CENTURY OF CARE: Sister Patricia Smith with the St Joseph’s Orphanage book that will be on sale at the centenary celebrations on Sunday.
CENTURY OF CARE: Sister Patricia Smith with the St Joseph’s Orphanage book that will be on sale at the centenary celebrations on Sunday. Jojo Newby

A home close to our hearts celebrates 100 years

WHILE many economically beneficial industries and institutions form the bedrock of the Clarence Valley community, so too the St Joseph's Cowper orphanage has contributed to the region's social foundations, shaping countless children's lives by providing a loving environment in which they could be nurtured and educated.

This weekend the organisation, now known as St Joseph's Cowper, celebrates a century of care on Sunday with a mass, luncheon and the launch of a special book.

The book, St Joseph's Orphanage Cowper - A Community Project, was compiled by Sisters of Mercy archivist Sr Judith Weiley and tells the story of the orphanage's early days from when it was established in 1913 at Cowper until it moved into Grafton in 1972, where it still operates today.

Sr Judith said the book was really to honour the community and the local groups for the support provided to the orphanage over the years, as well as being a memento for its former residents. "There are no names mentioned in the book but it is a tangible record of their childhood."

She said there were more than 100 children at the orphanage at any one time, highlighting the management skills the sisters needed to keep an organisation like this running smoothly.

Out and about during a 1950s flood in Cowper.
Out and about during a 1950s flood in Cowper. Contributed

"I like to call the Sisters of Mercy the first CEOs. Since they arrived in 1884, they had been operating hospitals, orphanages, schools... and balancing all the books."

With the tight budgets under which they had to operate, the clever management of the sisters and their long-term thinking would probably be the envy of a few of today's company boards.

"They were as self-sufficient as possible at Cowper, growing their own vegetables, keeping poultry. They had their own milk supply and an orchard."

As for the onerous task of compiling such a rich history, Sister said they did have quite a few records at the convent, and that Clarence River Historical Society had been instrumental in providing further documentation, and in helping to produce the publication.

One of the names featured in the book is Sister Patricia Smith. Sr Patricia was at the helm at the Cowper orphanage, and the new home when it moved to Grafton.

"I was in charge of the girls at Cowper for 11 years from 1956 until the orphanage relocated. Then I was administrator there for 12 years."

The girls at Cowper ranged in age from infants to teenagers. Sr Patricia was a mum and an educator to around 40 to 60 girls at any one time.

"I taught infants and primary and got to see many of them grow up. They quite often come back for a visit."

While most families struggle with two or three children, Sr Patricia said it wasn't too chaotic looking after such a large family.

"The older girls were wonderful. They helped with the little ones. They treated them like little sisters."

St Joseph’s Cowper Orphanage in the 1930s.
St Joseph’s Cowper Orphanage in the 1930s. Contributed

She said the swimming pool at the orphanage was a great asset, providing plenty of recreational fun for the children.

Sr Patricia said one of the most important things to her was instilling pride in the children, ensuring they were always well dressed and well presented, making sure they ate well and enjoyed as much comfort as the orphanage could provide.

"I remember when everyone got a chair to go beside their beds. That was a highlight. So was when the first television arrived. People from Woodburn donated that."

Sister Fran Kuhn with St Joseph’s children in 1982.
Sister Fran Kuhn with St Joseph’s children in 1982. Contributed

Of course with all the flooding of late on the Clarence, Sr Patricia recalled one flood during her time at Cowper that was a bit of a close call.

"We didn't get any warning for it. We had to wake up the children in the middle of the night. The boys had to walk along the landing in their flannelette pyjamas. The water was up so high their pants were dragging in it.

"We had to get 20 girls out of their cots and put them upstairs in bed with the older girls so the boys could move into the lower floor.

"We were all in there for a week. We nearly went crazy. The noise was deafening. There were dead cattle floating by and we had no (running) water. They had to drop food on the bridge for us."

Despite this testing time, Sr Patricia said the children were wonderful when it came to cleaning up after such an events. "We don't know what we would have done without them."

As far as the orphanage's children and the Clarence Valley is concerned, the feeling is mutual, Sister.



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