Humble beginnings – the story behind a familiar portrait


Many readers will be well-acquainted with the oil portrait of Mother Mary John Cahill, one of the first five pioneer Sisters of Charity to come to Australia and first Superior of the Australian Congregation, painted by Irish-Tasmanian artist William Paul Dowling. While this depiction might be familiar, the story of the artist is perhaps less well-known, and shares parallels with the Sisters’ own story.

A pioneer in many ways, M. John Cahill was also one of the first three Sisters to make the further journey to Hobart in 1847. While the first five who arrived in Sydney in 1838 departed Ireland with no prospect of return, those who ventured to Tasmania too did so on a one-way voyage. Upon arrival in Hobart, M. John Cahill, Sr M. Francis de Sales O’Brien, and Sr M Francis Xavier Williams stayed in temporary accommodation until St Joseph’s Convent on Harrington St, adjoining St Joseph’s Church, was completed.

Once settled, the Sisters began what would become a lasting and rich legacy of work in Tasmania. The endeavors of those Sisters were as varied as that of those who have come since – they began visiting the sick almost immediately, established regular visitation at the convict institutions including Cascades Female Factory where they were strictly forbidden from communicating with the Protestant women prisoners in any way, teaching at St Joseph’s School and establishing many others thereafter, and later providing out of home care. The Sisters journeyed to Hobart at the encouragement of Bishop Robert William Willson, the first Bishop of Hobart. Bishop Willson has his own connection to our portrait of M. John Cahill and its origins, which we will return to shortly.

Another new arrival to Van Diemen’s Land in the 1840s, as it was still known by its European occupants at the time, was William Paul Dowling. Dowling was an Irish Nationalist and arrived in Hobart in 1849 following transportation to serve a life sentence resulting from his involvement with the Chartist movement. As was the case with many political convicts, Dowling was granted a ticket of leave upon arrival which allowed him to live and work in Hobart, and later Launceston, with relative freedom.

Dowling’s stated occupation was artist, and he wasted no time in establishing a commercial portrait studio on Liverpool St just one month after his arrival. What followed was a varied career, in terms of both success and artistic styles, with Dowling later offering a style of hand-coloured portraiture photography. It seems Dowling was quick to make connections within the Catholic community in Hobart. His fiancée, Juliana, soon followed him to Hobart, and the pair was married in St Joseph’s Church on  May 3, 1850 by the Very Rev. William Hall, Vicar General.

Hall was a friend to both the Sisters of Charity and the Dowling family. It was Hall who supported Dowling’s application for a pardon, with the Vicar General stating in the 1855 application for a conditional pardon “he has taught drawing in my school for some time past.”

So to the portrait of M. John Cahill. While it has always been acknowledged within the Congregation that this portrait was painted by a Tasmanian convict artist, the identity of the artist was unknown for decades. And, while it was known within some corners of the art history world that a portrait of M. John Cahill existed within Dowling’s body of work, its location was documented as unknown. It was not until 1994, when the Congregational Archives loaned the portrait to the National Portrait Gallery in Canberra (then housed in Old Parliament House) for an exhibition titled All in the Family that Dowling was confirmed as the artist.

What remains unclear today is precisely how M. John Cahill came to be one of Dowling’s subjects, where she is amongst high profile company. The portrait of M. John Cahill is not dated but is recorded as ca 1853. This date is derived from the date of one of Dowling’s other portraits, that which he painted of Bishop Willson in 1853. That portrait was completed the same year as two other prominent artworks by Dowling – Our Lady and St Joseph, which hang on either side of the altar in St Joseph’s Church. While the Archbishop may have commissioned his own portrait, it seems much less likely that M. John Cahill or the Sisters of Charity would have done so for themselves at that time. It is highly possible that M. John Cahill knew the artist, perhaps through their shared teaching work, if not simply through their mutual connections. Rev. Hall likely also played a part in connecting Willson, Dowling and M. John Cahill. It has been posited that Bishop Willson commissioned M. John Cahill’s portrait , and this is certainly possible.

Alongside the process to commission this portrait, it is interesting to consider Dowling’s artistic practice. Some elements of the portrait suggest Dowling may have used a degree of artistic license, most notably on the crimping of the white cap visible under the veil, and the style of crucifix M. John Cahill is wearing. The crucifix depicted in the painting is quite elaborate and decorative in comparison to Cahill’s own crucifix, which is held by the Congregational Archives. The similarities between this portrait and Dowling’s depiction of Bishop Willson, which hangs in St Joseph’s Church, have also been noted, with the two faces bearing a similarity. The Archives also holds original photographs of this portrait taken either by Dowling or his brother, Matthew, who followed William to Tasmania. These photographs show the portrait in its original state, including the original frame, and are indicative of the later photographic work of both Dowling brothers. These photographs may have been taken following M. John Cahill’s death in 1864.

Dowling’s portrait of M. John Cahill has become the basis of all depictions of her, given that there are no known photographs of this pioneer Sister. For that reason alone, it is a treasured and highly significant piece of the history of the Sisters of Charity in Australia. To have been painted by a former convict artist makes this portrait significant on a national level, while its international significance is cemented by Dowling and M. John Cahill’s shared Irish origins. These connections are indicative of how enmeshed the history of the Sisters of Charity is with that of Australia more broadly.

Dowling’s connections to women religious do not end with this portrait. His daughter, Juliana, named after her mother, entered the Sisters of St Joseph at Perthville, Bathurst in 1880. This was only the beginning of her tumultuous religious life, as she left the Sisters at Perthville after five years and was one of a group who cared for Father Julian Tenison-Woods prior to his death at St Vincent’s Hospital Sydney in 1889. Juliana re-joined religious life with the Sisters of St Joseph at Westbury following her return to Tasmania in 1892, and in the years that followed moved between various Sisters of St Joseph communities in Tasmania, Victoria, and New South Wales. Juliana’s religious name was Sr Mary John, the same as that of the subject of this portrait painted by her father.


Image 1: M. John Cahill, portrait by William Paul Dowling – detail (Photograph by Tim Bauer)

Image 2: Inscription and photographer’s stamp on reverse of the photograph of the portrait (1)

Image 3: M. John Cahill’s brass crucifix, pictured alongside Sr Francis de Sales O’Brien’s gold profession ring

Story by Imogen Kennard-King, Archives Collections Registrar

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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