Category Archives: Parramatta, NSW
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, email@example.com ($15 plus $10 p&h).
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.
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 firstname.lastname@example.org
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.