‘Erskine College has played a leading role in the education of many New Zealand women- including members of some of the nation’s most prominent families - whose combined cultural, economic, social, and artistic contribution to the country is inestimable.’ 1
Founded 1800 in Paris by St. Madeleine Sophie Barat- and against the religious suppression of the French Revolution - the cloistered French Society Sacré Coeur provided educational opportunities for girls by instituting convent schools throughout the world, including in Tapu te Ranga Island Bay, Te Whanganui a Tara Wellington’s ‘seaside resort’. Prior to European settlement, Māori pa, Kainga and grounds were situated around the bay, the valley flat and the hills.
Designed and built in 1905 by architect John Sydney Swan, the imposing and elegant four-storey Gothic Convent Building with colonial-style wooden verandahs was opened in 1906, with Mother Mary Dobson, the first Superior of the Convent, and nuns Mother Spadaccini, Mother Bourdeaux, Mother Lennon and Sister Cullen arriving from Italy, France, Ireland and Australia, to run and teach at the Sacred Heart College.
Mother Lennon was the principal for the school’s first 28 years. In 1967, the College was re-named Erskine College in honour of Superior General Reverend Mother Janet Erskine Stuart, who visited the College in 1914, the last year of her life, and planted a Norfolk Pine in the grounds. Nearly 3,000 girls attended Erskine College from 1906-1985, sharing a progressive religious education focussed on music, drama and French culture, and an identity shaped by Sacré Coeur philosophy, traditions, cultural influences, and international connections to the ‘global sorority’ of convent schools.
Set in extensive landscaped grounds, the ‘collective trinity’ of the Convent Building, Reverend Mother’s Garden and the 1930 Chapel of the Sacred Heart held exceptional religious, historic, and architectural heritage significance, and was listed by Heritage New Zealand Pouhere Taonga as a Category 1 Historic Place.
Physical education and sports were encouraged at Erskine, and the girls regularly played hockey, cricket—‘a vital part in school life’—hide-n-seek, or ‘cache cache’, and other games on the well-kept, mown-grass playing fields and tennis courts within the College’s expansive grounds, here detailed in original drawings by architect John Sydney Swan. Students also regularly enjoyed climbing expeditions and treasure hunts around the gorse-covered hills and swimming at the beach.