With the closure of the “Female Factory” (prison) at Parramatta and the sale of their convent to the recently-arrived Sisters of Mercy, the Sisters of Charity sought permanent accommodation in Sydney. In 1857, Tarmons at Potts Point, the former home of Sir Charles Nicholson, the first vice-chancellor of Sydney University was purchased. It was in this building that the first St Vincent’s Hospital in Australia was established with the treatment of its first outpatient on August 25, 1857. The only prerequisites for admission were sickness and poverty; it was open to people of all creeds and cultures.
In May 1859, a controversy flared up that threatened to ruin the fundamental ideals of the hospital. Mother Baptist De Lacy, one of the five pioneer sisters, was criticised by the Catholic chaplain for allowing provision of so-called ‘protestant’ Bibles for the use of patients. This minor incident grew into a public sectarian controversy such that, although she received enormous support from the laity of all creeds, De Lacy felt that she had no course but to return to the Congregation in Ireland. The SMH editorial praised her dedicated, unpaid, social welfare work, and welcomed the ecumenical policy of the Sisters in their care of the sick in a hospital where need not creed was the criterion for admission and care.
Sister Veronica O’Brien took on the management of the hospital and a new building on land at Darlinghurst, granted in 1855 by Governor FitzRoy, eventually saw its transfer to its present site. Nine of the hospitals founded by the Sisters had their beginnings in the years 1888-1938. St Vincent’s Hospitals in Sydney and Melbourne established clinical schools and registered nurse training schools. Private hospitals were developed in Sydney and Melbourne, co-located with the original general hospitals and have supported their work for the poor and ensured the best medical practitioners were available.
Country hospitals were established in Toowoomba, Lismore, Bathurst, Cootamundra in the years 1920-38, with Toowoomba the only country location now under St. Vincent’s Health Australia. Hospices for the terminally ill were commenced, in response to need, in Brisbane, Sydney and Melbourne.
The types of services offered have continued to develop and keep pace with or lead innovation. Research Institutes were established more recently and are leaders in exciting clinical developments.
Aged care services have also developed and are now provided in each State where the health services operate. In 1976, in response to a dream of Sr. M Francesca Healy, Prague House was set up in a gracious old home in Kew to provide a home for men who had experienced homelessness but now needed a home towards the end of their lives. This service was recently expanded and moved to a new purpose-built home close to St. George’s Hospital and now caters also for women. Other aged care provisions cater for people from a range of backgrounds who are in need of care in their own homes, in respite or permanent residential accommodation or in a facility that provides for the care of complex mental or physical diminishment.
St. Vincent’s Clinic in Sydney was established to bring together a range of specialists who benefit from collegial support and who also undertake to care for the disadvantaged. Outreach services are supported by the Health Services in Sydney and Toowoomba.
Traditionally Sisters of Charity and lay collaborators have always worked together to make a contribution to the health care ministry of the Congregation. Successive Congregational Leaders and their Councils have looked at ways to respond to the challenge of change, including internal factors such as diminishing numbers and increasing age of the Sisters, and external factors such as the increasing complexity of the administration of Health Care facilities and the effect of Government policies.
In the 1980s the Congregation set up a Congregational Health Service Directorate to explore the way ahead. It focussed on the articulation of a Health Care philosophy, a Mission Statement and the education of all in the Health Service in mission, tradition and the philosophy of the Health Care Services. From 1986-1990 alternative administration structures were explored and new governance structures developed.
This led to the formal and legal incorporation of the Health Care apostolic works in the years leading up to the early 1990s. This incorporation of Health Care facilities involved a partnership between the Trustees of the Sisters of Charity of Australia (who are also the Congregational Leader and Council) and the Board of Directors. Over time, review and evaluation enabled gradual evolution of these structures. By 1996 Sisters of Charity Health Service Limited was established as an incorporated company with a National Board and National Chief Executive Officer. Local Boards of Directors still governed the facilities in different States.
Collaboration with other Catholic health care providers was embraced from the last years of the 20th Century, leading to shared ministries in Brisbane, Sydney and Melbourne.
On 1st July 2009 the Governance of the Health Services was transferred to Mary Aikenhead Ministries, a new Church and Civil company with two Sisters of Charity, one other woman and two men as the inaugural Trustees.
Development and change continues, in response to changes in the context and our desire to remain strong advocates for the poor and marginalised. A new governance model was introduced in late 2010, with a single National Board for what is now called St. Vincent’s Health Australia, though local Community Advisory Councils retain a local voice.