Sr Josephine: A long life of devotion and ministry


There has been something of a countdown going on for Sr Josephine Cannell, one which she readily shares.

She knows exactly how many weeks until her 100th birthday on February 24 next year, and she marks the calendar down weekly.

Sr Josephine can look forward to a letter from the Queen, the Governor-General, and the Governor, in February — as well as a welter of flowers and good wishes. In her own self-deprecating style, however, she will say “I don’t know what I have done to deserve this. Only lived a long time.”

When she joined 20 other Sisters of Charity for the Mass, special liturgy, and other celebrations connected to the Sisters of Charity’s 170 years of service in first the Hobart penal colony and then the State of Tasmania, it was very special. For most of the Sisters, the celebrations marked a return to the places they lived and ministered for many years; for Sr Josephine, it was a true homecoming to the place that faith was born and nurtured.

As she talks about her life, her thoughts – logical, rich-veined with memory, and ordered – run across the history of the early 20th century in Tasmania, and Australia, from the time World War I finished, to the Great Depression in the early 1930s, and then World War II. It is quickly clear that her mind is acute, formidable.

Sr Josephine was born and spent her earliest years in New Norfolk, Tasmania, “a little, tiny town in the Derwent Valley” she remembers, settled by evacuees from Norfolk Island when the prison there was abandonned in 1807. It’s the third oldest settlement in Tasmania, its historic past clear in the lines of many early buildings including one of Australia’s oldest pubs and Australia’s oldest Anglican church, St Matthew’s.

These days, New Norfolk is about 35 kilometres away from Hobart, and 35 minutes by road. When Sr Josephine was growing up here, it was rather less accessible.

“My father worked as the landscape gardener there, in the mental hospital,” she said. “His father was a blacksmith, but he had seven sons, so there wasn’t any room for my father in the business. My other grandfather was the chief officer in the hospital, so that is where my father was given a job. He was a warder first of all, but he suffered from asthma and so moved to an outside job.”

There were a number of Cannell siblings – Monica, two years older than Sr Josephine, Kevin three years younger, and the baby Patrick, 18 months after Kevin. “Just after Paddy was born, Grandfather Cannell died,” Sr Josephine said. That was 1923, and the Great Depression was on the far horizon.

“Unfortunately, my father decided to change his job, and things were just going down and down. My mother decided that something needed to be done. In 1925, there was an ad for a job in a Hobart foundry, which he applied for and got.” Her father commuted for a short time, coming home for the weekends, but the family soon followed to live in Hobart.


“I was fortunate to have both parents Catholic,” said Sr Josephine, who while she had started school in New Norfolk at the local State school, had been encouraged by her mother to visit the church across the road. This is where she encountered Sisters of Charity for the first time.

When the family moved to Hobart, Sr Josephine and her sister Monica were enrolled at St Joseph’s Convent, which was under the care of the Sisters of Charity.

“I was always considered to be a little bit holy in the family,” she said. “I was a bit of a pain at school, top of the class, doing jobs for the nuns.”

As she approached secondary school, the Depression bit. “In 1928, 29, 30 – things were very bad in those times in Hobart,” she said with restraint.

Into the 1930s, there was a continuing question about what young Josephine would do with her life. Her sister Monica had done a commercial course, but the workforce and young men didn’t really appeal to Sr Josephine. She went home one day and declared to her mother: “I’m sick of boys.”

Her mother soon had a visit from the Sisters, and passed on the gist of the formal conversation she had with them to Sr Josephine. “She told me that  the Sisters thought I had a vocation. Dead silence. Mum asked me what I thought, and I said ‘Yes, Mum’.” That response came from certainty, and, as such, it was a relief.

“I was still at school, so the Sisters told me to take three months off and go into the novitiate after that…” That is exactly what happened, and Sr Josephine’s life as a consecrated, apostolic woman, commenced. “It was a wrench, of course. Not for me so much, but for the family. I was off on a great adventure, I was going places.”

She remembers standing on the ship in Hobart as it slipped its moorings and headed out of the Derwent for Sydney. The family, gathered to wave goodbye from the dock, became smaller and smaller.

She was professed in January, 1937, after two and a half years of studying and learning about religious life.


