Spirit of religious Sisters revitalised in new exhibition

The exhibition features a statue of the Sisters of Charity’s founder Mother Mary Aikenhead.

The exhibition features a statue of the Sisters of Charity’s founder Mother Mary Aikenhead.

A new Sydney exhibition preserves the history of an Irish order of nuns who founded one of the city’s largest hospitals.

The Sisters of Charity Heritage Centre opened in early June with a mission to relay the story of the women religious who founded Catholic schools and the ground-breaking St Vincent’s Hospital to care for Australians more than 180 years ago.

Congregation historian Sister Moira O’Sullivan, who arrived in Australia from Cork in 1939, said the exhibition was a testament to the unrelenting struggles and passion of the first Sisters who arrived in colonial Sydney from Dublin.

“They had morning and night visits to the Parramatta Female Factory where the female convicts were, and after some years they included the Catholic orphan school.

“They had to walk through bush, they would be walking on dirt roads.”

Originally sent to help alleviate the circumstances of convicts, the dutiful women soon turned their attention to helping the wider community.

Sr Moira O’Sullivan collates the Sisters of Charity’s history.

Sr Moira O’Sullivan collates the Sisters of Charity’s history.

Sr O’Sullivan said the Sisters “were poor and hard working”, allowing them to connect with the very people they were serving.

“Life was hard for them but I think that was an advantage because it put them on the same level as the people they were working with.

 “It meant that they got tremendous support from everyone,” she said.  

Exhibition visitors begin a solemn journey through time at the iron convent gates that once stood proudly at the manor home that housed the Sisters of Charity after its purchase in 1856.

The Centre’s artefacts offer insight into every aspect of the devout women’s work, from a heavy pre-Vatican II habit harking back to the days when nuns were not to be seen out of reverent uniform, to charming sketches of everyday apostolic religious life by the Sisters themselves.

The Heritage Centre houses artefacts from every era of Sisters of Charity’s Ministries.

The Heritage Centre houses artefacts from every era of Sisters of Charity’s Ministries.

Their spirit is also revitalised with interactive panels to appeal to the touch-screen generation.

 The exhibit does not end with the story of Mother Mary John Cahill and Sisters Mary Francis de Dales O’Brien, Mary Baptist De Lacy, Mary Xavier Williams and Mary Lawrence Cater, who arrived in Australia on New Year’s Eve in 1838.

It explores the current Sisters’ approach to modern concerns including drug addiction and rehabilitation, refugee assistance, and enduring Indigenous issues.

With just 116 Sisters of Charity in Australia today, Sr O’Sullivan believed the education surrounding the history of the faithful that the Centre could provide was essential.

“We can contribute a sense of the importance of God,” she said.

The Sisters of Charity Heritage Centre at 1 Rockwall Crescent, Potts Point, is open to visitors Tuesday to Thursday from 10am-3pm.