175th Anniversary of the Sisters of Charity

175 Years Serving in Australia

175 Years Serving in Australia

Celebrating 175 Years
A Mass at St Mary’s Cathedral on the 14 August will mark the end of a year’s celebration of 175 years since Sisters of Charity arrived in Australia. Other events have marked this anniversary in places associated with the Sisters. One of the most significant was that at Parramatta on Saturday 5 April at Parramatta, near the date of the first religious profession in Australia in 1839, that of one of the five pioneer Sisters, Sr Xavier Williams.
Parramatta was the location of the Female Factory where the Sisters came from Ireland in 1838 to minister to the neglected women sent out as convicts. The pioneer Sisters visited the Factory in the early mornings and in the evening, and taught children at the school during the day. Much of their activity revolved around the Catholic Church: teaching the faith, visiting the prisoners and the sick, helping the poor, and sewing for the clergy.
The Sisters continued at the Factory until 1847, as well as working in the broader Sydney community. Today the Sisters’ presence can be typically known by the name of St Vincent’s Hospital in most eastern seaboard capitals. Many of our Sisters work in the education and pastoral care ministries as well as health, and their stories are documented in this book beautifully produced for the occasion: Impelled by Christ’s Love: 175 years serving in Australia. The cover features a picture of Tarmons, the Sisters’ first hospital in Woolloomooloo (now Potts Point), Sydney, which opened in 1857. The book is available from the Sisters of Charity Congregational Office, Level 7, 35 Grafton Street, Bondi Junction 2022, congregation@rscoffice.com ($15 plus $10 p&h).

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Sydney’s first Catholic schools

A Touch of Green, Sydney’s first Catholic schools and their sites by Charles McGee was sent to our Archives recently (published by the Catholic Education Office 2013). It is a delightful, full colour insight into NSW colonial catholic education: we learn there were over 20 schools for Catholic children in the growing town around Sydney cove in the early 1800s mostly staffed by teachers of Irish descent with little training, who were poorly remunerated, teaching in less than perfect schoolroom conditions. The centrespread features a map of Sydney Town in 1836 showing the location of the early Catholic schools. The Sisters of Charity have been acknowledged fittingly for their contribution to Catholic education, teaching at the Elizabeth St and Victoria St Schools.

We do have one small grievance which states that the Catholic Church acquired ‘Tarmons’ in 1856 to be used by the Sisters of Charity as a hospital for the poor (the Sisters’ first school was opened a year later at ‘Tarmons’). In fact, the Sisters of Charity’s loyal benefactors, the lay Catholic community, under the guidance of John Hubert Plunkett, the Attorney General of NSW, raised the funds to acquire the property to provide the Sisters with not only a site for a hospital for the poor, but largely for a permanent home for the Sisters as the Catholic Church had not managed to secure one since their arrival in 1838!

 A Touch of Green

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Reverend John Joseph Therry

John Joseph Therry

Fr John Joseph Therry, as one of the two Catholic priests first authorized to serve people of his denomination in the new British colony of New Holland, acquired most legendary status among convicts and emancipists for his whole-hearted devotion to them. They in turn were generous with him, so that, after some years, he had great wealth, though he still lived a committed life of service. A reading of his papers held in the Mitchell Library, Sydney, reveals his long association with the Sisters of Charity.

Therry’s career was followed in Ireland with special interest by Mother Mary Aikenhead, foundress of the Irish Sisters of Charity, because she had been at his ordination as a priest. His generosity in volunteering for the difficult ministry of working with convicts and ex-convicts in an untamed land must have impressed her. She was to show her empathy with the unfortunate exiles by allowing five of her Sisters to follow his path to Australia in 1838.

Therry spent six weeks in May and June in 1856 living with the Sisters of Charity at Tarmons, where he became their confessor and friend. In return they made caps for him. There are many exchanges of requests for help and visits in the letters. Therry even wrote to Lady Denison asking for the loan of a plain carriage for a couple of days so that the Sisters could reach more sick.
Sr Moira O’Sullivan, Congregational Historian

Grave of Rev. Therry in the crypt of St Mary’s Cathedral
Courtesy Kevin McGuinness, History Services NSW

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‘Tarmons’ sketch

We are delighted to bring you this sketch of Sir Maurice O’Connell’s Living Room at ‘Tarmons’ following permission from the Mitchell Library. This picture came to our attention last year via an article in a State Library publication, SL Magazine (Spring 2011), and was particularly interesting for the Archives as our exhibition room is on the site of the room depicted. In some ways our exhibition room (see previous post) remains very true to the look of the original room as interpreted by the artist in this picture. The Sisters recreated the 1840s living room in a new building on the ‘Tarmons’ site in the mid-60s when the villa was demolished. This sketch comes from a 19th century scrapbook previously owned by Mary-Jane McArthur, widow of Captain Walter Synott and wife of pastoralist and artist Charles Macarthur, donated to the library in 1983. As you can see the picture is unfinished, and we can only speculate as to who sketched the picture and who these people in the picture are. Certainly, a lot of reading and needlework was being done.

