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History of St John's Cemetery and Reformatory, Kapunda

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In 1850/60s, St John’s was not actually part of a town but was the centre of an Irish farming area known as Johnstown. A priest was eventually appointed to the area in 1849 and the church and a house was built a year later in 1850 by Fr Fallon. Fr Fallon remained there until his death in 1860 at the age of 40. He was buried at St Johns church but his remains were removed and interred, along with many other bodies, into the newer nearby cemetery which opened in 1861. He was succeeded by Father Michael Ryan, who also died there three years later in 1865 at the young age of 24 from apoplexy.

In 1869 The Sisters of St Joseph moved in and taught in the church, but the school only lasted 7 years and then it closed in 1876. In was then, in 1897, that it was decided by the Archbishop O’Reilly to convert the church and house into a Reformatory for girls. He approached the Sisters of St Joseph to operate it, due to their untiring work with delinquent kids. It was here that Mary MacKillop spent 3 months, whilst helping to establish the reformatory.

The Girls Reformatory - All that is left standing now is the palm tree in the foreground

Under the guidance of Sr Helena O'Brien, 4 sisters took up position at the reformatory and 10 girls were sent from Edwardstown to start their teaching. The girls were instructed in religion and put to work in the house and gardens. Problems were encountered from the very beginning, mainly due to the isolation of the reformatory and the fact that the girls were determined to escape at every opportunity.

The Reformatory finally closed in 1909 when there was an insinuation that the girls were being improperly treated by the resident chaplain, Rev. Martin by the States Children's Council. He was reported to be in poor health and at the time had a questionable state of mind. In 1909 an 18 year old girl, Ruby Bland, died in hospital. The death certificate states that she died from complications from a gallstone operation, but rumours have grown over time, especially with the advent of the internet, that she had been pregnant and had been given an abortion by Rev Martin. Having tracked down letters from Bishop O'Reilly back to the Children's Council this appears to be urban myth and nothing more. However, the nuns and the Council were very concerned on Rev. Martin's mental state.

"I communicated to the council what I had heard respecting the reformatory at St John's, Kapunda, and the alleged fact that a priest of the church was residing at the reformatory, and that his mental condition was, to say the least, unstable while his physical frame is powerful" - Mr Gray, Children's Council in a letter to Bishop O'Reilly

At this stage the letters show that talks were already underway back in March 1909 about the closure of the reformatory and the Children's Council taking it over by the end of November of that year.
Before this was to happen, Ruby died and the reformatory was closed down a few days later. Rather then have any scandal, it had been decided by Archbishop O’Reilly to close the reformatory once and for all and the girls were moved to Redruth near Burra. The Sisters left on November 30, 1909 and the buildings were dismantled and effects auctioned and up until the present day were never used again. Rev Martin however, remained on his own up at the Reformatory until his death many years later.

It was finally demolished in 2002 with the excuse that because of vandalism, drug use and ‘witchcraft’ the ruins were deemed unsafe. Speculation arose that due to the airing of the documentary “Kapunda – Most Haunted Town in Australia” it may have caused unwanted attention to the reformatory's chequered past, and so the building was demolished swiftly causing yet another important historical site to be lost.

Ruby Bland's Grave
(however it is now thought that she may be buried elsewhere in the cemetery as this was erected after the documentary went to air)

But what of the hauntings? Was there any truth to this documentary? Was the cemetery and reformatory site REALLY haunted? The reports we had were mainly centred around Ruby Bland. It was said that she still walked the cemetery and reformatory looking for her baby. Since then, information would indicate that a baby never existed and this was nothing but Urban Myth that had grown over time.

Rumours were rife also of an angry Father Martin, who would patrol the reformatory and even push unsuspecting people around. And what of Mary Mackillop's letter that mentions that she had seen none of the ghosts yet. Was this to mean that rumours of a ghosts were happening long before St Johns became a reformatory?

And so it was P.F.I. decided to go in and find out.

For more information on this story and Ruby Olive Murry Bland visit Saintjohns

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