This month sees the close, with a Mass at St Mary's Cathedral in Sydney, of the 175th anniversary year of the Sisters of Charity in Australia. Sr Annette Cunliffe, Sisters of Charity Congregational Leader, reflects on the events of the last year.
From August 15, 2013 to August 14, 2014, the Sisters of Charity of Australia have been celebrating a year of thanksgiving for the 175th Anniversary of the arrival of five Sisters of Charity from Ireland on 31st December 1838.
We published a book and DVD to mark the occasion, and celebrated together (with the help of a web-cast) on the actual day and with many others around the country in formal and informal settings.
Some celebrations, such as the solemn Eucharistic celebrations in the Cathedrals in Melbourne, Parramatta and Brisbane and in St Joseph's Church, Hobart and the forthcoming final Eucharist in St Mary's Cathedral, Sydney next weekend, have been public ones.
Others have been a series of smaller events, such as a gathering of Sisters, past pupils and colleagues from many of the schools and colleges where Sisters have ministered, and in health and aged care facilities connected with the Sisters.
The Trustees of Mary Aikenhead Ministries, who now govern many of our former ministries, have also marked the year by commissioning plaques to mark up to 80 sites where Sisters have ministered in Australia. The Sisters of Charity Foundation has marked the year by forming a partnership with the Asylum Seekers Centre to provide transitional housing for asylum seekers, recently purchasing a property that will house up to twenty asylum seekers under the care of the Asylum Seeker Centre.
The formal and informal occasions have provided wonderful opportunities to remember many highlights of our story, guided by God's providence:
• The generosity of Mary Aikenhead, our Foundress, in sending five well-educated Sisters, though fewer than 50 remained in the still-new Irish Congregation;
• The courageous four and a half month journey of four professed Sisters and one Novice from the other side of the world to remote Sydney Town;
• The first Religious Vows ever being taken by a women religious in this country;
• The difficult decision of three of the original five to transfer to Tasmania a mere eight years after their arrival in Australia
• The courage of those who remained in Sydney, persevering and laying the foundations of ministries in health and education, while also serving those in prison or abject poverty
• The legacy of Sisters through the years and their contribution to this nation and our Australian Church;
• The amazing men and women who have worked beside us and supported us and those who now shoulder the governance, leadership and service of ministries in health and aged care, education and social welfare that serve new and ongoing needs in our country and beyond.
Of course every occasion included 'refreshments'– that parallel 'sharing of a meal' that nourishes both body and spirit. These provided wonderful opportunities to meet and renew friendships with the extraordinary numbers of friends, family, current and former colleagues, students and their families and those now working in ministries that were begun by the Sisters.
Remembering the huge challenges of the past and the way that God's Providence and the audacious courage of our fore-mothers which faced and overcome them gives us tremendous hope in our future. Mary Aikenhead's motto 'I can do all things in the One who gives me strength' combines with that of the Congregation 'The love of Christ impels us' to lead us forward with joy.
Times such as this are a wonderful preparation for our General Chapter later this year. We seek to focus on our Congregational life and the direction of our mission, for the good of all and for the sake of God's mission. The experience of the small and large gatherings and our reflection on them has given us new impetus to seek out the needs that call to us now – no longer transported convicts, but the people of our time who are trapped in similar appalling circumstances, amongst them:
• asylum seekers, imprisoned in detention camps in Australia, Christmas and Manus Islands and Nauru, detained at sea or sent back to the danger from which they are excaping, most robbed of any hope of settlement in Australia under the punitive approach of our government,
• victims of abuse, whose lives have been destroyed by predators in families or church or community settings,
• women, men and children trafficked into slave-like conditions or prostitution,
• indigenous communities who experience sub-standard housing, educational opportunities and health care or
• those made homeless by circumstances beyond their control.
With the help of God's every-present providence and the prayerful support of our many, many friends, we hope that, in the years ahead we can help make as much difference to our society as have the past 175.