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Mary Aikenhead – An alternative depiction

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The lead up to the 2019 relocation of the Congregational Archives presented a number of challenges and opportunities.

The extensive planning process that took place in advance of the move involved staff assessing the entire Archives collection, to ensure each item was accounted for and could be transported safely.

This logistical planning exercise afforded Archives staff the opportunity to access and assess those collection items dormant for many years.

One such item was a large oil portrait of Mary Aikenhead, foundress of the Congregation. This portrait was transferred to the Archives in 1993, following many years of display at St Vincent’s Convent and the Generalate at Potts Point.

The portrait had effectively been in storage for more than twenty-five years with no opportunity to be displayed and fully appreciated. Painted in 1880, the portrait is signed with the initials “J.A.”

Research on the history of the painting and to identify the artist is ongoing. It is believed the portrait was more likely painted in Australia rather than Ireland, as the subject is depicted wearing the Australian-style collar as a part of the religious habit, not the Irish split collar Mary Aikenhead would have worn.

The painting is striking for several reasons. Many readers will be familiar with the most frequently reproduced depiction of Mary Aikenhead, the 1844 portrait painted by the Irish portrait artist, Nicholas Joseph Crowley (1819–1857).

As there are no known photographs of Mary Aikenhead, all depictions of her appearance are creative works, most of which have been based on the familiar Crowley portrait.

The oil portrait in the Archives collection offers a remarkably different depiction of the foundress of the Congregation.

Prior to the Archives’ relocation, significant professional conservation work was undertaken on the portrait, preserving and stabilising the fragile work to ensure it can continue to be appreciated for generations to come.

The relocation of the Congregational Archives and provision of appropriate storage allowed this (and other) artworks to be stored in an accessible format and displayed so they can be viewed and appreciated by visitors.

The reactions of visitors to this previously unfamiliar work have been fascinating. They have ranged from “That’s not Mary Aikenhead!” to instant appreciation and adoration.

An alternative depiction of a notable figure such as Mary Aikenhead is an invaluable resource.

Any Sisters with recollections of this portrait are invited to contact the Congregational Archives Collections Registrar Imogen Kennard-King at imogen.kennardking@rscoffice.com to share their memories.

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