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Update on ‘Tarmons’ villa


 This beautiful room was photographed in 1909 when it was the Reception Room for St Vincent’s College. It is the front room of the historic ‘Tarmons’ villa at Woolloomooloo which was designed by John Verge. It was previously Sir Maurice O’Connell’s drawing room, and the first ward of St Vincent’s Hospital Sydney. It is now the site of the Exhibition Room of the Sisters of Charity Archives.

An interior view of the O’Connell’s drawing room at ‘Tarmons’ has recently come to light in a scrap album at the Mitchell Library belonging to Mary Jane Macarthur, c1837-48 (PXA 1278 Vol 1). ‘Tarmons’ was demolished in the 1960s and replaced with a new building, but this watercolour view (unsigned, undated and unfinished), reveals that the front drawing room in the new building, now our Exhibition Room, keenly replicates the ambience of 1830s and 1840s style of ‘Tarmons’. We are hoping to bring you the watercolour view in a future post following permission from the State Library of NSW.

Sisters of Charity Archives Exhibition Room. The original French doors from 'Tarmons' are opened.


This photo featured below is ‘Tarmons’ in 1962, a few years before it was demolished. You can see the two-storey verandahed villa at picture 27 under our Pioneer Sites tab above.

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Caroline Chisholm

We are often asked about the relationship between Caroline Chisholm and the Sisters of Charity at the Archives, and a recent request prompted us to write a response for the blog.

Caroline Chisholm arrived in Sydney in 1838, the same year as the first five Sisters of Charity. She was deeply troubled by the neglect shown to newly arrived immigrants, especially the single women.  Her entreaties to the Government resulted in the opening of The Female Immigrant’s Home in Bent St, Sydney, in 1841, where she assisted these women with accommodation and employment. The Sisters of Charity recorded in their annals that they were frequent visitors to the Immigrant’s Home to  “console, advise, and administer medicine”. When one of the early Sisters was to return to Ireland in 1846, the Sisters had nominated Caroline Chisholm to accompany her.

William Chisholm, one of Caroline’s children, married Susan McSwiney around 1852. Within two years both William and their baby daughter had died. Susan Chisholm became a Sister of Charity in 1862, and was known as Sr Mary Joseph Chisholm. She was in charge of several of the early Convents, and became the first Rectress of St Joseph’s Consumptive Hospital at Parramatta, a hospital for those suffering with tuberculosis, from 1886 – 1892. It was the second hospital to be established by the Sisters in Australia.  She was in charge of the day to day operation of the hospital, as well as discharging nursing duties.

She is remembered for her work amongst the poor, and being “strong of constitution and agile of limb, no distance being too great for her to walk when there was need of her charitable aid”. Sr Mary Joseph Chisholm died in 1901.

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Photographs from Tasmania

Memorial Garden, Cascades Factory. 1824 freestone wall can be seen in the background..

A long-time friend of the Archives, Ms Julie Murray, recently returned from Tasmania with these moving photographs of what remains of Cascades Female Factory complex.

When our Sisters arrived in Hobart in 1847, they went to the Cascades Factory almost every day to visit the Catholic women. They were not allowed to communicate with the protestant women.

To give you some idea of the misery awaiting the Sisters, a new section of the Cascades Complex, Yard 3, had opened in 1845 with 112 separate cells for solitary confinement. The Sisters had come with the experience of visiting the Female Factory at Parramatta in New South Wales, but I feel that nothing could have prepared them for the starkness of Yard 3, and the unveiling of the unsympathetic nursery in Yard 4 five years later.

"More Sinned Against Than Sinning"

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Norfolk House Establishment for Young Ladies

Archiving can be serendipitous work. Here is an extract from a letter found in our Archives just after our last blog posting where we  delighted in our discovery of another site visited by our early Sisters:

The young ladies Boarding School established since our coming is going on very well. Mrs Davis will shortly have twenty boarders, amongst others my cousins, the Therry’s. They come to the Convent twice a week for Religious Instruction, preparation for their Communion, Confirmation etc.  The good example the School gives attending daily Mass, singing in the Choirs etc is of much use to religious.

