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 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 (;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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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


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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