Category Archives: History

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, ($15 plus $10 p&h).


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Filed under Catholic, colonial education, colonial Sydney, Female Factory, History, Parramatta, NSW, Schools, Sisters of Charity, Tarmons

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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Filed under Caroline Chisholm, Catholic, colonial Sydney, History, Sisters of Charity

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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Filed under Catholic, colonial Sydney, Female Factory, History, Sisters of Charity

Missing tapestry update

Sisters of Charity at the last remaining outer wall of the Factory, 2005.

Hello Gay.  Good to hear from you. As you are probably aware, the Sisters of Charity re-visited the site of the Female Factory in 2005 as part of a special gathering. We unveiled a plaque to commemorate our pioneer Sisters:  “It is here that the first five Sisters ministered to the women convicts with commitment and dedication from 1838 until the Factory’s closure in 1849.” We learned about the Factory’s history and the sad plight of many of the female convicts. It was a very moving experience for us. I’ve attached a photo of the event.

I do remember seeing that piece of applique at St Vincent’s Convent in Potts Point. It actually isn’t very like the original tapestry which in my mind had red in it. My immediate reaction on seeing it was: “it is hideous, I can’t look at it.” As we know, the convict women would have used whatever material they had at hand. It must have been in the late 1970s when I last saw it. I’m afraid it hasn’t turned up in our Archives either.

Kind regards

Sr Moira O’Sullivan, rsc


Filed under Catholic, colonial Sydney, Female Factory, History, Sisters of Charity

Missing tapestry

Contemporary interpretation of missing relic by Diane Zimatat.

Great to see this blog! I have been aware of the work the Sisters of Charity have done since I was young although I didn’t always know it was the sisters doing it. The contribution to education and care of the sick are just a couple that spring straight to mind. What I would like to mention here though is what I discovered when I was working on an exhibition Women Transported – Life in Australia’s Convict Female Factories. This exhibition looks at the ordinary women who mostly, through circumstance and the basic needs just to survive, committed the first or second offence of their lives and were transported to the Colonies of NSW and Van Diemen’s Land.

This subject doesn’t sound like it has a connection but it certainly does. Some people may not be aware that the pioneer sisters came out specifically to work with the women in the factory. When I was researching this early connection it became apparent to me what amazing women these were.

At a time when a significant part of the Colonial Australian population (and the British) considered convict women to be from a crime class, lazy, illiterate and mostly prostitutes – the dregs of society – the Pioneer sisters showed compassion and believed that the women only needed a chance in life. This chance may have been a new skill or someone believing in them. These sisters made a real difference to the lives of these convict women and were unafraid to do what was needed in the colony to give the women a chance, whether it was the Governor of the time (Governor Gipps) or the conservative parts of the society.

The diary material in the Sisters of Charity Archives give a rare glimpse into this time. There is also a story recorded by Sister Gertrude Davis about an object which shows a sign of the women’s affection. This object is an appliqué made by the Female Factory Women at Parramatta and given to Sister Xavier Williams as a ‘thank you’ and to commemorate the first communion held at the factory. This appliqué was kept by her and before she died Sister Xavier Williams sent it to the leader of the Congregation as a relic. This is the last we have heard of it.

In 2008, the  Parramatta Heritage Centre displayed a contemporary interpretation of the missing relic by artist Diane Zimatat (pictured here), as part of the Women Transported Exhibition.

It would be wonderful to find this object as it would tell both stories of the early church in Australia and the convict female factory women. If found it would be the only object with provenance directly related to the Parramatta Female Factory cloth. Although not flattering by the commentator its description is very detailed in the description. It is as follows and if anyone finds something of this description then please contact me at

Gay Hendriksen

This is what was said to Sister Gertude Davis:

In order to perpetuate the memory of this confirmation ceremony- the women endeavoured to reproduce it inoriginal embroidery! The only materials available for the artist were some coloured worsted and a scrap of grey calico- the result was a clever piece of work but grotesque in the extreme. (the Arch, the impromptu throne and the alter were fairly well done, but the figures were atrocious). A figure in skirts, to represent the Archbishop stood on the Predella under the Arch, wearing a flowing mantle and cone-shaped hat to represent cape  [could also be cope or cap] and mitre. The skirts were short and revealed feet and ankles clad in white stockings and blue slippers. Fathers B – [original name not able to be discerned] and Coffey, were shown on either side of His Grace, with very short white skirts, no doubt to represent the supplice – they scarcely reached the knees and beneath were extra wide black trousers- white stockings and Japanese slippers. The whole picture was most ludicrous and created quite a sensation. It was presented to Sister Mary Xavier Williams some days after the ceremony as a souvenir of the grandest and greatest event in the history of the factory. Shortly before Mrs. Williams died in Hobart, she sent the embroidery to our present Head. Superior as a relic of the pioneer days.

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Filed under Catholic, colonial Sydney, Female Factory, History, Parramatta, NSW, Sisters of Charity