The Religious Sisters of Charity in Australia have formed a distinct Congregation since 1842, only four years after five Irish sisters answered a request for volunteers and set off on the ten-thousand-mile journey to undertake missionary work in Australia.
In 1836 Bishop Polding of Sydney requested Mary Aikenhead to send some Sisters to work with the Catholic Mission in Australia, but she was unable to agree at that time. A second request came in 1837 and at this time Mary Aikenhead agreed but, because her Sisters had not joined the Congregation for service in foreign missions, she requested volunteers to undertake the work in Australia. As a result, five Sisters volunteered and left Ireland on 17 August, 1838 and travelled to Australia on the “Francis Spaight”. They arrived in Sydney on 31 December, 1838.
The first Sisters who went to Australia were still members of the Sisters of Charity in Ireland. From the start there were misunderstandings about their status. Bishop Polding considered them to be founding a new Australian Congregation, but under church law the Sisters could not become a separate congregation without permission from Rome. Moreover, Bishop Polding had not applied to establish a religious institute. It appears that four of the Pioneer Sisters considered that they were still part of the Irish Congregation and they tried to adhere to the Constitutions. Archbishop Daniel Murray (co-founder of the Sisters of Charity in Ireland) shared that opinion.
From the beginning, the Australian clergy tried to interfere with the Congregation’s Constitutions. The matter came to a head in 1842, when Archbishop Polding secured a Rescript from the Vatican which separated the Australian Sisters of Charity from the Sisters of Charity in Ireland. Although Mary Aikenhead was informed of that development, Archbishop Polding did not promulgate the Rescript in Australia. The Sisters in Australia were unaware of the official separation until 2 July 1846, when the 1842 Rescript was affixed on the Convent Chapel doors at Parramatta and in Sydney.
It is from such beginnings that the Australian Congregation has emerged and grown into the vibrant congregation it has become today; where from Queensland to Tasmania, the sisters are committed to numerous ministries in the health, aged care, education and welfare sectors. For more details visit the Australian Congregational website.