This year marks 200 years of Catholic education in Australia, and much of what has come to be known as a well-rounded Catholic education would not have been possible without the contributions of the Institute of the Sisters of Mercy, founded in 1831 by Catherine McAuley.

Four years after Catherine's death, a group of Mercy Sisters arrived in Perth, and later travelled to Victoria to set up a convent in Mansfield followed by a branch house in Lilydale.

In 1896, the local Parish Priest of Lilydale, Rev A Hennessy, vacated his presbytery to make way for the Sisters of Mercy who began teaching the local kids out of the presbytery basement. Those Sisters included Mother Patrick Maguire, Mother Agnes Ryan, Sister Brigid Bradshaw and Sister Catherine Ford.

By November of 1896, the parish had purchased a property of 33 acres and laid the foundation stone of both the convent and boarding school. The Sisters lived on what is now the site of the College and as the school grew so too did the number of local teachers and staff—with help also enlisted from Ireland.

As the College marks its 125th year, Principal Philip Morison says the anniversary is 'really significant because if you look at the history of the College in the area, it's been a central part of the development of Lilydale.’

Located on Melbourne's eastern fringe, the town of Lilydale sits at the northern end of the Dandenong Ranges, providing an easy entry point to the wine and fruit growing areas of the Yarra Valley. When the Sisters arrived in the late 1800s, the vast area would have been populated by cattle stations and sheep farms.

‘We can picture the sisters coming out dressed in their traditional Mercy habits while standing on a hill here in Lilydale,’ says Principal Morison. ‘I was told at the time they could see the Yarra Glen and Christmas Hills and they could see farmlands and meandering rivers. You certainly see none of that now, I can tell you.’

Over the years Lilydale has become home to many Italian and Dutch migrant families, whose children attended Mount Lilydale Mercy College and have gone on to build successful careers. Principal Morison shares that the school has had a storied past—including the donation of a horse and buggy from world-renowned Australian soprano Dame Nellie Melba, whose family had close links with Lilydale.

The school is mindful of its rich history and the major transformations that have occurred over the years, particularly in the past 40 years, to cater to the needs of its growing student population. One of the most recent developments was the launch of the new Mercy Learning Centre in August 2019 — a $10 million project that brings together MLMC’s senior students across Years 10, 11 and 12 into the one space that meets all their needs.

Future developments include the provision of visual arts spaces and the construction of another three-story learning centre. ‘It has a few visual art rooms designed in the style of a New York gallery, and underneath a big photography studio,’ Principal Morison describes.

It’s all part of the College’s masterplan to deliver modern, open and light-filled spaces that reflect the needs of 21st century students – a significant development from the early days of classes in the presbytery basement.

One hundred and twenty-five years may have passed since the school’s inception, but the task of providing young people with a quality Catholic education remains at the heart of its mission.

'When the Sisters of Mercy arrived at Rourke’s Hill in 1896 and founded the College, they initiated a place of learning and hope,' says Principal Morison. The school continues this tradition of equipping students with Christian values to put them in good stead as they navigate an increasingly complex world.

COVID has sadly impacted some of the larger anniversary gatherings the school had planned, but Principal Morison shares that other celebrations include rewriting the college prayer and the production of a commemorative book entitled 125 Stories in 125 years.

The book is set to be launched at a yet-to-be-announced date between Term 3 and the 2021 Mercy Frayne Speech Festival.