A new era for Sion?

A working party will examine the possibility of moving Sale’s St Thomas’ Primary School to the Sion campus. Photo: John Morgan

Julianne Langshaw

STUDENTS may again return to Sion, with a working party to examine the feasibility of moving Sale’s St Thomas’ Primary School to the Sion site on the corner of York and Raglan St.
The much-loved and iconic Sion campus closed its doors to students late last year, as all Catholic College students moved to the St Patrick’s campus following a multi-million dollar building program.
After much speculation, on Friday a joint statement was issued by Bishop Catholic Bishop of Sale Greg Bennet and director of Catholic Education and Diocese of Sale Catholic Education Limited chief executive Maria Kirkwood, outlining a possible future for the Sion site.
In coming weeks a committee, chaired by the former Gippsland South MLA and St Mary’s Cathedral parishioner, Peter Ryan, will be formed to explore potential uses.
But the “foremost option” under consideration is the relocation of St Thomas’ Primary School to the Sion site.
“Existing facilities at the Sion site, such as the school building and grounds, have potential to be refurbished and re-purposed for St Thomas’…” the statement read.
“If the relocation goes ahead, it is likely to take at least three years to complete the planning and construction of facilities for St Thomas’.”
Stewardship of the beautiful, historic building has now become the responsibility of the Catholic Diocese of Sale, while the land and buildings surrounding the former convent will be managed by the Diocese of Sale Catholic Education Limited.
The announcement will raise speculation of what the domino effect might be of such a move — whether it would open up the St Thomas’ site for Sale College to expand, and what might be likely to happen to the other Catholic primary school in Sale — St Mary’s.
Sale College supporters have long been campaigning for a new school to house all its students on one site.
Currently its students are located across two campuses, one next to St Thomas’ in Guthridge Parade, and the other on the corner of York and Macalister St.
Supporters, however, have repeatedly reinforced their preference for a new greenfield site for Sale College.
Moving St Thomas’ to the Sion site would also mean two Catholic primary schools in reasonably close proximity.
With Catholic College Sale having a lack of green space, some are speculating whether moving St Mary’s students to the Sion site as well would open up more space for CCS.
But Ms Kirkwood said was early days yet, emphasising no decisions had been made.
“As we are in the very early stages of the planning process, there are many options to be investigated,” she said.
Mr Kirkwood said amalgamation of St Thomas’ and St Mary’s primary schools was “not a consideration at this point”. “In-depth demographic studies will be undertaken as part of the planning process, but the main focus is on providing safe and modern facilities for St Thomas’,” she said.
“No decisions have been made about the current site of St Thomas’ as yet.
“There have been no discussions with Sale College, nor any consideration given to the sale of the St Thomas’ site.”
Asked about whether the Sion convent building would be used to house students if the relocation went ahead, Ms Kirkwood said the building and the land surrounding it were “being considered separately”.
“If the Sion site is deemed suitable for St Thomas’ Primary School, the former convent building will be treated as a separate building which may or may not have aspects that could be utilised by the school into the future,” she said.
“There are some other buildings on the site that may be able to be refurbished for St Thomas’, and there would be a range of other modifications to safely accommodate the school community.
“The entire proposal is at very early stages and subject to considerable consultation.”
Sale College principal Brendan Staple said planning was underway for a site near Gippsland Regional Sports Complex for his school, so that students could share the sports facilities.
“It’s still an attractive possibility from that point of view,” he said.
There would also be the cost of demolishing school buildings at the Guthridge site, which a new greenfield site would not have, and timelines as to when the St Thomas’s site would become available.
Mr Staple said another advantage of moving Sale College to a greenfield site would be alleviating congestion around the Guthridge Parade site.
But he said Friday’s developments raised lots of questions and was an interesting possibility.
In the end, he said, it was up to the state government as to whether it would view the availability of St Thomas’ as “a new opportunity”.
Friday’s statement said the committee would explore potential future uses for the Our Lady of Sion convent, and provide recommendations regarding possible partnerships with “organisations aligned to a broad Catholic educational vision of welfare, outreach and mission”.
It will work with the Sisters of Our Lady of Sion, and “key stakeholders”.
In parallel to the work of the committee, the Diocese of Sale Catholic Education Limited will soon begin a detailed planning process for the land and buildings surrounding the convent.
“A working party made up of representatives from the DOSCEL secretariat and staff from St Thomas’ Primary School, in consultation with Parish Priest Fr Peter Bickley, will look at all aspects of the proposed relocation before a final decision is made,” the statement read.
The statement emphasised any future refurbishments to the Sion building would comply with heritage overlays.