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Monday, 24 March 2014 14:23

Universally useful for 175 years

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What well-to-do young woman would have the courage to begin a new religious congregation that served Ireland's poor in their places of need? Sr Margaret Valentine rsc, Pastoral Co-ordinator of Myall Coast Parish, tells the story of the first congregation of religious women in Australia, the congregation to which she belongs.

Her name was Mary Aikenhead – a great lover of God, who had a hugely compassionate heart for God's most needy.

In Dublin she was asked by Bishop Daniel Murray to begin this new group of religious women. The Irish Sisters of Charity were founded in 1815 to be universally useful. Each Sister undertook many tasks in those early years, caring for orphans and repentant women, giving religious instruction in schools where the poor had a free basic education, and visiting the sick and prisoners. Year by year, they took on new tasks as the number of Sisters grew. Mary started her own schools and eventually realised her great dream: a hospital for the poor where they could be treated with love and dignity.

Soon after the new congregation began, Mary Aikenhead was told about the needs of the Australian Church by its first bishop, Bede Polding, who asked the Sisters of Charity to work with downtrodden Catholic women convicts at the Female Factory in Parramatta. Moved by stories of the plight of the poor, Mary called for volunteers to go to the colony of New South Wales.

The five volunteers – Mother Mary John Cahill (b 1793), Sr M John Baptist De Lacy (b 1799), Sr M Xavier Williams (b 1800), Sr M Lawrence Cater (b 1811) and Sr M Francis de Sales O'Brien (b 1809) – left Ireland in August 1838, fired with Mary's large-minded, visionary and practical enthusiasm for the poor, especially for convicts. These women were the first religious women in Australia.

These Sisters came from a congregation active in teaching, nursing, looking after orphans and women, used to managing its own affairs, including finance. The pioneer Sisters visited and instructed women convicts and the sick, taught poor children, prepared people to receive the sacraments of the church and cared for women and orphans.

Sr Baptist De Lacy inspired the other Sisters to open a hospital. After the purchase of “Tarmons” in 1856, this became possible and the first St Vincent's Hospital in Australia was opened on the site (in what is now Potts Point) in 1857. With public support and a permanent location, the Sisters were able to open a school in 1858.

Foundations followed in all eastern states and included health care, education and social welfare. With changes in Australian culture and more and more lay colleagues joining the Sisters in their work, the Sisters moved to other areas of need. Today Sisters may be found ministering in many different places – among refugees, asylum seekers, indigenous people, in areas of justice and spirituality and in parishes. Around their places of living, Sisters may be found in the areas of hospitality, presence and prayer. Wherever the Sisters are, the spirit of Mary Aikenhead continues as Sisters strive “to bring to each person the love, tenderness and concern of Christ....seeing Christ in all.”

This anniversary of 175 years in Australia is an opportunity for the Sisters of Charity, not only to give thanks to God, but to all the wonderful women and men who have encouraged and supported us over these years.

(Main photo: Sr Margaret Valentine rsc (right) shown with Sr Maria Wheeler rsc who until recently was ministering in Scone.)

To learn more about the Sisters of Charity, please visit www.sistersofcharity.org.au.

This article was first published in the March 2014 edition of Aurora Magazine, the official publication of the Catholic Diocese of Maitland Newcastle.

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