Archived News Item

Hurrah for Foundations


In addition to their being Sisters of Mercy, what do Sisters Ursula Frayne, Xavier Maguire, Philomene Maguire, Aloysius Martyn, Ignatius Walsh, Alocoque Ryan, and Agnes Graham  have in common?

The answer is that each of these women was a Mercy foundress, one who carried the torch of Mercy to locations in Victoria where Sisters of Mercy now live and minister. [Let me emphasise at the outset that I am writing purely from a Victorian perspective though, mutatis mutandis, the same could be written for anywhere in Australia where Mercy Sisters made foundations]

Second question:
Why am I writing about these women? One reason is that December 7 2014 marked the 120th anniversary of the death of Agnes Graham.  ‘Who is Agnes Graham?’ many of you may ask, particularly if you have not lived in Warrnambool, Ballarat or Colac. Agnes was a pioneer Sister of Mercy in the Warrnambool community, arriving there with Philomene Maguire in 1872.  In 1881 she led the foundational group of sisters to Ballarat and seven years later she established a foundation in Colac.  A valiant woman by all accounts, a trailblazer, yet, apart from the locals, her anniversary went largely unacknowledged.  

On the actual day twenty Sisters of Mercy gathered with Father Michael O’Toole and the local Catholic community of Colac to celebrate a Mass of thanksgiving for the life and contribution of Agnes Graham.  Local sister Aileen Moloney retold the story of Agnes’ life, her joining the Baggot Street community in defiance of her father’s wishes, her ministry in England, her volunteering for the Australian mission where, after ten years in Warrnambool, she led a group of sisters to establish a foundation in Ballarat and thence to Colac.  Aileen recalled the account of Agnes’ funeral published in the ‘Colac Herald’ of December 11 1894.  It seems that between 350 and 400 persons walked in procession from the Church to the cemetery, there forming a guard of honour through which the members of the Hibernian Society carried the coffin to the graveside. Of Agnes the Bishop of the time (Dr Moore) stated that in the course of his travels he had never met a more religious or devout woman, and that she would be a great loss to the Catholic community. A hundred and twenty years later, following Mass the sisters joined in the blessing and dedication of a commemorative plaque in Colac cemetery.  How moving it was (in quite inclement weather) to sprinkle holy water on the grave where Agnes and other pioneering sisters are buried, to pray together and to sing Catherine’s ‘Suscipe’ thus linking our present Mercy reality to all that had taken place in Colac since Agnes’ arrival there in January 1888.

There is another influence which inspired my writing and that is the prayer we used for Foundation Day 2014.  Now we all know that for Sisters of Mercy, the main focus of December 12 has traditionally been Catherine and her companions – recalling how they made their vows at Georges Hill and hurried home to their community to begin officially the work of the newly-established Institute of Mercy. Last year, in the prayer prepared by Margie Abbott rsm, the focus was on Australian foundations and perforce the focus moved to foundresses who followed after Catherine. It started with the foundresses of the Congregations which formed the Institute of Sisters of Mercy of Australia and Papua New Guinea (ISMAPNG) in 2011 – Ignatius Croke, Aloysius O’Driscoll, De Sales Meagher and their ilk.  In subsequent discussion, however, it became clear that there were many more foundresses whose names and stories are not well-known among us and yet our existence in the places we now live and minister is testimony to their faith, their pioneering spirit and their courage.

We all have our local histories, of course, in which the memory of our foundresses is perpetuated.   In Bendigo Aloysius Martyn’s story is honoured; in Warrnambool Philomene Maguire’s memory is sacred.  The same can be said for Yarrawonga and Ignatius Walsh and for all the others.  My point is, however, that the effect of the lives of these women goes beyond local boundaries.  In Victoria where many houses amalgamated with Melbourne – ten in 1908, four more between 1914 and 1936, the story of the various local foundresses tends to be less well known. Whilst acknowledging the impact that Ursula Frayne has had on our Mercy History in Australia both in the West and the East, I would like to suggest that shoulder to shoulder with her stand other women who brought Catherine’s vision and her message of Mercy to other parts of Victoria and whose story is equally our story.

One consequence of our reconfiguring of many of our Mercy Congregations is that the treasures of each foundational story belong to us all.  The riches of the annals of Shepparton and Seymour, of Casterton and Kyneton are our riches.  The women who were the vanguard of Mercy presence here in Victoria are our founding mothers; we need to hear again the story of what inspired them, how they coped with the uncertainties of a harsh climate, uncertain means of transport and communication, lacking at times the wherewithal for the necessities of life. Let us keep their memory alive! In the spirit of Jesus’ disciples who, after his feeding the crowds gathered up the fragments of bread and fish, let us gather our foundational stories so that nothing is lost.  We will find that what we have is so much greater than we imagined.
There are other foundresses whose deeds contribute to our Mercy heritage Institute-wide.  I am mindful of sisters who left their mother houses to establish branch houses, often in remote locations. I am mindful of pioneers in more recent times who took the Mercy vision to places such as Papua New Guinea, Pakistan, the Kimberley and Timor Leste, or into ministries such as motor missions or working with refugees and asylum seekers.  Clearly, in these instances the sense of ‘foundation’ been broadened but the spirit animating these sisters is the spirit which inspired Catherine. Here too are stories to be told, memories to be kept alive.

