Australia's longest serving congregation of women religious is about to celebrate its 175th anniversary. Their mission began in working with female convicts. Sr Annette Cunliffe, provides this reflection on a remarkable legacy of service.
- By Sr Annette Cunliffe
On December 31, 1838, five Sisters of Charity reached Australia from Ireland after a four-month journey aboard the sailing vessel the Francis Speight. On the 175th anniversary of their arrival, New Year's Eve this year, the Sisters of Charity of Australia will celebrate that highly significant event.
The Sisters of Charity were the first Religious women to come to the fledgling colony of New South Wales. Religious women added – and continue to add – a different dimension and portray a difference ‘face’ within the Church's mission to bring ever closer God's dream for us of justice and peace. For this Jesus lived, died and rose again.
Such an ideal of justice and peace must have seemed an unattainable reality to most of the people of Sydney at the end of the first 50 years of white settlement!
The five sisters were sent from Ireland by the Foundress, Mary Aikenhead, in response to an invitation from Bishop Polding. They came from a young Congregation which had only fifty members at the time. Mary Aikenhead’s warm heart responded especially to her realisation of the dire conditions in which the poor of this distant land – convicts, Aboriginal people, and settlers alike – lived. She even had a crucifix with a black figure included in the precious items packed for the mission and carried with the sisters as they left Ireland, never expecting to return.
Religious women and men respond to a call to commit their lives to the following of Christ as witnesses of his Resurrection, the triumph of life over death in all its forms. For Sisters of Charity, that call is particularly one of service to Jesus in the persons of the poor. He lived out his mission by proclaiming ‘good news to the poor’ in word and deed and that is the mission of Sisters of Charity who take a fourth Vow of Service of the Poor.
Freed from the many administrative roles that they occupied in the past, Sisters are able to respond to ‘social spaces’ that need such development, contexts where their skills and life experience can engage with people so that, together with them, we can make life flourish.
Like Jesus, our goal is to live this out in every aspect of our lives.
The number of Sisters has reduced in recent years and the number of younger women in our ranks is small; yet, Sisters of Charity, together with other Religious women and men continue to make an enormous contribution to the culture and values of Australia.
Religious such as the Sisters of Charity realise how God has blessed us in our lives. We then feel called to witness to God's love and the power of Jesus' resurrection. We do this through the ways we 'create and protect the social spaces that make life flourish, which promote the development of persons and communities characterised by free and respectful relationships' as one writer puts it.
The New Year’s Eve event is the centrepiece of a year of celebration and will be marked by a liturgy webcast for the sisters throughout the Eastern States of Australia. Appropriately, we will be joined by the Congregational Leader of the Founding Sisters of Charity from Ireland and the current Irish Provincial.
Public Eucharistic celebrations, to be held in the four Eastern States next year, are listed on our website, www.sistersofcharity.org.au. Invitations will soon be sent to allow our many friends, colleagues and benefactors to share our celebration of God's goodness to us. Smaller, local celebrations are also being planned.
It is our hope this year will be a source of inspiration and that, with others who will hear a similar call as Sisters or as colleagues and friends who respond to their Baptismal call, we can play our part in making life flourish, building communities ‘characterised by free and respectful relationships’ wherever we are.
- Sr Annette Cunliffe is the congregational leader of the Sisters of Charity, and head of Catholic Religious Australia