By Fleur Bainger
When it comes to history, the Limestone Coast’s oldest town, Penola, is blessed with the goods, from country estates to heritage buildings and of course, Australia’s only saint.
There are dozens of sites around the world celebrating the life of Australia’s first and only saint, Mary MacKillop.
But none are perhaps more moving, nor telling than a little road in Penola, South Australia called Petticoat Lane.
The State Heritage strip of weathered stone buildings and stout wooden cottages is home to the humble schoolhouse where the famous nun taught and lived 150 years ago.
Unlike so many pieces of history that can only be viewed through glass, or behind a velvet rope, the structure where the Sisters of St Joseph of the Sacred Heart was birthed – MacKillop’s religious institute dedicated to education – can be wandered through in its original, restored form.
“The schoolhouse has been set up as an authentic school room of the 1800s,” says Claire Larkin, who’s been on the Mary MacKillop Interpretative Centre management committee for the past 20 years.
“We had desks made in the old style.”
We have groups of schoolchildren come and sit at the desks and copy the beautiful cursive writing of the day on old slates.
The children love it – it inspires them to talk about a time when there were no calculators or computers.
It has led to some very interesting conversations between children and their grandparents.”
Big changes afoot
This March, another historic cottage will arrive in the area once frequented by MacKillop in Penola.
To mark the 150th year since the Sisters of St Joseph – better known as the Josephites – were founded, a hut called Cameron Home will be opened.
Its significance is multifaceted: pastoralist Alexander Cameron founded the township in 1850, and housed his family in the hut.
A decade later, Cameron’s niece, a young governess named Mary MacKillop arrived at the Camerons’ home, employed to care for and teach his children.
Through including the estate’s other farm children in her classes, she met Father Julian Tenison Woods.
Together, they went on to co-found a school in a converted six-stalled stable in Penola – where horses were still kept – in 1866 (more on that later), and there began her celebrated journey.
Two hi-tech exhibitions
Cameron’s hut was later pulled down, but the original timber was kept.
It will be used to re-erect the structure within the grounds of the popular Mary MacKillop Interpretative Centre.
“It will have a touchscreen telling the stories of the early settlers such as Cameron and John Riddoch, and the governesses,” says Larkin.
Its reconstruction will add yet another element to the Interpretative Centre, which hosts two exhibitions, one on Mary MacKillop: Penola – Where it all Began, and the other on Julian Tenison Woods: Penola – Ten Years in the Bush and Beyond.
The nun’s gallery naturally covers the century-long effort that resulted in her canonisation in 2010.
Woods was a scientist as well as a priest, so along with photos and mementos are fossils and evidence of his contribution to colonial science.
“He rode around the parish on horseback discovering things,” says Larkin.
“He also wrote some of the first papers about the Naracoorte Caves.”
What might surprise visitors is that an interest in religion is not a prerequisite for a rewarding visit to the centre.
Blessing open to all
Larkin says spending an hour in the space is enlightening for people from all walks of life.
“Some people come in and say, ‘I’m not a Catholic,’” she says.
“That’s all right, you don’t have to be! Mary was very ahead of her time and people of other religions went to her schools.”
Even in the nearby St Joseph’s church, anyone can appreciate the blue glass shrine and the stained glass window depicting MacKillop.
Larkin says most travellers follow their visit to the centre with a walk down Petticoat Lane.
“It has a very special atmosphere, because it existed at the time Mary was there; it gives people an idea of the poverty of that time,” says Larkin.
The Sharam’s cottage – Penola’s first house – reveals layers of wallpaper used to increase insulation for its inhabitants in the 1850s.
Restored by the Penola National Trust, others show kitchens with open fires and pressed metal tiles.
Some have been reincarnated: there’s Jill’s Vintage shop, a working blacksmith forge and tiny art gallery, and Davidson Cottage B&B.
Schooled away in a stable
A block away, the gardens of Mary MacKillop Stable School Park draw passers-by to the spot where Australia’s first school to cater for any child regardless of income or social class once operated in horse stables.
While only a memory, the site is nonetheless revered.
It contains an audio station where a button-press releases the park’s story.
During the 150th anniversary celebrations in March, a mass will be held that’s open to anyone wanting to share in the memories.
A short stroll from the park is yet another historic hub, the John Riddoch Centre.
Built in 1869, it was once the Penola Mechanics Institute and Public Library.
Today, it has been transformed into a local history room, tourist information centre, a hydrocarbon centre explaining the region’s connection to natural gas, and it also hosts the John Shaw Neilson art collection.
The Centre takes its name from a man fondly known as ‘the squire of Penola’, who is credited with giving life to the Coonawarra wine district, recognising the value of soils that would go on to become lauded around the world.
The dirt-poor Scottish brick maker came to Australia to chase the gold rush in Victoria and became a trader and gold buyer, then grocer and wine merchant.
In his mid-30s Riddoch moved to the Penola district and purchased Yallum Park, which he developed into a vast property crowned with a stunning homestead that is said to be the best-preserved Victorian house in Australia.
Tours of the mansion are worth taking (by appointment only; (08) 8737 2855).
Of course, no visit to Penola would be complete without a tour of the surrounding vineyards, keeping its rich history in mind.
The first vintage of Coonawarra wine was produced in Riddoch’s nursery shed in 1895.
The second vintage was crushed in Katnook woolshed, now a part of Katnook Estate.
A stone winery was later built, which is today at the heart of Wynns Coonawarra Estate.
Follow the trail of the colonists and clink your wine tasting glasses to their foresight, which we enjoy today.
The nearest airport to Penola is Mt Gambier, serviced by REX airlines. It’s about 35mins drive from there.
Penola Coonawarra Tour Services offers bespoke winery tours.
(08) 8733 1033 or 0429 810 054