Founding of the college
At the time of his arrival in 1913, Melbourne Archbishop Daniel Mannix envisioned the establishment of an Australian National Seminary, similar to his alma mater, St Patrick's Maynooth. The Australian bishops was sympathetic, but on 25 October 1922, the Holy See advised the bishops not to nationalise St Patrick’s Manly, Sydney, but follow the model of provincial and diocesan seminaries.
Consequently, in December 1922, Werribee Park, the stately home of the Chirnside family, was purchased for £70,000, after consultation with the Holy See. A large home, with extensive grounds (1000 acres), it was adapted to the needs of a seminary. On Christmas Day 1922, the Archbishop formally announced:
the acquisition of Werribee Park;
the establishment of Corpus Christi College;
that this would be 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 as 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.
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 proved futile. 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. In 1950 a small community of the Sisters of St. Joseph of Cluny were invited by the Episcopal Trustees to care for the domestic arrangements of the College at Werribee. They also served at Corpus Christi, Glen Waverly and Clayton, when these were later established.
GROWTH & eXPANSION
Although the Chirnside mansion was impressive, 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.
DECLINE & CLOSURE
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.
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.