I was asked to write an Irish song for an upcoming music festival. Often my song-writing requires a specific catalyst and the songs tend to come out fully-formed in a few minutes. In searching for a suitable subject for a song, I remembered one of the key Irish connections to our small town in Australia; that being, the Sisters of Mercy who came here in 1875 to set up a school.
My children go/have gone to the primary school that a group of Sisters from Rochfortbridge in County Meath, Ireland, started when they arrived in the town in 1857.
I should caveat my post with the statement that I am sceptical of the capacity for closed religious orders of monks or nuns to maintain a healthy lifestyle in the long term. Victor Hugo dedicates a significant part of Les Misérables to describing the dangers associated with these groups. As a society we have been doing some painful looking into the past on this issue, the Magdalene Sisters in Ireland being a key relevant example. That said, I have great respect and admiration for the courage of these nuns who travelled, on request, to Australia with the intention of doing some good through education.
The song that I wrote is a fanciful re-imagining of brave young(ish; Eliza Fielding was 41) women leaving their native home in Ireland and coming to this dry, brown, land with its mix of recently displaced native peoples, rough settlers and wealthy sheep-station owners. I chose to present the emotion of longing for their (much) greener home but also their desire to share a message of love (and mercy). I have chosen one anecdote from a historical website[i] article that describes how the sisters allowed the local aboriginal children into their classes, but were later forbidden to do so by the State Department for Education. In response, the sisters set up a separate classroom until the classes were eventually integrated.
I also know that the lives of the founder of the Sisters of Mercy order, Catherine McAuley, and one of the key sisters who came to Yass, Mary Paul Fielding, are still remembered at the Mt Carmel School through the naming of their school houses and the annual events that the children are engaged in. The buildings that the sisters built and later lived and taught in are still standing. St Augustine’s Chapel, in particular, has recently be renovated and used as one of the most beautiful venues for the Turning Wave Festival held here in September.
A more in-depth biography of Mary Paul Fielding is provided on the Sisters of Mercy website[ii], including the names of all the sisters who came to Yass. Mother Fielding, in particular, is buried in Wilcannia, far inland New South Wales, definitely qualifying as ‘under a sunburnt sky’.
I do wonder whether my song reflects the feelings in the hearts of the women that came here, especially the young postulants and sisters. Maureen Healy writes in Life out West, her article in the Australasian Catholic Record[iii] in June 2015,
“We pray with our Pope Francis that the Spirit of joy will return to our world, that we will recognise through the eyes of mercy that our children will benefit from the care and the concern of others, and that our elders will be honoured.”
With the way the world seems to be going at the moment, I admire her optimism. The history of the Sisters of Mercy in Australia and the economic and social circumstances that caused young women to leave Ireland and live a life of hardship and service all over Australia are fascinating. Sophia McGrath’s case study of the Parramatta Sisters of Mercy[iv], published in 1995 gives significant insight into this world.
A quote from the above article:
“In 1906 Sister M.Alphonsus Shelly, a pioneer Sister, wrote to Moran: ‘Father Murray CSSR has given a beautiful retreat to the Children of Mary in Surry Hills. It will, please God, be productive of great good. There is a true nursery of vocations there.”
The phrase ‘nursery of vocations’ gives some idea of how young girls were considered (or groomed) for entry into the vocational life. I wonder how many entered because of religious fervour which had been intentionally fanned, how many entered because of the challenges created by their social class and how many entered because, at the time, there were few other opportunities for women in the world other than being a servant-wife.
[iii] Healy, Maureen. Life out west [online]. Australasian Catholic Record, The, Vol. 92, No. 2, Jun 2015: 148-153
[iv] McGrath, Sophie. Women religious in the history of Australia 1888/ 1950: a case study, the Sisters of Mercy, Parramatta [online]. Journal of the Royal Australian Historical Society, Vol. 81, No. 2, Dec 1995: 195-212