Sisters Of Charity of Australia

In response to Bishop Polding’s request for a community of Sisters to be established in New South Wales, Mary Aikenhead willingly sacrificed five well-trained and experienced Sisters for the new mission. These were Mother Mary John Cahill, Sr Mary Francis de Sales O’Brien, Sr Mary Baptist De Lacy, Sr Mary Xavier Williams (still a novice) and Sr Mary Lawrence Cater.

On December 31, 1838, the ‘Francis Spaight’ entered Sydney Harbour; on deck were the five Sisters of Charity for whom the long journey to an unknown land was drawing to an end. They were welcomed by Bishop Polding of Sydney, Judge Therry (a cousin of Sr Francis de Sales) and Attorney General John Hubert Plunkett, the pupils of St Mary’s School and a large crowd of interested Protestants and Catholics many of whom had never seen a nun before.

Mass of Thanksgiving

On New Year’s Day in 1839 there was a capacity congregation in St Mary’s Cathedral for the High Mass of Thanksgiving for the safe arrival of Vicar-General Bishop Ullathorne, three priests, three ecclesiastical students and the five Sisters of Charity. Receptive minds and hearts would have been attuned to the eulogy preached by Dr Ullathorne in the rich rhetoric of the day. He likened the Sisters to angels who are drawn to earth because in Heaven there is no misery, and the God they love is merciful and compassionate. Similarly the Sisters had left their friends, families, religious community and the Ireland they loved because they saw Christ suffering in his members in Australia.

The first task of the Sisters was to bring Christian love into one of the worst remnants of an evil system – a gaol in which up to eight hundred women lived in degradation and misery. Despite difficulties in obtaining adequate accommodation in Parramatta, the work of the Sisters seemed to bring instant acceptance and improvement, for Dr Polding wrote to Archbishop Murray in Ireland in March 1839 that, within three weeks, an almost miraculous change had taken place in a gaol that had seemed full of hopeless misery, resentment and despair.

St Mary’s Convent, Parramatta

In April 1840 the Sisters moved into St Mary’s Convent, Parramatta, built on land given to them by a staunch friend and benefactor Mr William Davis, a fervent Catholic who had been transported for making pikes for the Irish rebels of 1898. The laity admired and respected the Sisters, and Governor Sir George Gipps, showed respect and readiness to assist, sanctioning their work in visiting gaols, hospitals and schools and granting their request to establish a laundry and sewing rooms where more suitable occupations would raise the self-esteem of the convict women.

In 1840, their friend and benefactor, Mr William Davis also helped them to settle in Burdekin Terrace in College Street opposite Hyde Park in the heart of Sydney. They soon became involved in the work of the Cathedral, visited the poor and sick, gave religious instruction in the six Catholic schools in Sydney, conducted classes in needlework and provided evening classes for adults. Three times a week the Sisters visited Darlinghurst Gaol and the Sydney Infirmary (later Sydney Hospital) in Macquarie Street.

In 1857 the Sisters established St Vincent’s Hospital at Potts Point, as a free hospital open to all, but especially for the poor. From its humble origin of 22 beds, the demand at the Potts Point site for the services of St Vincent’s Hospital led its move from the Potts Point site to its current and expanded site at Darlinghurst (Victoria Street) in 1870, while in 1858 St Vincent’s College was opened.

In June 1847, in response to pleas from Bishop Willson of Hobart, Sisters John Cahill, Francis de Sales O’Brien and Xavier Williams set sail aboard the ‘Louisa’ and arrived in Hobart where they were warmly welcomed by Bishop Willson and the Catholics of his diocese. On July 2, the sisters moved into the residence next to St Joseph’s Church where they were to remain for over a century.

Congregation in Tasmania

The Congregation’s ministry in Tasmania was blessed in having the warm support of Bishop Willson and his vicar Father Hall, and it prospered accordingly. In August 1847, the Sisters opened St Joseph’s School. In 1879, St Joseph’s Orphanage was established by Mother Xavier Williams, while St Vincent’s Hospital Launceston was blessed and opened in 1944.

Today one of the features of the Sisters of Charity is the extraordinary range and variety of ministries in which the Sisters are engaged. This no doubt reflects their fourth vow of Service of the Poor. From the beginning, this vow was understood in terms of making themselves “extensively useful”. Wherever a new need was perceived, they endeavoured to discern their response, constantly seeking creative ways by which to do this. At times, this has led to a new form of ministry, perhaps even to relinquishing a traditional one that no longer required involvement or was being well served by others.

The Sisters continue to have a commitment to the alleviation of poverty, loneliness, suffering, ignorance and oppression in today’s world.