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From the archives: an account of the first Religious Sisters of Charity in Australia

1801 archives thumbThe letters of Mother Mary Aikenhead are an exceptional treasure, cared for in the Congregations Generelate archives, they provide an invaluable insight into the Congregations early beginnings and her vision for it’s future.


Within this collection, are several letters which discuss the travels of the first Religious Sisters of Charity to Australia; Mother Mary John Cahill, Sister Mary John Baptist De Lacy, Sister Mary Xavier Williams, Sister Mary Lawrence Cater and Sister Mary Francis de Sales O’Brien.

Although these five Sisters do not begin their long journey until August 1838, these discussions begin three years earlier. In a letter to Mother de Chantal Coleman on 13 March 1835, Mary Aikenhead wonders if any Sisters would be interested;
‘I wish to know whether any one with you is anxious to be sent to Australasia. Don’t say I emplored this, but tell me exactly the state of feelings. For it is determined that it will be right of us to send some out with M. B. & it will be in the course of this year if at all!’1801 archives 01

In 1836, Mary Aikenhead received a request from Bishop John Bede Polding, to send Sisters from Ireland to some to Sydney and work in the colony, however she was unable to agree at that time. In her preceding letters, one in particular, on 7 November 1835, she seems positive that the Sisters would be engaged in fulfilling work, should they decide to go;
‘It is in His hands who knows how this work can be best effected, all who are instruments should be careful to merit the divine blessing on their share of the work.’
She also mentions Bishop Polding in several letters ‘he is a plain, unassuming man, most pious’, and his intent to ensure the mission work carried out will be successful; ‘his mind has been fixed on the mission for which he is appointed Apostolic Vicar.’ In the same letter, she notes her surprise that some Novices are intrigued at the possibility of working in Australia
‘a young lady of about Twenty who hearing of Bishop Polding’s Mission to New Holland, enquired if he meant to establish Sisters of Charity in his immense diocese.’

1801 archives 02Bishop Polding sent a second request in 1837 and at this time Mary Aikenhead agreed, however, 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, travelling to Australia on the ‘Francis Spaight’, Mary Aikenhead writes to de Chantal in anticipation of their voyage;
‘On Wednesday evening our dear Sisters sailed from Kingstown accompanied by Very Rev’d Father Whelan, who most kindly undertook the journey. I pray my dear M.C. that God will guide them.’

From January 1839 the Sisters worked at the women’s prison in Parramatta and visiting the many of the female convicts, they also undertook work at government hospitals, orphanages and schools. Their work certainly had a remarkable impact, in 1842 Mary Aikenhead writes to de Chantal asking for ‘prayers for the Noviceship’ on several occasions, as Bishop Polding has sought additional Sisters to be sent to Australia:
‘His Grace proposed our training more young ladies wishing to be Sisters of Charity in that new world, and to this our own Venerated Archbishop consented.’

1801 archives 03Throughout Mary Aikenhead’s later correspondence she often writes about the wellbeing, work and progress of the Sisters in Australia, and the positive impact of their work in Sydney. However, she mentions some of the Sisters are homesick in some of their letters to Ireland; ‘our dear Sister M misses our eggs!’, a fondness for home comforts, something we can all empathise with!

While this has only been a brief glimpse into the letters of Mary Aikenhead, her collection of correspondence provide an interesting and historically significant insight into the early years of the Congregation’s rich history.

Image Refs:
Letter from Mary Aikenhead, 13 March 1835 (RSCG/1/A/50)
Letter from Mary Aikenhead, 7 November 1835 (RSCG/1/A/47)
Letter from Mary Aikenhead, 13 October 1842 (RSCG/1/A/108)