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, firstname.lastname@example.org ($15 plus $10 p&h).
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!
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
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.
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"
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.
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.