Our story begins in Cork, Ireland in 1787 with the birth of Mary Aikenhead. Her story can be read on the website of our founding Congregation, the Religious Sisters of Charity that is governed from Ireland.
Bishop Polding requested our foundress, Mary Aikenhead, to send Sisters of Charity from Ireland to help women convicts sent to Australia. Mary Aikenhead asked for volunteers. Mother Mary John Cahill, Sister Mary John Baptist De Lacy, Sister Mary Xavier Williams, Sister Mary Lawrence Cater and Sister Mary Francis de Sales O’Brien volunteered and left Ireland in August 1838. After a journey of over four months on the Francis Spaight, they arrived in Sydney on the last day of 1838.
From January 1839 the Sisters lived at Parramatta and visited the Female Factory where many women convicts lived and worked for the government.
The Sisters’ main concern was religious instruction and care of the sick poor. Parramatta and Sydney still had few good roads and the Sisters walked everywhere, going to government hospitals, orphanages, schools and gaols.
The Sisters of Charity were the first religious women seen in Australia. The religious profession of Sister Xavier Williams, on 9 April 1839 at Parramatta was a “first” and made a great sensation among Catholics and others. Other young women asked to join the Sisters.
The distinctive dress of the Sisters made them conspicuous and drew on them at times the hostility or bigotry. The good they did brought them support. However, especially in Sydney, life was difficult as they often relied on paying for rented accommodation.
Fr Therry asked for Sisters to go to Tasmania but many deaths and poverty kept them from expanding there until 1847, when the Sisters left Parramatta. Three went to Tasmania and the others stayed in Sydney, where they had the new responsibility of assisting women who wanted to live better lives.
(Listen to the story of the arrival of the three Sisters in Tasmania below. The reader is Sr Genevieve Walsh rsc.)
Good friends helped raise money to buy a convent where the Sisters could establish a hospital and school, as well as a permanent home for themselves. General Catholic problems hampered further growth, but the Sisters’ hospital and school flourished, while they continued visiting the sick poor and prisoners.
After some years, there were Sisters of Charity who had been born in Australia. When the government stopped paying teachers in our schools, the Bishops encouraged vocations and brought new religious institutes to Australia to teach. Cardinal Moran encouraged our Sisters to begin more schools. New hospitals were opened.
The Sisters’ business dealings in the early days were often conducted by Father Angelo Ambrosoli, who helped choose places for their convents and designs for their chapels.
Two Sisters of Charity who helped them to flourish were M. Francis McGuigan and M. Gertrude Davis, both born in Australia. They went to Ireland to renew links with the Irish Sisters of Charity and joined the Sisters in Tasmania with those in Sydney.
Since World War II Australia has become more multicultural, with new needs arising as different ethnic groups arrive. Sisters of Charity have led the way in many fields, establishing ministries that others can now continue.
Once works are established, Sisters have looked to respond to new needs. There are always people needing help, consolation, encouragement, and inspiration.
Vatican II recalled us to our founding charism, our main reason to exist as a separate institute in the Church. Our call is to bring the love of God to all, especially the poor.
Our vow of service of the poor is another way of describing a call to establish social justice.
Australia has changed since our first Sisters arrived in 1838. The kind of poverty that our Sisters met when they arrived has changed. Australia is now a developed nation.
The Sisters of Charity response has been flexible enough to deal with new forms of poverty. Physical poverty will always endure but we must also deal with the poverty caused by narrow-mindedness, prejudice, mental illness, drug addiction and drunkenness, as well as the more familiar kinds of sickness and lack of money.