Pioneer Sites

This is the way we see Sydney.
What was it like in 1838 when our pioneer Sisters arrived from Ireland?

This 1845 view of Government House shows the primitive state of Sydney that our Sisters walked over for their teaching duties and care of the sick.

2. Oil painting by G.E. Peacock of old Government House, Sydney, 1845, as it appeared when vacated by Sir George Gipps.

Compare this view below with our present Circular Quay and see the change.

3. Campbell’s Wharf and Sydney Cove from Dawes Point, 1864.

This house, in Woolloomoolloo, near what is now the lower end of William Street, Kings Cross,  belonged to Bishop Polding and was the first place where our five Sisters stayed when they arrived in Australia, waiting for a house to be ready in Parramatta.  As one of our Sisters wrote: it was beautifully situated in extensive grounds … it was the only residence on the slope and commanded a fine view of the bay and the harbour.

Our Sisters were tormented by mosquitoes in the oppressive January heat.

Much of what we know as Woolloomoolloo is reclaimed land. In the early days, the Benedictine monks used Woolloomoolloo Bay as the departure point for boating and picknicking expeditions.

Our Sisters were welcomed with Mass in the Roman Catholic Chapel ( St Mary’s Cathedral now stands on this site). From the beginning they were constantly occupied visiting the Gaol, the General Hospital, and the sick poor in their homes. When they were in Sydney, they taught Sunday School at the Chapel and prepared people for the sacraments.

Travel was difficult for the Sisters because they had no transport of their own: Sydney to Parramatta meant going by boat, though some travelled by coach.

7.Poster. A Coach to Windsor, ca.1870.

On most occasions the Sisters walked everywhere. Father Ullathorne, who had accompanied the Sisters to Australia, thought it was too dangerous for the Sisters to walk without an escort. Gas street lighting did not illuminate Sydney until 1841.

When the Sisters came up the river early in January 1839, this would have been the Parramatta they saw.

8. View of Parramatta, 1838, by Conrad Martens. Watercolour drawing.

At this time, Parramatta was still largely a military and vice-regal outpost. It was a great contrast to their ‘Paris of Ireland’, Dublin, with its fine Georgian buildings.

This is the first convent owned by the Sisters at Parramatta, St Mary’s Convent.  It was occupied by the Sisters from April 1840 to 1847 after which time it was leased until the Sisters returned in 1886 to establish St Joseph’s Hospital for Consumptives. The Sisters taught at St Patrick’s Primary School in the Church, to the right of the photograph.

9. St Mary’s Convent was partly financed by former convict William Davis and Bishop Polding.

The Sisters visited the  Female Factory,  and Parramatta and Liverpool Hospitals which then accepted only those patients for whom the government was responsible, that is, soldiers and convicts. They also visited the sick poor who were denied access to these hospitals.

In the evenings, the Sisters made altar linen and vestments for St Patrick’s Church and the Roman Catholic Chapel in Sydney.

The Sisters were fortunate enough to have the favour of a reforming governor, Sir Governor Gipps.

10. Sir George Gipps, ca.1840. Oil painting by H. W. Pickersgill.

The Nuns seem very happy: they are converting the ladies in the factory very fast – I do not wonder – they are so gentle and kind in their manners and so constant in their attendance: the women are pleased, I dare say, to have such kindness evinced towards them, and it is a question if they ever took much thought of religion before. Extract from Mrs C B Lyons, wife of Parramatta coroner, in  letter to Jane Williams, wife of the twin of pioneer Sister, Xavier Williams, in 1844.

Mary Corcoran, an ex-convict, was assistant matron at the Factory when the Sisters came. She gave the income from four  houses she owned to help support the Sisters but took them back when the Sisters were withdrawn from Parramatta. She left all her property to an adopted son, John Smith, who gave her an expensive grave.

This was one of her original houses, in Elizabeth Street, opposite the Anglican Church.

12. One of the houses Mary Corcoran owned.

In November 1839, two of our pioneer Sisters spent a short time assisting at this government-funded Catholic Orphanage at Waverley which was under the supervision of lay matrons.  Originally known as Waverley House, it was built by Barnett Levey, founder of the Theatre Royal. The Orphanage was transferred from Waverley in 1844 to Parramatta.

Bishop Polding put the Sisters in charge of the transferred orphanage, now known as the Catholic Orphan School (pictured below), where they taught catechism and needlework to the children. Polding later asked the newly founded Sisters of the Good Shepherd (now known as the Good Samaritan Sisters) to run it .

