitable works. The Sisters and Fr Tenison Woods have left a lasting imprint in Australia and our own region. 

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