Two Courageous NovicesPrint
Archbishop Polding had a vision of his archdiocese as a Benedictine enclave, staffed exclusively by Benedictine monks and nuns. The Sisters of Charity did not fit into this dream.
With his institute for the education of daughters of wealthier families sufficiently well-founded at Subiaco in Rydalmere, NSW, he brought three more Benedictine nuns from England in 1856, to develop his own group of active religious women.
They began in February 1857 when he assumed control of the House of the Good Shepherd, which had been cared for by Sisters of Charity since 1846.
One Sister of Charity, M. Scholastica Gibbons, was kept there by Polding to train the members of his new institute in religious life.
The last pioneer Sister to leave Sydney in 1859, S. M. Baptist De Lacy, had taken the courageous step of founding a hospital for the sick poor, Tarmons, in Woolloomooloo, in 1857, copying the Dublin example of the foundress, Mary Aikenhead.
With deaths having already depleted the Sisters’ numbers, and the effective loss of Gibbons, and De Lacy’s return to Ireland, it seemed inevitable that their Australian mission would wind down.
At the Tarmons site, there were three professed Sisters, a lay Sister and two candidates. All recognised that the Archbishop would prefer the new Sisters of the Good Shepherd, sharing his own Benedictine spirituality. The Tarmons community had to decide whether the two candidates should go back to their families, or join another religious group, rather than stay and face more difficulties with them.
It took courage and determination for the candidates to choose to continue with the Sisters of Charity.
The two candidates came from very different backgrounds. One, Mary Ann Unsworth, born in America in 1831, had also lived in England, where she was prepared for her first Communion by an Irish Sister of Charity at Preston.
She was educated at the Convent of Divine Providence in England. Her great desire was to take part in the Australian mission.
After travelling to Australia with Archbishop Polding and three Benedictine nuns in 1856, sharing prayer with them and helping as much as possible, Unsworth entered with them at Subiaco.
Finding that she was not suited to an enclosed life, she entered the Sisters of Charity at Tarmons on 1 April 1857, and was able to teach in the new school which began the following year.
Her attractive personality and warm generous nature endeared her to the young boys and girls under her charge in the Infants Department. In her free time, she helped in the hospital dispensary, washing bottles. She was expected to go on and do great work within the Congregation, but she died of tuberculosis seven years later in 1864.
Only a month after Unsworth, on 1 May 1857, the first Australian-born Sister of Charity aspirant, Mary Anne Cunningham, whose background was Australian country life, was admitted to the Sisters of Charity at Tarmons. Sr M. Xavier Cunningham’s interest was in nursing.
She was employed in St Vincent’s Hospital where she began to acquire the knowledge and experience, which, in later years, enabled her to carry on the management of St Vincent’s Hospital from 1890 until her death in 1903.
Mother Xavier went on to found St Joseph’s Consumptive Hospital at the Sisters’ former convent in Parramatta in 1886, and the Sacred Heart Hospice for the Dying (1890) which she administered in its earliest years.
She frequently reminded the Community of all that their old friends had done for the Hospital and the Congregation, and to pay particular attention with deeds of kindness to those that had “lost their means.”.