The letter from M.de Sales O’Brien (one of the first five Sisters to come to Australia from Ireland) was written from the Convent of St Mary’s, Parramatta in 1840, to a Sister of Charity in Dublin. We now know that the Sisters of Charity not only visited the boarding school, but also received students at St Mary’s Convent for religious instruction from 1840.

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A new site discovered for our early Sisters

The Norfolk House Establishment for Young Ladies, run by a Mrs Davis, commenced at Parramatta in the early 1840s. Described as ‘an excellent boarding school for young ladies’ by Parramatta’s Rev. Michael Brennan, it transpires that the Sisters of Charity were regular visitors to the establishment from 1841 providing religious instruction to the girls.

Thanks to June’s index (see A Welcome Indexer below), I came across an article in the Australian Chronicle which stated that two young women, Margaret O’Brien and Mary Gibbons, entered the Sisters of Charity Congregation at Parramatta in 1840 with a special service where the hymns were sung by the pupils of the convent and Mrs Davis’s excellent seminary – of whom the Parramatta choir was principally composed. This would have been a happy meeting  of voices as singing was very much part of the Sisters’ background. During this period they were also teaching singing at the Female Factory.

Later articles reveal that the Superioress of the Convent of the Sisters of Charity as well as Archbishop Polding were present at the ‘usual yearly examinations’  of the young ladies at Mrs Davis’s establishment in 1843.

Does Norfolk House still exist? I could only find one other mention of ‘Norfolk House’ in the early newspapers beyond 1845, when the name appears again in 1850 as being an educational establishment run by a Mr and Mrs Underwood.

Using research notes provided to me by the Parramatta Historical Society and information from the Australian Heritage Database listing (http://www.environment.gov.au/cgi-bin/heritage/photodb/imagesearch.pl?proc=detail;barcode_no=rt10007) , it seems that the Norfolk House that exists today in Parramatta was not the Norfolk House where Mrs Davis conducted her boarding school.  The house still surviving was built by John Tunks in the early 1840s and kept in his family until the death of his wife in 1888. It was later purchased by the Methodist Church.

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A Welcome Indexer

Much of the information about our early institutions in the blog has come via the diaries kept by our early Sisters, and the annals (or chronicles) compiled by Sr Theresa Roper for the Congregation before her death in 1939. When enquiring recently about the whereabouts of the St Patrick’s baptismal and marriage registers (Parramatta), I came across another compiler, Ms June Barrett, who has been working on an index to the Freeman’s Journal (1850-1932) since 1990. Originally, June had started indexing all the Catholic buildings that had been commenced, opened, blessed and purchased in Australia and New Zealand. She went on to broaden her work, and began an index for the Australian Chronicle, published Aug 1839 to Sept 1848, which from Oct 1843 to Sept 1848, was called The Morning Chronicle. The next index was the Catholic Times, published March 1877, which in Jan 1880 was renamed The Express, then renamed The Illustrated Express Jan 1887 to June 1887.  The Guilds, Hibernians and Sodalities were included in the index this time. Names of the teachers of denominational schools, the coming of the religious Orders, reception and profession of the nuns, movement of the priests, retreats, missions, fundraising parties and entertainments, music in the churches – in other words anything that concerned parish Catholic life. St Mary’s Cathedral, Bathurst and Parramatta Dioceses and the Veech Library at Strathfield have a copy of the finished Freeman’s Journal index. June is currently up to 1890 in her current indexing project, and it has taken her 18 months to complete a decade. Well done to June! This is a great resource for our Archives, especially for our blog. We hope to bring you some snippets from the index soon.

Extract from St Patrick's Register, 1843.

We did discover this page in our Archives from the St Patrick’s baptismal register in the County of Cumberland, 1843. It features the names of our early Sisters, Mrs Cahill (M.M.John), Mrs De Lacy (S.M. Baptist), and Mrs Marum (S.M.Augustine) as witnesses to the Female Factory births. You will notice they were referred to as ‘Mrs’ as was the custom at the time. There are also some entries in the Parramatta baptismal resister for 1843 where Mrs Cahill was named as sponsor for a baptism. Once with a Mrs Francis Gannon, another time with a John Doyle and a third with Mrs O’Brian – most of these were baptisms of young adults, though two children, one aged 8 one 13 were included.

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