Strange encounter: Sr Philippine and the Queen of Woolloomooloo


Sister Philippine Humphreys died at Christmas, 2018 and was buried on January 2, 2019.

A full Remembrance of Sr Philippine will be published in the Sisters of Charity’s quarterly magazine, Keep In Touch, due out on March 16. But this small sliver of her long life, written by her niece, Anne Keane,  gives an insight into the woman she was:

Ursula Humphreys, known in her professed life as Sr Philippine, was born in 1921 amid the Great Depression when times were tough.  She had one sibling, William John Humphreys.

Her mum, Florence Maude, a single mum, was a seamstress who worked long hours and into the night under gaslight. Ursula at age 10 would help her mum hem garments.No wonder she was so gifted with craft,

Ursula’s spiritual life was fostered early in life. Her grandmother would say things like, “When you see a feather pick it up, kiss it, and say, ‘I love you too God’.”

Ursula went to primary school at Sacred Heart, Darlinghurst and at that time there were many colourful people living in the area, including Kate Leigh, a Sydney underworld figure who rose to prominence as an illegal trader of alcohol and cocaine dealer from her home in Surry Hills. One day, Kate found Ursula’s lost King Charles Spaniel, Daney.

Kate painted Daney to make him look expensive and sold him to her criminal rival, Tilly Devine. When the paint washed out, Tilly was not happy. A neighbour told Ursula who had Daney, so the little six-year-old knocked on Kate’s door and said, “You’ve got my dog!” She got Daney back – and sixpence. This story is in the series of The Razor Gang. Ursula said that these two women – Kate Leigh and Tilly Devine – were very generous to Saint Vincent’s Hospital and the money they gave went to the poor for doctor’s scripts.

Again when Ursula was six, she remembered how her mum was kind to an aging bush ranger Jack Bradshaw after he finished his 20 year prison sentence. Jack had no family so Florence would have him in for meals and she would bathe his legs where the chains had been. These acts probably set the scene for a life of wanting to serve God and the poor.

Jack taught Ursula to sing Whisky in the jar. Monsignor O’Horan would get her to sing it to his Irish friends at lunch time at school. When Sister Rosalie overheard her singing she told  Ursula that that next time she was to sing ‘Biscuits in a Jar.’ Monsignor knew what happened and roared with laughter.

During their childhood Ursula and Bill would wash up in the evening. Bill said he would only wash up because Ursula took too long as she always sang. She loved singing and was very talented.

Ursula wanted to be a nun and could not wait until she was able to enter the convent (where she was known as Sr Philippine).  This was her wish from a young age. She loved teaching and when we visited as little children her she would always have unusual educational toys. We loved going into her classroom to play and it was considered a treat. She always had the daintiest afternoon tea and we were under strict instructions to only have one cake. There were eight of us so we would have devoured the tasty treats in no time without Mum’s restrictions.

When Sr Philippine was teaching in the hall at Darlinghurst, a man ran in and pleaded, “Sister hide me!” She hid him in the broom cupboard and told the children to look at her.

Other men followed quickly and asked his whereabouts. She said, “Stop it, you are upsetting the children!” Those men ran down Victoria Street so she sent the first man down Darlinghurst Road. He thanked her and threw her 10 shillings.

Aunty Ursula was a great inspiration to all her family. She was a quiet achiever, never making a fuss. Her most wonderful gift to us was her unwavering devotion to God, her faith and her community of the Sisters of Charity. She was humble, unpretentious and kind.

Image of Tilly Devine in black and white courtesy of Wikipedia.

Words of Remembrance

Sr Philippine Humphreys RSC

1921 — 2018

Mary Ursula Humphreys – known to us as Sr Philippine – was born on August 30, 1921.  Her parents were Florence and William; she had one older sibling – William.

When she was born, her family lived at Drummoyne but soon after moved to Darlinghurst.

She began school at Sacred Heart Darlinghurst and stayed there for her Primary School years, and finally completed her schooling at St Vincent’s College, Potts Point

Having spent all her school life at those two Sisters of Charity Schools, it is not surprising that when she began thinking of Religious Life, she chose to join the Sisters of Charity.

In 1940, she entered the Novitiate at Bethania Potts Point.  However, this was during World War 11, so for security reasons the Novitiate was moved first to Mt St Mary’s Katoomba, while the boarders were on holidays. When the boarders returned, the novitiate was moved to a residence called Villers Bret in Lurline Street, Katoomba. This was not a very spacious building so life there for the novices was not easy – they lived in very cramped conditions.   The novice mistress at the time was Mother Carmela.

Sr Philippine was professed in 1942 at Villers Bret and her group was the first to be professed outside a religious house.

Philippine’s first appointment was to Liverpool to teach the Infants.  She realised very soon that she absolutely loved teaching Infants.  Hence her future in teaching was mostly with the Infant classes.  Once she was asked to teach Grade 6 but after one year of that she begged Mother General to allow her to go back to the Infants.  Realising her love for Infant teaching, she was sent to Melbourne to do the Infant Teaching Certificate which was a four year Course.

During the rest of her teaching career, Philippine taught at Brighton Le Sands; Edgecliff; Lewisham;  Paddington;  Katoomba ; and St Vincent’s at Ashfield;  and in Melbourne,  both at Clifton Hill and Carlton.

Philippine loved music and had a talent for singing.  So she taught singing at just about every school she was assigned to.

Later in life, when she felt teaching was beyond her, she was asked to do Parish work at Concord West.   She loved being there and found that work very fulfilling.

Finally,  Philippine was asked  to  live at  St Joseph’s Village here at Auburn,  and to teach craft  to the children at St John’s School.   I’m not sure how many years she taught the craft at the school, but she then continued to live at the Village for 27 years.

Each year Philippine put on wonderful craft stalls – the proceeds of which went to the Village.  She herself would have made hundreds of beautiful shawls, scarves, crocheted hand towels, sets of tea towels  as well as lovely soap and lavender bags.

She always thought St Joseph’s Village –  St Vincent’s Care Services as  it is now known – to be a wonderful  place and very dear to the heart of Mary Aikenhead.

As well, Philippine has been a woman of constant prayer.  She didn’t ever want to miss Mass and had a great love for the Rosary. I wouldn’t know how many Rosaries she said during the day and night.  She loved her Congregational crucifix and wore it every day. She prayed constantly for the Congregation and for each Sister of Charity.

Philippine had a very keen mind and loved doing word puzzles.  She belonged to a group of residents at the Village who did the word puzzle in The Sydney Morning Herald every day.  If she was not present with them for some reason, they would send a message to her to come as soon as she could as they were stuck.

Philippine loved her family dearly.  As well as her brother William and his wife Joan (both now deceased) she had five nieces – Anne, Mary, and Trish, and Therese and Camel who sadly have also died.

Her nephews are Paul and John. She loved their visits and would tell me about them after each visit.  She also has 25 grand nieces and nephews and 22 great grand nieces and nephews.

Philippine will be greatly missed by her family; by all our Sister and by everyone in the Village, especially the nurses and carers and on behalf of the Sisters of Charity, I would like to thank all nurses and carers who cared for Philippine with such love and devotion. We are truly  grateful.

Thank you, Philippine. May you rest in peace and delight in looking upon the face of your beloved Lord forever.

  • Sr Jean Montgomery rsc




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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