Teachers college followed. Her life as a teacher began, and was as unpredictable as it was interesting. “Whatever happened was God’s will, and I never questioned it.” She took her final vows in 1940. She has acute recall of many of her postings as a teacher, which were mainly in the arts and crafts area. She followed renowned artist Justin O’Brien as the art teacher at St Joseph’s Edgecliff when Justin left Australia to become an official war artist.

At the end of 1940, she moved to Melbourne and remembers clearly the troops being moved at the same time. Her teaching stints in Melbourne included periods at the Catholic Ladies College, East Melbourne, St George’s in Carlton, and St Teresa’s and St Columba’s in Essendon.

She remembers particularly four wonderful years at CLC, during which she taught two young women who would go on to become Sisters of Charity themselves – Sr Deirdre Hickey, and Sr Elizabeth Costigan.

After 12 years in Melbourne, she was moved back to Sydney, first at St Mary’s Cathedral School, and then at St Vincent’s Potts Point, where she was in charge of the boarders’ refectory and kitchen.

She was there for the 100th anniversary of the death of Mother Mary Aikenhead, and the garden party at St Vincent’s to which 1,000 people came. ‘I enjoyed those years, looking after the girls.”

It was a change which lasted two years, until she was sent to teach in Katoomba. The time came, though, when Sr Josephine began to dread the appearance of the envelopes which invariably contained another change of location.

She has excellent recall of those ministries, those locations, and can run them off without reference to a note. During her long ministry life, there were many different schools and roles. And she kept on creating.

Ten years ago, during her final stint in Tasmania, she published a book, a labour of love, to commemorate the 160th anniversary of the arrival of the first pioneer Sisters in Van Diemen’s Land. Entitled To the beckoning shores: Urged on by the love of Christ. Dedicated to the memory of the three pioneer Sisters who arrived in Hobart aboard the Louisa in 1847, it relates an intriguing story, one of sacrifice, dedication, and love.

Not only did she research and write the story of those 160 years, drawing on sources from Hobart to the Archives in Sydney, but she also designed the cover, and took the lot – loaded onto a USB stick – off to the printer. Not bad, for 90.

She left the community in Tarooma in August 2014, taking up residence in Mononia in Fitzroy.

Sr Josephine remains self-deprecating to a fault. For her Oak Jubilee celebrations this year, the priest asked her for details of her life and career for his homily. “He wanted to know if I had ever been a principal, ever run anything. I told him not really,” said Sr Josephine.

She might have been right, but that does not tell the whole truth about the remarkable Sr Josephine.

Today, Sr Josephine spends her time in quiet appreciation of all that has been, and remembers in prayer the needs of the Congregation and the world.

1 Sr Josephine in Hobart for the 170th celebrations, October 2017
2 Comely Bank, Healesville 1948 – Sr Josephine 1st on left
3 Blackman’s Bay, Tasmania ca 1950 – Sr Josephine 3rd from left
4 Sr Josephine and Sr Anne Turner with statue of St Joseph, Mary’s Grange, Taroona ca 2010
5 Sr Josephine cutting the cake at her Platinum Jubilee celebrations 2007
6 Sr Josephine with members of the Mary Aikenhead Trust celebrating her Oak Jubilee 2017
7 Sr Josephine’s history of the Congregation in Tasmania, produced for the 160th anniversary celebrations in 2007

When we have so much to praise the Lord for, we must not complain.
True affection is to rejoice in the happiness of our dear ones. Never allow a sentiment of resentment to enter into our hearts.
Pray, reflect and consult – and may the divine spirit direct all to God’s greater glory.
May our dear Lord Jesus fill your hearts with His own love. Amen!
We must have patience with others as He has patience with us.
Under every difficulty try to pray fervently.
We have much to thank Him for, even for those little drawbacks on our comforts and conveniences.
Do pray that justice may be accomplished in peace and that truth may prevail.
Go on now as steadily as you can, relying on the Divine assistance and fear not.
What we do ought to be done well.

The Sisters of Charity acknowledge the First Peoples and traditional custodians of this land where we live. We respect, value and honour their history, culture and spirituality. We are committed to standing in solidarity and to actively working for justice, peace and harmony in this land.

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