In 1838, the Sisters of Charity, the first women religious to come to Australia, brought with them a crucifix bearing a black figure of Christ. Mary Aikenhead knew that her Sisters were coming to a land which had been in the care of the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people long before white settlement and the development of a penal settlement. It was her way of honouring the ancient heritage of these people and of reminding her Sisters how important it was to understand their cultures.
Mary Aikenhead founded the Congregation to walk and work with people experiencing poverty and marginalisation and in working with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples we have always tried to be faithful to this area of our Mission.
Ministry at the Female Factory- Stradbroke Island
Our first five Sisters while working with the women at the Female Factory in Parramatta had their first contact with a young Aboriginal girl in 1843. She had been brought by Archbishop Polding from Stradbroke Island to be educated by the Sisters in the school that had started for the children of the convict women. Sidney, as she became known, did not stay long as the Sisters arranged for her to be returned to Stradbroke. She became an educated woman and as one of the Traditional Owner of Stradbroke did much to improve the lives of her people.
This connection with the Sisters and the Indigenous people of Stradbroke was re-established in recent times through St. Vincent’s Health Australia Aged Care, Brisbane now known as St. Vincent’s Care Brisbane, with the intention of helping the people to improve their Aged Care.
Ministry in the Blue Mountains
While the Sisters had always ministered in the criminal justice facilities, various forms of pastoral care, welfare, social work, education and health, no further official ministry occurred with our Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people until the early years of the twentieth century when Sister Agnes, in addition to her work as a music teacher was appointed to work with Aboriginal people who lived in a camp at Blackheath in the Blue Mountains.
Ministry in Redfern, Sydney
In 1970, Sr Ignatius Jenkins, affectionately known as Connie was involved with the Aboriginal community of Redfern in Sydney. Working a few nights a week in the Redfern Medical Service she gave support to Mrs. Shirley Smith known widely as Mum Shirl.
Sr Ignatius concluded her ministry there in 1982. She was greatly respected and Bishop David Cremin wrote in a letter:
“It hasn’t been easy for her, and I know she ‘copped’ a lot of the hurt that Aboriginals feel towards the Church on behalf of all of us. She has made the Church in Sydney and Australia more credible because of her presence and her constant caring”. August 1982
Aboriginal Awareness Project
In 1989, Olive Frances Moore, the sister of one of our Sisters died and left a small bequest to the Sisters of Charity for our work with Aboriginal people in Australia. Olive had grown up in Hurlstone Park, Sydney, where she had met and became friends with many Aboriginal people. While her greatest love was for the Aboriginal people she also witnessed the their great need and saw first hand the entrenched injustice that they experienced.
Having consulted extensively with a number of Aboriginal people and in accordance with Olive’s wishes which were to ensure that the Sisters of Charity became aware of the Aboriginal people and their cultures, the Aboriginal Awareness Project was established in 1991.
The Congregational Leader and Council appointed Sr Margaret Costigan to lead the project. The initial funding for the project lasted a couple of years.
However, because of the importance of this Program, the Congregation continued to provide yearly funding until the project concluded in 2001. During 10 years the project took a number of different directions.
It allowed many Sisters the opportunity to participate in many education sessions and events with Aboriginal people. It also provided a practical partnership model with a focus on the provision of educational and training opportunities for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples whose life circumstances had denied them such opportunities.
In 1998, two Sisters, Josephine Hodges and Anne Louise Hemmingway, were missioned to Cherbourg to be a ministry of presence and outreach to the Aboriginal Catholic Community. This was a place of great need and social challenges.
While living within the community of Cherbourg itself and being the only non indigenous people living there they soon came to see what hope and help they could give. While this ministry was very fruitful it concluded after one year.
For the latest on the Sisters of Charity Aboriginal ministry, click here.