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Sisters of Charity in Australia

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.

Life of Mary Aikenhead

  •  Scene 1
     Mary Aikenhead was born in Cork in 1787. Her father, Dr David Aikenhead, was an apothecary and a member of the Church of Ireland. Her mother, Mary Stackpole, was from a Roman Catholic aristocrat family. Mary was fostered out to John and Mary Rourke, a poor Roman Catholic couple, until she was six when the Rourkes came to live with her family as servants.
  • Scene 2 
     In 1801, when Mary was only 15, her father died. Mrs Gorman, Mary's mother's sister took Mary under her wing and often took Mary to mass with her. A sermon preached on Jesus' parable of the rich man and Lazarus was a turning point for Mary. Her heart burned within her as she heard the message of God's deep love and compassion for the forgotten, the unwanted, and the despised. She decided to become a Roman Catholic, and after a course of instruction, Mary was received into the church in 1802.
  • Scene 3 
     Mary joined a group of women who set up centres for the distribution of food and clothing. Celia Lynch, also involved in this work, decided to join the Poor Clares. Mary's religious convictions deepened into a vocation for religious life too, but she was convinced that her vocation was a life of service to the poor. However, there was no convent in Ireland that allowed its members to move outside the enclosure at the time. When Mary made a trip to Dublin for Celia's profession in 1807, she befriended Anna O' Brien and Fr Daniel Murray, both of whom shared her dream of an order of religious women committed to the service of the poor.
  • Scene 4 
     Family pressures kept Mary in Cork, but she kept in close contact with Anna O' Brien. Within two years of their first meeting, Daniel Murray became coadjutor Bishop of Dublin and asked Mary to take responsibility for a new order of nuns, looking after the poor. She accepted and travelled with Alicia Walsh to the Institute of the Blessed Virgin Mary in York to receive spiritual formation in an established religious order. Mary and Alicia returned to Dublin in 1815. Because the new order had not yet been formally established, they could not assume a formal religious habit so they dressed in a simple black dress and muslin cap. They took over an orphanage in North William Street and they, and the postulants who joined them, were kept busy with the orphanage, the orphanage school, and visiting the poor and sick in their own homes. By holding to her conviction that there can be no charity without respect for the poor, Mary and the sisters earned respect, even in the toughest of neighbourhoods.
  • Scene 5 
     At a private ceremony in 1815, Mary and Alicia had taken temporary vows to live according to the Rules of York, and Archbishop Murray appointed Alicia as novice mistress and Mary as superior. Meanwhile, he sought permission from Rome to establish the order with the addition of the fourth vow, a vow of service to the poor.

    In December 1816, the order was officially established by rescript from Pope Pius VII, and Mary and Alicia made their perpetual profession at a private mass celebrated by Archbishop Murray. Now that they were officially recognised, the community began to wear their distinctive habit, a practical working garment worn with a solid brass crucifix at the breast. Their first public reception of postulants took place in 1817, and the sermon preached was on the quote from St Paul's second epistle to the Corinthians: Caritas Christi urget nos - the love of Christ urges us on. These words became the motto of the congregation, inspiring them to respond to need whenever it was within their power to do so.
  • Scene 6 
     The energy of the new order, and its radical commitment to the poor attracted many capable young women as postulants. In 1818, Mary took over their formation at the novitiate in Stanhope Street. In 1821, the governor of Kilmainham jail was so impressed with the positive influence the sisters had on two women awaiting execution that he asked them to make regular pastoral visits, thus beginning a long tradition of prison ministry.
  • Scene 7 
     Mary Aikenhead believed that education was an effective way to combat poverty. In 1827, following a bequest of £4000 from the Archbishop of Cashel to Daniel Murray, the sisters began work on new school and convent buildings in Gardner Street. The reputation of Mother Xavier (principal of the Gardner Street schools for 40 years) as an educator spread, and inspired many who followed her in establishing schools throughout Ireland and England.
  • Scene 8 
     In 1831, Mary suffered severely from inflammation of the spine and was prescribed complete rest and country air. Reluctantly, she retreated to a new foundation in Sandymount, and she continued to administer the growing congregation from her sick bed. She also became a close friend of her physician, Dr Ferrall, and while he attended her, they began to work on a hospital project. Mary had received a dowry of £3000 and with this she planned to open a hospital where "the poor could be given for love what the rich obtain for money".

    In 1833, she sent three sisters to the Hospitalières de St. Thomas in Paris to learn about hospital administration. The following year, with unshakeable belief in Divine Providence, she bought the Earl of Meath's mansion on St Stephen's Green, and with her health much improved, she supervised the conversion of the building to a hospital. Funds began to trickle in and in 1835, the first ward of St Vincent's hospital was opened with Dr Ferrall in charge. This was one of Mary Aikenhead's most extraordinary and lasting achievements.
  • Scene 9 
     After a period of relative ease, Mary's health deteriorated again. She was forced to leave her beloved hospital and move to Harold's Cross, and the novitiate soon followed her there. She was forced to rule the congregation largely by correspondence. During the famine the congregation did what it could for the destitute from the countryside who flooded into the towns. While the health of the foundress deteriorated, the congregation thrived. In 1838, five sisters made the four-month voyage to Australia, to work in the Penal Colonies.

    Mary Aikenhead departed this life in July 1858. For her congregation she remains a living presence. Her living of Gospel values and her faith in Divine Providence are the inspiration of the Religious Sisters of Charity. As her daughters in religion, they struggle to renew her charism in our own time, to dedicate themselves, in Christ's name, to joyful service of the poor, to be advocates for the weak, to be afire with Justice.