13. Parramatta Orphanage.

Numbers at the Female Factory fluctuated and declined. Transportation ceased in NSW in 1840. The Sisters were withdrawn in 1847 and brought to Sydney. The Factory was no longer needed for its original purpose and became a Lunatic Asylum. Whether from drink, harsh treatment, or other factors, there was a high incidence of insanity among aged convicts.

14. Contemporary road sign commemorates the Female Factory.

The Sisters’ poverty and the extent of their commitments meant long walks in Australian heat dressed in their black serge habits. Fr J.J. Therry wrote to Lady FitzRoy, wife of Governor General, Sir Charles FitzRoy, to ask the occasional loan of a carriage, so that the Sisters could do more than they could when limited to walking everywhere. Lady FitzRoy was killed, as well as her attendant, when her carriage overturned in 1847.

This painting below by J.Rae conveys the emptiness of 1842 Sydney.

16. Burdekin Terrace is in the top right of the photo.

Increased numbers in the Sisters’ ranks to nine, saw a second convent  rented in Burdekin Terrace,  Sydney, for our Sisters in 1843 by well-respected Catholic, the Honorable J.H. Plunkett, Attorney General of Sydney (and endowed with a yearly annuity by Mr William Davis). It is shown off to the right of the photo. Knowing the size of Hyde Park today, it is easy to estimate the difficulty of walking from the Archbishop’s House or Burdekin Terrace to Darlinghurst Gaol or up the hill to St Patrick’s, Church Hill, or to St Brigid’s, Miller Street, The Rocks, in Australian heat, for women raised in Ireland and England. When Hyde Park was used for races, the dust would have been worse.

The Sisters named the Burdekin Terrace house, St Mary’s Convent. From here the Sisters visited six primary schools in Sydney instructing the children in catechism. They were also constant visitors to the Immigrants Home, opened in Bent St in 1841, and run by Caroline Chisholm to assist homeless and unemployed migrant women.

17. Bent St, Sydney, by John Rae, 1842.

Because of the records kept by our early Sisters, M. Gertrude Davis and S.M. Teresa Roper, we have stories of some of the men who were visited by the Sisters in Darlinghurst Gaol. Public executions were still being carried out when the Sisters visited the Gaol. Besides murder, burglary and forgery were also hanging offences.

18. A page from Captain Starlight’s album.

One of the prisoners, bushranger “Captain Starlight” (Frank Pearson), presented his sketchbook to the Sisters in the late 1880s. Captain Starlight had a sister wealthy and influential enough to ensure that he escaped hanging. His sketchbook indicates a high level of education.

19. Church Hill, looking toward Sydney Cove with St Patrick’s in foreground, ca.1870s.

This image above shows the increase in building since our Sisters arrival in 1838, though the roads are still dirt. In Kent St, also in this area, is tiny St Brigid’s, a combined church-school begun by Fr Ullathorne in 1835. It was one of those schools visited regularly by the Sisters to teach christian doctrine. St Brigid’s still exists at 16 Kent St (Millers Point), but does not look the same as it did when built.

James Meaney, Government surveyor, is supposed to have said that he could not allow ground for a Catholic Church at Church Hill because  the Governor, arriving to worship at Saint James, would have been offended by seeing ragged Catholics arriving for Mass across the street.
When Frs J.J Therry and Conolly arrived, they first stayed with William Davis and the address was ‘Charlotte Place’, as on this 1846 – 1858 diagram. The RC Chapel is on the land that Davis gave for it. William Davis’ house had a window on the corner from which liquor could be sold to passers-by. William Davis was a strong supporter of the Sisters, helping them financially in many ways. His grand-niece, Mary Davis, entered the Congregation  in 1870.

In 1847, three of the original pioneer Sisters travelled to Hobart, Van Dieman’s Land (now Tasmania), and moved into Fr Therry’s presbytery, opposite the Church. When the Sisters departed from NSW, they severed connections with the communities in Sydney. They did eventually amalgamate in 1890.

21. St Joseph’s Church, Hobart.

The Sisters visited the Queen’s Orphan school in Hobart. They also took over the girls section of St Joseph’s School, Hobart, soon after their arrival.

This was the location of the women’s prison, or  Cascades Female Factory, visited by the Sisters in southern Hobart.

22. The Female Factory, Cascades, Hobart Town. Painting by Robert Beauchamp.

Back in Sydney, our Sisters, now with no permanent home, were totally dependent on a cash-strapped Bishop and Church. In 1848, St Mary’s Convent had moved from Burdekin Terrace to the corner of William and Victoria Streets, Windmill Hill.

