Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Stevens, Jemima Elizabeth Mary (1855–1940)

by Alison Alexander

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 12, (MUP), 1990

Jemima Elizabeth Mary Stevens (1855-1940), educationist and Anglican nun, was born on 20 August 1855 at Aldeburgh, Suffolk, England, daughter of William Stevens, gentleman, and his wife Maria, née Moss. A well-educated woman, she cared for her widowed mother before joining in 1888 an Anglican teaching and charitable order—the Community of the Sisters of the Church—as Sister Phyllis. For four years she worked among the poor in East London. Following requests from Bishop Henry Montgomery of Hobart for assistance in establishing schools, in 1892 the order sent Sisters Phyllis and Hannah to Tasmania. In October they opened a school in Harrington Street for girls and young boys, naming it the Hobart Higher Grade Elementary School.

In July 1893 Sister Phyllis took charge of the order's mission school for poor children, but by October had returned to the elementary school where she taught the boys. She became headmistress in April 1895. Her pupils included Bernard Montgomery, the bishop's son (later Viscount Montgomery of Alamein). In July, with the bishop's financial assistance, the Sisters moved their school (by then known as Collegiate School) to 'more gracious premises' in Macquarie Street; pupils were taught to matriculation level. That year Sister Phyllis recorded that the senior teachers all held a university certificate. From 1894 the school took boarders; after 1898 boys were no longer accepted.

Collegiate School attracted unwelcome publicity in 1900 when some parents complained about the 'High Church' views allegedly held by Sisters Phyllis and Hannah, and of the teaching of 'false doctrines in their religious classes'. The complaints appear to have arisen over the Sisters' views on confession and the school lost several of its pupils. At Sister Phyllis's urging, Bishop Montgomery examined the texts, teaching notes and the children's exercise books. His inquiry exonerated the Sisters from 'imparting any false doctrine' and a lengthy report to this effect was published in the press. The extent to which Sister Phyllis subscribed to High Church ideas is not clear, although before 1900 she had encouraged confession among her pupils.

By 1914 'Collegiate' was one of Hobart's leading girls' schools. Students were prepared for public examinations and emphasis was placed on academic achievement, but Sister Phyllis also aimed to turn out Christian ladies. The establishment developed along the lines of an English public school, with regular written examinations, compulsory uniform, prefects, a traditional house system and a pro-British spirit. Dignified and gracious, as well as forceful and competent, Sister Phyllis ran the school ably until 1927, inspiring considerable respect among her pupils and the local community. She had been novice mistress at the school from 1920; when the novitiate was moved to Melbourne in 1927, she worked there until her return to Hobart in 1932. She died at Collegiate School on 5 March 1940 and, after a memorial service in St David's Cathedral, was buried in Cornelian Bay cemetery.

Select Bibliography

  • Community of the Sisters of the Church, A Valiant Victorian (Lond, 1964)
  • Church News (Hobart), Oct 1892, Jan, July, Sept, Oct 1893, Aug 1894, Apr, July, Nov 1895
  • Hobart Centre Journal, 1892-1903
  • Collegiate School Magazine, June 1940
  • Mercury (Hobart), 6, 8 Mar 1940
  • Hobart Higher Grade School, record book, 1892-1905 (held by Collegiate School).

Citation details

Alison Alexander, 'Stevens, Jemima Elizabeth Mary (1855–1940)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/stevens-jemima-elizabeth-mary-8654/text15133, published in hardcopy 1990, accessed online 1 August 2014.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 12, (MUP), 1990

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2014

Life Summary [details]

Alternative Names
  • Phyllis, Sister
Birth

20 August 1855
Aldeburgh, Suffolk, England

Death

5 March 1940
Hobart, Tasmania, Australia

Cultural Heritage
Religious Influence
Occupation