Corpus Christi, Werribee

ccc werribee01College Founding

At the time of his arrival in 1913, Melbourne Archbishop Daniel Mannix envisioned the establishment of an Australian National Seminary along the lines of his Irish alma mater, St Patrick’s Maynooth. The Australian Hierarchy was sympathetic, but on 25 October 1922, the Holy See advised the bishops not to nationalise St Patrick’s Manly, but follow the model of provincial and diocesan seminaries. The Archbishop was extremely disappointed, but there was never any question of disregarding the Pope’s wishes.

A few weeks later, in December 1922, Werribee Park, the stately home of the Chirnside family, went up for sale. The estate included 1000 acres of good land and a mansion adaptable to the immediate needs of a seminary. Dr Mannix promptly adapted his plans, and after consulting the Holy See, he purchased the property for £70,000. On Christmas Day 1922, the Archbishop formally announced:

  • the acquisition of Werribee Park;
  • the establishment of Corpus Christi College;
  • the joint-initiative of the Bishops of Ballarat, Sandhurst and Sale; and
  • the invitation of the Jesuits, who had previously run St Patrick’s Seminary, East Melbourne to furnish the professorial faculty.

On 3 March 1923 His Excellency Archbishop Cattaneo, Apostolic Delegate, opened the new seminary before some ten thousand guests. He conveyed the personal blessing and congratulations of Pope Pius XI and asked the protection of Our Lady Help of Christians for the College. In his reply, Dr Mannix remarked:

We are today undertaking a great work, not only for the Province of Melbourne, but for the whole Church of Australia. Since the establishment of Manly College there has been nothing so important and so far-reaching in its effects as the foundation of this college, to take its place side by side with Cardinal Moran’s great foundation. The greatest compliment we could pay to Manly College is to establish here the College of Corpus Christi. If the bishops were not satisfied with the Australian clergy that they had got from Manly, they would not think of establishing another college to multiply Australian vocations.
Archbishop Mannix, College Founder. 3 March 1923.

ccc werribee02Student life

The first students of Corpus Christi College arrived 19 March 1923 ― on the Feast of St Joseph. It was initially hoped that the surrounding farmland would permit the seminary to be self-supporting, but this venture only ever yielded losses. It did, however, provide a fruitful diversion from study, and fostered seminarians’ skills in horticulture, bee-keeping, and carpentry.

Seminarians were generally left alone to manage their sporting and social activities, but the student body was on close and friendly terms with the faculty. Seminarians often invited professors to organised student events, including concerts, debates and sporting clashes. There is, however, documentation of a break down in these happy relations ― once a new professor from overseas, having observed one Aussie Rules match, insisted he should umpire the following week. It proved a bitter experience for umpire and players. It was not repeated.

Catholic Australia Movement

After tea on 14 November 1928, the student prefects convened a general meeting of seminarians “to discuss the Rector’s proposal with regard to doing something in the way of converting Australia.” The Catholic Australia Movement was born.

This author is not familiar with the Movement, so I quote the following remark, recorded in a 1962 College magazine, without prejudice: “A prayer for the conversion of Australia now commonly recited in our churches and schools was selected as the best (of what must have been a poor lot) by Fr Rector and afterwards approved for general use by the Hierarchy.”

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Growing pains

Although the Chirnside mansion was impressive (you may recognise it from various TV productions, most recently the ABC’s Genie From Down Under), it was not large enough to accommodate the increasing number of Victorian seminarians. In 1925 work began on St Joseph’s Wing; by 1937 further extensions were necessary.

In 1941, Archbishop Justin Simonds ― then Archbishop of Hobart, later Archbishop of Melbourne ― joined the Board of Trustees. Corpus Christi College was now the regional seminary for Victoria and Tasmania. For many years, Corpus Christi admitted students not only from the dioceses of Victoria and Tasmania, but also from the Blessed Sacrament Fathers, Carmelites, Pallottines, St Columban Missionaries and Oblates of Mary Immaculate. Diocesan priests from Brisbane, Townesville, Rockhampton, Wagga Wagga, Wilcannia-Forbes, Adelaide, Perth and Port Elizabeth (South Africa) also trained at Werribee.

By 1954 Werribee Park, which now spanned 81,500 square feet, was home to 131 students. The Board of Trustees made a bold decision: instead of another extension, a second campus would be built, which would serve as theologate. On 12 September 1959, His Eminence Cardinal Agagianian opened Corpus Christi College, Glen Waverley.

The departure of the theologians eased conditions at Werribee. In 1959, 177 students lived at Werribee. In 1960, the number dropped to 115, and the population never again exceeded 130 students. Third year philosophers ― and even some senior second years ― could now enjoy the privacy of a single bedroom, and several dormitories were converted into common rooms. The absence of senior students allowed younger seminarians to assume positions of responsibility and exercise initiative: the orchard, the hen house, the bee hives and the gardens were all tended to by philosophy students.

Decline and Closure

As the fortieth anniversary of Corpus Christi College approached, Archbishop Mannix had cause to think it providential that his vision of a national seminary had not been realised. In comparing the larger Maynooth and the more intimate Werribee, “all the credit went to Werribee and against Maynooth.”

In its short history, Corpus Christi College has a very fine record, probably unsurpassed by any other seminary of its years, and I feel compelled to say that the priests turned out by the Jesuit Fathers are the most zealous and hard-working priests I have come to know in any part of the world.
Archbishop Mannix, Christmas Day 1961.

However, the 1960s set the scene for perhaps the most rapid cultural shift in modern Western history. A record intake of 48 students were welcomed in 1968, and 41 enrolled in 1969. But such numbers bucked a trend: at the very moment the Second Vatican Council was prompting a renewal in the Church, popular attitude turned against authority, and also, to some extent, sacrifice. The number of priestly vocations began its relentlessly long and downward spiral. In 1969 the Board of Trustees announced plans to reunite the philosophy and theological faculties, and relocate Corpus Christi so that it neighboured a secular university.

The fiftieth year of Werribee Park’s operation as a seminary was also its last. In 1973, Corpus Christi Werribee closed its doors. The following year, the State Government of Victoria bought the property for $1.6 million. The original Chirnside mansion was restored to its nineteenth-century glory, and is now a museum run by the National Trust. St Joseph’s Wing has been converted into a hotel, the gardens maintained, and much of the farmland is given over to a golf course.

Included in the museum is a re-creation of a seminary dormitary as it would have been for the first students of Corpus Christi College. Opening hours, entry fees, and other museum details are available at Werribee Park.