Australia was less than a century old, train travel to Sydney was 14 years off and education for women was almost non-existent when St Mary Star of the Sea College first opened its doors in Wollongong.
It was 1873 and the tiny seaside convent run by the Sisters of the Good Samaritan had just 24 students.
Yesterday, as the school marked its 140th anniversary, more than 1100 girls celebrated how far the college had come.
In past decades, swimming lessons were taught in neck-to-knee suits, physical education lessons consisted of dancing and aerobics in full-length smocks and stockings, and sewing, cooking and homemaking were popular classes.
Today girls excel in exercise science, economics and engineering and can choose from surfing, rock climbing or AFL for sport.
But headmaster Frank Pitt said St Mary’s core values, as outlined by founder Archbishop John Bede Polding, remained the same.
‘‘St Mary’s has gone from a very tiny little school to what it is today, but it started out with a core mission to educate women who might not otherwise have had an education, and many of those original academic, community and pastoral care values remain,’’ Mr Pitt said.
Archbishop Polding established the college with the motto: ‘‘An educated woman means there is an educated society.’’
College captain Lucy Packer, 17, said the first college students would be astounded by the opportunities available for today’s St Mary’s girls.
‘‘I don’t think they’d believe it if they could see what the college is like now – not only because of technological advances but because of the change in women as a whole,’’ she said.
‘‘It’s pretty incredible how far we’ve come and even in fields that are still not thought to be female, like engineering, we have girls from St Mary’s going in and changing that.’’
Yesterday, students received a commemorative pin to wear on their uniforms and an anniversary cupcake made in their school colours.
Throughout the year the school will hold concerts, a Good Samaritan’s day, return visits from many past students and a special end-of-year Mass to celebrate the anniversary.
‘‘I think the girls are very keen to celebrate and know they are part of something special,’’ Mr Pitt said.
‘‘When they wander into this college for the first time they know they are part of history immediately.’’