Sr Agnes Fitzgerald and her mission in the Blue MtsPrint
The recent call by the Care of Our Common Home committee for input from the Sisters was richly answered. One reply came from Srs Mary Maguire and Colleen Holohan in the Blue Mountains.
They proposed that Sisters in the Blue Mountains had already been practising the core elements of what we now know as the foundation of the Laudato Si’ Action Platform for decades. In this, the Sisters were educated by the local Indigenous Gundungarra and Durag people of the of the Gully, a traditional summer camp with a constant flow of fresh water.
The Sisters of Charity who lived in Katoomba and ministered in the Blue Mountains areas – including Leura and Blackheath- the latter not far distant from the Megalong Valley (thought to be from the local language meaning Valley Under the Rock and described as “a rural paradise of verdant pastures and pristine forests”) and the Gully peoples’ winter camp in Burragorang Valley (itself now almost completely drowned by the Warragamba Dam) – came to know this region well.
The Sisters had arrived in 1902, establishing “a first-class boarding school” at Mt St Mary’s in Katoomba. From there, Sr Agnes Fitzgerald (August 28, 1867 – September 26, 1962) was missioned in that same year to visit the poor and the sick of The Gully, just outside of Katoomba. The Gully community had lived together in what is now called Garguree from at least 1894 until they were forcibly evicted by the local council during the building of the Catalina racetrack in 1957.
When Sr Agnes – known to the Gully community as “our little Sister” because of her diminutive size – arrived in the Mountains, she found access tricky – she often had to walk for miles and clamber over rough terrain to gain access to rudimentary homes with mud floors heated by log fires, often in bitterly cold conditions to get to people in need.
In the 1940s, Sr Agnes recorded her memories of the Gully and her interaction with the residents. Former Archives Manager Denise Corrigan researched an article for Keep In Touch (March 2012) entitled Sisters of Charity early ministry at Katoomba. In 1902, not long after the school was founded, Sr Agnes was given a visitations ministry, according to Jim Smith’s book, The Aboriginal People of Burragorang Valley (If we left the Valley our hearts would break), (Blue Mountain Education and Research Trust, 2016).
Sr Agnes was called upon at all times of the day and night and in all sorts of weather for the visitations. Once, she was teaching music at Mt St Mary’s when she was told that a man was asking to see her. “Come down quickly, at once, on the instance” was the message relayed. She arrived as quickly as she could to discover she was needed to visit a mate of the visitor. The man – Mat Cooper – had become ill out in the bush at Nellie’s Glen, suffering from fevers, chills, and an inability to speak properly.
The group of men with him had remembered that they had a bottle of rum – half was dispensed to the sick man, while his friends then demolished the second half and carried him back to his mother up the mountain. Mat survived, and Sr Agnes was impressed that his friends had managed to carry him across the inhospitable topography about 15 kilometres up the mountain.
In another event Sr Agnes recalled, she was summoned by the Gully mid-wife, Mrs Alice Cooper, to a location far from the convent. The parish priest was away, and there was a baby who was dying in need of baptism. The mother refused to have her child baptised by a nun, given her husband was named for William Wentworth, and an Anglican. “I thought we had better follow the same religion,“ she explained. Her child survived the convulsions which saw the Sisters called, and the infant had been taken out for a walk when Sr Agnes and her companion Sister arrived.
Sr Agnes wasn’t pleased: “I felt very annoyed with Mrs Cooper for sending us on such a wild goose chase after all day teaching in school.” But Mrs Cooper had another request: “Sisters, there is a baby really dying but it lives far in the bush.” Sr Agnes said: “As the child’s salvation depended on our visit, we could not refuse.”
Later in another dark, little hut, heated by a log fire, Sr Agnes broached the subject of Baptism with another mother. The woman, worried both by the fact that she was not a Catholic and that (the sacrament) seemed a portent of death, refused. Nightfall was coming on and Mrs Cooper was anxious to get the Sisters away from the possible bad behaviour and drunkenness of the men who would soon return from town.
Sr Agnes stood her ground and said to Mrs Cooper: “We cannot go and leave the child unbaptised as it will die tonight and no matter what rudeness we may have had to put up with, we cannot leave – unless you promise to baptise (the child).” Sr Agnes checked that Mrs Cooper knew what to do. Realising that the mid-wife had been well-instructed when she was a pupil in a convent school, Sr Agnes left her in charge of the matter of the infant’s salvation. Mrs Cooper had her chance later in the night when the exhausted mother gave the baby over into Mrs Cooper’s arms.
More about Sister Agnes Fitzgerald can be found in her life story, Melody in the Sun written by Sister Mary Bernadette Warner Shand who died in 2008.
A special memorial to the Sisters of Charity and Sister Agnes is erected overlooking the Gully. The Gully is located off Gates Avenue, Katoomba, about 1.2 km from the station, just behind the Katoomba Aquatic Centre. If visiting the Blue Mountains this is certainly worth a visit.
Note: The former Gully community, now Garguree, is public land — you can find a video about its importance and revitalisation here.