The Congregational Leader celebrates the opening of the Sisters of Charity’s new Heritage Centre and ArchivesPrint
On behalf of all Sisters of Charity, a warm welcome to this very special occasion. We rejoice with the Psalmist and say: “This is the day the Lord has made…give thanks, the Lord is good” (Psalm 118: v24, 29).
I want to welcome each one of you. I am only too well aware of the danger of singling out certain individuals, but can I especially welcome all Sisters of Charity, Our Lady’s Nurses for the Poor, the leaders of religious institutes my colleagues, Trustees of Mary Aikenhead Ministries and friends of the Sisters of Charity, who are here today. Welcome, everyone.
Can I extend our collective warm welcome to Most Rev Anthony Fisher, Archbishop of Sydney. It is a privilege to have you with us. Welcome.
What are we celebrating today?
We celebrate the opening of the Sisters of Charity Heritage Centre and Archives – the culmination of many years of planning and working together.
We celebrate today our foundress, Venerable Mary Aikenhead who was so on fire with the love of God and of people that she wanted to share that love especially with the poor and destitute.
Bishop John Bede Polding, the new Bishop of New Holland (Australia), called for volunteer Sisters of Charity from Ireland to assist him in caring for the poor and destitute in the colonies. He described to Mary Aikenhead the sad plight of his unfortunate people in Sydney and Parramatta. Mary Aikenhead’s ‘great heart’ aroused her sympathy and she responded by sending five Sisters.
She helped them pack to go and shared with them that if she had been in better health, she would be joining them. In their luggage, she packed several important items such as Church vessels for celebrating Mass, education books and most significant of all, thinking of the indigenous people of Australia, a black crucifix. Mary was a woman of vision and she was sensitive to those in need.
We celebrate love, faith, courage, commitment and trust in Divine Providence. Mary Aikenhead was intuitive in reading the signs of the times and the Sisters of Charity have continued in her footsteps for 180 years.
We celebrate today consecrated apostolic religious life visible in the lives and service of women and men religious in Australia.
In our early beginnings, the Sisters served the women in the Female Factory at Parramatta and raised their dignity and self-respect to a level the women deserved. Their confidence was also raised by getting them to wear coloured clothes in the prison and “The sister’s first request of the Governor was for a laundry and sewing rooms where more womanly occupations could be substituted for those in which the female convicts had been employed.”
There were hospitals, schools and Social Welfare ministries established – working with the Church, motivated by the love of Christ, and sharing the love, tenderness and concern of Christ with all whom they met, seeing Christ in all.
Always with an eye on the poor, the marginalised, and the neglected.
And they were supported by co-workers whose faithfulness, commitment and wisdom from the beginnings of our Congregation in Ireland in 1815 have made possible all that has been achieved and continues today.
The Heritage Centre contains the Sisters of Charity story and along with them the story of their place in the Australian Catholic Church into which they immersed themselves.
There are so many ‘firsts’ to celebrate. The stories of Melbourne needing a Hospice during the depression. Seeing the need and, with trust in Divine Providence, and working with others, the Hospice was built, and thousands of people have been cared for.
The first School and first Hospital at Potts Point and the first Medical School in Melbourne. We were the first to care for those suffering with HIV Aids – and so it goes on.
Being first is not important, it’s the reading of the signs of the times, responding to the needs and believing in the Providence of God.
The sisters were educated in Theology, Scripture, Education, Administration, Nursing, Pastoral Care and Social Welfare. However, this education was never to be for our own advancement but rather so that we could give the very best to all whom we served in Christ’s name.
We could then advocate for those who did not have a voice and be united with others who were experts in caring for needy people, the marginalised, the sick and dying, and for our indigenous brothers and sisters.
Social justice and the Church’s Social Teaching have been our guide and compass to this day. The statement by which we Sisters live today encompasses where we are at this very moment:
We are Sisters of Charity, women of Mary Aikenhead, contemplatives in action, impelled by the love of Christ.
We live the joy of the Gospel. We respond courageously to the call to mission, going out to the margins, walking in partnership with others.
We have been so blessed and privileged to serve the people of Australia and to meeting the needs on overseas missions. How many lives have been touched and changed over 180yrs?
I often think about the people who have touched our lives and hopefully we have touched theirs.
This will all come alive for you as you journey through our Heritage Centre today.
Religious life! We began with five courageous women who left everything to answer the call to serve the poor in Australia. They were the first women religious in Australia when they arrived on Dec 31st, 1838. Among them a novice who in 1839 professed her vows in St Patrick’s Cathedral Parramatta, making her the first woman religious to be professed on Australian soil.
It was not smooth sailing for these sisters by any means. It was quite shaky. Our Sister Moira O’Sullivan wrote a book to tell the story of the difficulties they faced as they established themselves in Australia. The book’s title says it all ‘A Cause of Trouble? Irish Nuns and English Clerics.’
The Congregation continued to grow and service of the poor was visible. So, schools and hospitals were built, social needs identified and met. We were in charge!
What is religious life calling Sisters of Charity to today? At a recent meeting I attended in Rome with more than 800 Superiors General from around the world, it became quite clear that we are called now to be sowers of prophetic hope wherever we find ourselves.
How do we hope together as women religious of the Church?
“Hope is a gift, a grace, and when we receive a gift it is not for us, it is for our neighbour.” – Gustavo Gutierrez
The vision of hope for our challenged and suffering present and for a future filled with life, requires that women religious cherish the public commitment they have made to discipleship and communion and be women of vision: Seers of hope. Then we will continue to walk in the steps of those first five women and of Mary Aikenhead our foundress, in hope and love.
In the words of Teresa Maya CCVI, at our recent Conference:
“We need to be asking the right questions, not because we will find the answers, but because questions will guide our noticing. Where is the need? What is ours to do? Who are we today? Who are we globally? How are we globally? Where are we being invited to collaborate, network, build bridges within and across religious life?”
So, the seeds of prophetic hope need to be planted, watered, and tended by us.
To sow hope we need to avoid our version of clericalism.
We need to do our work, name it, call it, and confess it.
Pope Francis in a recent TED talk said that “the future has a name, and the name of that future is hope.” This is a time of great movement in religious life.
Our Sisters are, and have been for 180 years, the soil from which new life will emerge. We wish to join all those quiet women and men who are gently, simply, lovingly restoring creation, restoring peace and restoring human dignity.
Hopefully you will catch something of our story as you journey through the Heritage Centre and Archives today. This is the story we wish to continue in this new Century. We are stewarding a life that belongs to the Church and the world. We are in communion with Church and world always.
On behalf of all Sisters of Charity I say a very humble thank you for journeying with us over these times and for enabling us to live out our wonderful vocation of serving others in and through religious life.
- Clare Nolan RSC