In the footsteps of the first Hobart Sisters who went out to the margin


These days, it takes about 36 minutes to walk from St Joseph’s in Hobart to the Women’s Factory in  South Hobart. The way is straight, up Macquarie Street; the streets are paved, the footpaths well-tended.

On a sunny March day, the pilgrims with the latest Mary Aikenhead Ministry pilgrimage to Hobart saw the Women’s Factory at its best – the air was crisp and clear air,  the small cascade outside the historic site of  early Hobart’s women’s prison, a sparkling flow down the valley.

But in June 1847, when three of the Sisters of Charity arrived in the colony, it would have been nothing like this. Mother Mary John Cahill, Sr Francis Xavier Williams, and Sr Francis de Sales O’Brien arrived on the Louisa from Sydney to a dismal penal colony. Settled in 1804, Hobart was isolated, buffeted by extremes of weather, and populated with convicts and their overseers who were both desperate and in need of both compassion and practical help.

The Sisters lived in what was intended as the presbytery for St Joseph’s Church, which remained their home for 110 years until 1957 when they moved to Sandy Bay.

From the beginning, the Sisters worked among the underprivileged, visiting the gaol (then in Campbell St), the Female factory (on the sites of the Cascade Brewery) and with the children of the Queen’s Orphan School, New Town. They gave religious instruction and visited the people in their homes.

In August, 1847 the Sisters opened St Joseph’s School, later described by the State Director of Schools: “There are two thoroughly efficient schools in Hobart… one the Central School, then the other one conducted by the nuns in Hobart Town.”

Other schools followed. In 1879, they founded St Joseph’s Orphanage; in 1944, the Sisters opened St Vincent’s Hospital, Launceston. Compassion and practical help is what the three Sisters offered the women in the Female Factory, the children in the orphanages, the sick in the hospital – that was made clear by our pilgrimage leaders Sr Helen Clarke and Fr Daryl Mackie from St Vincent’s Private Hospital in Sydney during their pilgrimage talks and prayers.

The pilgrimage began officially on Thursday afternoon with a gathering for the pilgrims in the Old Woolstores to cover The Story So Far. But most of the group had already met – there was a plaque unveiling at the Female Factory earlier in the afternoon by Sr Helen and the retired Archbishop of Hobart, Adrian Doyle (pictured left). The plaque is part of a plan by Mary Aikenhead Ministries to mark all the significant places on the eastern seaboard where the Sisters ministered following their arrival in Sydney in 1838.

The MAM group moved across to the Castray Esplanade on the Hobart waterfront, where the grey expanse of the Derwent spread to the far shore. It was a mild March evening, and the breeze was gentle. The three Sisters who had arrived here all those years ago had been taken off  the becalmed Louisa by tender, then carried through the shallows to the shore, where they were greeted by local, free settlers, and escorted up the hill to St Jospeh’s, where the convent would soon be established.

That was not the way the women convicts arrived – some little girls of 10, others women in their 70s, average age 27. They came off the transports at night, and walked through the bush to the Women’s Factory. Experience had taught the authorities that the sight of new female convicts arriving in broad daylight was a threat to the public peace.

This group was blessed by the presence on this pilgrimage  of a number of Sisters of Charity, including Sr Helen, Sr Cate O’Brien, Sr Maria Wheeler, Sr Cathy Mees, and Sr Tess Marcelo. The Sisters were connected by the early history of the Congregation in Hobart, as well as their own experiences living and working in the schools at St Aloysius Kingston and Mt Carmel College, Sandy Bay – both on the itinerary.

The main day of the pilgrimage began on Friday, with everyone back on the bus at 8.15 am. For those used to the chilly winds of Hobart and the icy sleet propelled by them across the waters of the Derwent, the weather was a wonderful surprise – even more so when it stayed fine and bright all day.

First stop was Kingston, where Sr Cate (right) was the last Religious principal at the school. “I left there at the end of 2001, and was really sad to leave. I had grown to appreciate the children within the school and their families.

“The teachers  were dedicated, committed, and totally professional.

“And of course, there is that view!”

And then on to Mt Carmel Convent, where Sr Tess and Sr Maria took a certain delight in pointing out their rooms. Sr Maria also pointed out siome property she had acquired for the Sisters while she was at Mt Carmel.

After a quick stop at St Mary’s Cathedral (where the first Bishop of Hobart, Bishop Robert Willson will be interred in the new crypt), it was over to the the Cascade Women’s Factory again.

This time, a pair of local actors presented Herstory, the tale of a woman incarcerated here and bullied by a sadistic overseer. The artistry of the two actors from Live History brought this story to life. “It was so moving to gain and understanding of the plight of those women. Not only did they have to suffer for the crimes they committed, but also they endured a long and unjust punishment within the Factory. It was  hard to watch. Even harder to have lived it, no doubt.”

To help settle spirits troubled by Female Factory, where the women were supported by the ministry of the early Sister, the Mary Aikenhead Ministries pilgrims retreated to the glorious Botanic Gardens, adjacent to Government House, and then to the quiet and somber Carnelian Bay Cemetery  where many of the early Sisters were buried.

“The Sisters ministered here but some of them also sacrificed their lives here. Starvation and consumption were frequent companions,”Sr Cate said. “One novice was professed on her deathbed – that would have been heart-breaking.”

That was followed by Mass at St Joseph’s in Hobart, celebrated by Archbishop Adrian Doyle. a long time friend and supporter of the Sisters of Charity.





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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