This grand old building catches my eye whenever I glimpse it from the Great Western Highway. The sheer physicality of the building remains striking despite the air of dilapidation and dereliction that surrounds it. There are blazes of graffiti along with eyeless windows, covered with plastic following the ravages of fires. It requires quite a bit of imagination to think what it might have been like in its earlier days.
The Sisters of Charity arrived in Katoomba in 1900 seeking a place of respite for exhausted nuns “where they might find fresh vigour for God’s work”. Initially they moved into a former guesthouse, converting it into a convent and then opening a school for girls. It had a mix of day students and boarders and soon reached the capacity of the initial premises despite the purchase of a neighbouring property. A larger site was needed.
The new site, located within easy walking distance of the train station, fronted the Great Western Highway. Building commenced in 1909 and by 1910, boarding pupils were being accepted into the new college. The vision of the college included its role as a monument to higher education and its place in creating a progressive society. Students attended from interstate as well as from the Pacific Islands as the reputation of the college grew. Over the decades there were additions to the original buildings and continued development of the grounds, with land being purchased and sold as required. The college included a kindergarten, infants school, and middle school as well as university classes to prepare students for entry to Arts, Teacher Training, Medicine, Science and Law.
The impact and presence of the college on the hill was acknowledged by the local community. This was symbolised by the illumination of an eight foot cross on the roof of the tower in 1938 at the suggestion of a non-Catholic community member. The costs were covered by the local community, and it became a visible point of reference for travellers and locals alike. The site played an important role in offering refuge during World War II for Orders living close to Sydney Harbour during the Japanese submarine attacks. It also offered shelter for locals affected by the devastating bushfires in 1957.
Inevitably there were various changes to the educational offerings over time. In 1965, Mount St Mary’s became a regional school for girls, then became co-educational following the closure of St Bernard’s College at Katoomba. But by 1973, the school’s operation was regarded as non-viable and the Sisters withdrew from the education ministry. This was taken over by the Archdiocese of Sydney but with enrolments down to 180 students, the school was closed at the end of 1974.
The property was subsequently gifted to the Archdiocese of Sydney, and the premises were used for a decade for educational and religious retreats until a fire order was placed on the building and it was closed down. The costs associated with bringing the site up to standard was considered prohibitive, and the property was sold in 1985.
A new lease of life for the site commenced in 1987 when it was opened as the Renaissance Centre, a mix of speciality shops, performance and teaching areas. Ownership changed hands again in the early 1990s, but as tenants continued to leave, the site became vacant. Vandalism and fires have taken their toll in the intervening years, and it remains in its current state of disrepair.
There is a blog post here from the time the building was put up for sale in 2012.
There are some wonderful recollections of past students here including tales of tunnels and stories passed between siblings and students about a One-Eyed Nun.
Is there a place that you pass by that makes you wonder what it was like in its glory days?
Sources: Mount St Mary’s College and Convent, NSW Office of Environment & Heritage; The Convent, Katoomba, Blue Mountains City Library; Mt St Mary’s: The St Bernards Katoomba Old Boys Association Website; Old Estates for Sale (WordPress).
[Photo: detail from above an entrance to the main tower]