Sancta Sophia College was founded as a residential college for Catholic Women in 1925, but the first steps to establish a residential college for Catholic women at the University of Sydney were mooted as early as 1910. As social and educational changes facilitated higher education for women, it was expected that more women from rural as well as urban centres would enrol at the university.
In November 1923 the Catholic Archbishop of Sydney, Michael Kelly and the Bishops of New South Wales issued a pastoral letter that drew attention to the advantages of university education for the Catholic community and announced that a Catholic Women’s College would be built. The cost was to be borne by “all dioceses of the State in exact proportion of the number of Catholics contained in each”. Archbishop Kelly asked the Catholic women of New South Wales to assist in the fundraising.
The College was to be administered by nuns from the order of the Religious of the Sacred Heart, which had been founded in France in 1800. The founding Mothers sought to establish a residential college that would be a place where women could stand beside men as equals. In 1925 this was a very courageous stand. It was a stand that said, and continues to say, to the students of the college that as women they have much to give the world and the Church in whatever path of life they choose to follow.
The foundation stone of the Hall of Residence was laid on 26 March 1925, and the name ‘Sancta Sophia’ was chosen. The name is a combination of Latin and Greek words meaning ‘holy wisdom’ and also commemorates the founder of the Religious of the Sacred Heart, Madeleine Sophie Barat, who was canonised in 1925. The Latin College motto, in sapientia ambulate, meaning ‘walk in wisdom’ also conveys the hope of the founders that wisdom would guide the young women entrusted to their care.
Archbishop Michael Kelly was appointed Visitor of the College and, in due course, the newly elected Council of eighteen members appointed Reverend Mother Margaret MacRory as the first Principal.
The first students moved into the Hall in its current location on Missenden Road, on 15 March, 1926. There were 23 women in the first cohort of students; three of them student nuns, and 20 lay students. Included were both undergraduate and graduate students, studying in the fields of Medicine, Law, Arts, Science and Education. Three years later, in 1929, the Hall was raised by Act of Parliament to the status of a College within the University of Sydney. It remained under the administration of the Religious of the Sacred Heart until December 1991 when the first lay Principal, Mrs. Janice Raggio, was appointed.
Over the years there have been many generous benefactors of the College, notably the Sheldon family. Lady Blanche Sheldon, a foundation member of the College Council, contributed the cost of the three-story wing facing Missenden Road and in 1957 Sir Mark and Lady Sheldon donated the dining hall which bears their name. Further additions have been made to the College over the years: the East Wing and kitchen were built in 1961, the Octagon building in 1963; the McDonald Wing in 1970 and the Vice-Principal’s and Principal’s flats in 1990 and 1993 respectively. Sancta Sophia Graduate House was officially opened by Governor, Her Excellency Marie Bashir and blessed by Cardinal George Pell on 26 March 2014.
Today Sancta Sophia College houses up to 300 students including undergraduate women and graduate men and women from a broad range of religious, social and ethnic backgrounds; studying a wide range of disciplines at the University of Sydney and other universities, and is administered by a lay staff. The College continues to maintain strong links with the Religious of the Sacred Heart, and the College is a member of the Australian Sacré Coeur Association and of the worldwide alumnae association.
The ideal on which the colleges within the University of Sydney were founded was the education of the whole personality; the belief that the overall university experience, not just classroom learning, determines the richness of student life and provides the true preparation for future life. This ideal continues to underpin the role of Sancta Sophia College in encouraging the development of outstanding graduates who will contribute socially, culturally, spiritually and academically to society.
A detailed history of Sancta Sophia College, Wisdom Built Herself a House by Sr Marie Kennedy RSCJ, was published in 1997 and is available for purchase from the College.