24. Immigration Barracks, 1872. Photoprint by Charles Pickering.

Bishop Polding provided a week of spiritual exercises for the Irish Orphan girls arriving in Sydney at this building which was used as a reception and labour exchange for them from 1848 – 1850. One of the surgeons, Mr Strutt, from the Thomas Arbuthnot, who sailed with the girls to Sydney, commented on the two-day prayer session which the Sisters conducted for the girls on their arrival in 1850: These good ladies with their black dresses, venerable years, and grave and somewhat austere countenances, spread a monastic sphere of quietness, gloom and silence throughout the place and made me feel somewhat melancholy…

25. Debtors’ Prison in the Carters’ Barracks precinct. Watercolour.

This gaol became the House of  the Good Shepherd in 1848. A small community of our Sisters lived here from 1848 to 1856. This House constantly appealed for funds, relying on the generosity of ordinary Catholics for its support. It was later to become the first convent of Polding’s Institute of the Good Shepherd (later to be called the Good Samaritan Sisters).

26. Australasian Catholic Directory.

The house that had been rented at Burdekin Terrace was too small to accommodate the extra Sisters from Parramatta and alternatives were sought. A pamphlet appealing for funds to buy a permanent convent for the Sisters was distributed amongst the Catholic community in 1853.’Tarmons’ in Woolloomoolloo (now Potts Point),pictured below, eventually became the Sisters’ first permanent Convent, ending the succession of forced moves in and out of rented premises.  Woolloomoolloo was a fashionable place to live for Sydney’s wealthy citizens because of its elevation and scenic views to the Harbour.

Maurice O’Connell (later Sir), the commander of the colonial military forces in NSW, built ‘Tarmons‘,  where he lived with his wife, Mary Putland. Mary was the daughter of Governor Bligh, and had often acted as a hostess for her father at Government House.

27.”Tarmons”, Woolloomoolloo. Residence of Sir Maurice O’Connell, 1845. Oil painting by G.E Peacock.

‘Tarmons’ was bought from the O’Connells by Sir Charles Nicholson, co-founder of Sydney University. He sold it to our Sisters in 1856 when he heard they were looking for a suitable site for a hospital, and a permanent home.  The purchase was made possible through the activity of the Hon. Mr Plunkett, who had also allowed the Sisters to live for some time in his newly built house in Macquarie Street. St Vincent’s College, which still stands on this same site, began in a small room in ‘Tarmons’ in 1858.  The Hospital moved to Darlinghurst in 1870.

The success of St Vincent’s Hospital, as with all the Sisters’ works of mercy and compassion, depended on people who encouraged and supported them.


Image Acknowledgments

Header: Tapestry designed and handwoven by Margaret Grafton in 1988 to mark centenary of the Sisters’ arrival in Australia. Image courtesy St Vincent’s Hospital Sydney.

About this blog:  Amalgam of Pioneer Sisters by Medici Graphics.

1. Residential Sales, Sydney, NSW.

2. Mitchell Library, State Library of New South Wales, ML 658.

3. Mitchell Library, State Library of New South Wales, SV/12.

4. Sisters of Charity of Australia Congregational Archives.

5. National Library of Australia, nla.pic-an4857980.

6. Sisters of Charity of Australia Congregational Archives.

7. Mitchell Library, State Library of New South Wales, SV/62.

8. Dixson Library, State Library of New South Wales, DL Pg15.

9. Sisters of Charity of Australia Congregational Archives.

10. Mitchell Library, State Library of New South Wales, ML4.

11. National Library of Australia, nla.pic-an2818460-v.

12. Photograph by John Luttrell. Sisters of Charity of Australia Congregational Archives.

13. State Records of New South Wales, GPO 1-06128 and Good Samaritan Archives, Glebe, NSW.

14. Photograph by John Luttrell. Sisters of Charity of Australia Congregational Archives.

15. From ‘Colonial Sketches: an album of views of Sydney and NSW, E.West. Dixson Library, State Library of New South Wales, DL PXX30/3b.

16. Dixson Galleries, State Library of New South Wales, DG SV*/Sp Coll/Rae/19.

17. National Library of Australia, nla.pic-an10759912-S3-v.

18. Sisters of Charityof Australia Congregational Archives.

19. Mitchell Library, State Library of New South Wales, SPF/85.

20. Cartographic Material, National Libary of Australia,

21. Allport Library and Museum of Fine Arts, AUTAS001124067950.

22. WL Crowther Library, AUTAS001124870130.

23. Photographs and glass plates negs collected by ER Pretyman, NS1013.

24. Mitchell Library, State Library of New South Wales, PXD 524/159.

25. Mitchell Library, State Library of New South Wales, PX*D123.

26. Sisters of Charityof Australia Congregational Archives.

27. Mitchell Library, State Library of New South Wales, ML148.

28. Sisters of Charity of Australia Congregational Archives.