In conclusion as I thank Margie Abbott and my other Mercy sisters for helping me widen my perspective on foundations, may I express a wish. It is that together we will resolve to keep alive the memory of our foundresses – of Xavier and Philomene Maguire and Agnes Graham, of Aloysius Martyn, Ignatius Walsh, Alocoque Ryan and Ursula Frayne; that we will tell and re-tell the stories of these women who were prepared to tread unknown paths and blaze new trails in spreading the Good News to God’s people wherever they were; that we will honour all our foundresses and claim their stories as our own! As the song so emphatically states: Amen we affirm!  Amen we encourage!  Amen we bless and we celebrate! Amen!

There is an addendum to the Colac story! Also buried in the Colac cemetery is Jessie Tomkins McAuley, wife of ‘Wild Willie’(nephew of Catherine McAuley) and mother of his children, one of whom became Sister Catherine McAuley in the Kyneton community and another of whom settled in New Zealand, becoming the great-grandfather of Les Stewart, a Mercy Associate who lives in Creswick near Ballarat.  Les had never visited his great-grandmother’s grave and the celebration of Agnes Graham’s anniversary was the catalyst for his being able to do so.  Jessie would have been pleased and proud to see her great grandson accompanied by many sisters of Mercy gathering to pray at her grave and to hear the strains of the ‘Suscipe’ repeated there thus to honour her role in the story of God’s unceasing merciful love.

Messages to: Berenice Kerr rsm

Archived News Item

Hurrah for foundations!

Sisters of Mercy of the Grafton Congregation gathered with friends, family and colleagues in late January to celebrate 125 years of the Sisters of Mercy in Grafton and the Lismore Diocese (NSW). Sister Colleen Rhodes RSM reports.

Photo: Sisters Barbara Bolster RSM,
Patricia Bell RSM and Nerida Tinkler RSM

If only Catherine McAuley, the first Sister of Mercy, Clare Moore, the first superior in Bermondsey and Mother Stanislaus Simson, Grafton foundress, could have been in Grafton on Saturday, January 24, 2009! How they would have rejoiced to be part of the overwhelming good will and happiness that encompassed the celebration of 125 years of Mercy presence in Grafton and the Lismore Diocese. Catherine’s spirit was carried from Dublin to Bermondsey and thence to Grafton; it was palpable in the Congregation at St Mary’s Church, Grafton, as the celebrations began.

Reverend Geoffrey Jarrett DD, Bishop of Lismore, was principal celebrant of the Eucharist. Parishioners from Grafton and other parishes throughout the diocese joined in thanksgiving for the blessings of 125 years.

Bill Dougherty, a Mercy old boy, welcomed the congregation; Rex Marshall, an Aboriginal Elder and Mercy old boy, was, unfortunately, unable to perform the Welcome to Country but the original owners of the land were acknowledged by Mrs Barbara Fahey, one of the speakers after Mass.

The choir, whose contribution was magnificent, came from Maclean, down river from Grafton. They were under the direction of Sister Anne Gallagher and accompanied by organist Mrs Gwen Baumann.

At the end of Mass the congregation remained for speeches. Sister Barbara Bolster RSM, Congregation Leader for Grafton, outlined the history of the Grafton Foundation, paying tribute to Mother Stanislaus Simson, Sisters Angela Curtis, de Sanctis Collins, Veronica Duggan, Joseph Donegan, Aloysius Donegan, Teresa Roche (novice), Mary Ann Scannel (postulant) and Mary Mahoney who became a postulant the day they arrived in Grafton.

Sister Nerida Tinkler spoke on behalf of the Institute; Sister Patricia Bell, Leader of the Institute of Our Lady of Mercy of Great Britain was a most welcome speaker as she represented Bermondsey. It was with great joy that Sister Barbara received from Sister Patricia a beautifully framed copy of Mother Mary Stanislaus’ vows.

The Clarence Valley Mayor, another Mercy old boy, spoke on behalf of the civic community and Barbara Fahey represented all the Mercy ex-students of Grafton and beyond.

Despite the searing summer heat, a wonderful gathering of people came together outside the church for morning tea. As they looked down to the river, they were able to see the large numbers, 1 2 5 on the flat beside the river; the groundsman had done a remarkable job with his lawnmower!

The fellowship was ‘grand’ as Catherine would, no doubt, have said! Invited guests had to be rallied, somewhat later than planned, to move to the Convent. Sister Berenice Kerr, D.Phil (Oxon.) had prepared an historical presentation to launch Letters to Bermondsey From the Pioneer Sisters of the Grafton Community. In air-conditioned relief from the heat, about 100 sisters and guests enjoyed a really interesting multi-media story that provided a compelling background to the Letters.

A surprise followed – Sister Barbara had commissioned local craftsman, Jim Muldoon, (also an ex-student) to make a box for a cup and saucer to be presented to Sister Patricia Bell. Part of the original tea set given as a parting gift to the sisters before they left Bermondsey, the cup and saucer is now being returned to Bermondsey. In one of the letters home, the early sisters mentioned that Grafton was settled by cedar-getters and that they had planted some cedar trees. Jim chose cedar for the display case that would take the teacup ‘home’.

Photo: Sister Barbara Bolster RSM presents Sister Patricia Bell RSM with part of the original tea set given as a parting gift to the sisters before they left Bermondsey.

Chris Jabour (another ex-student!) and younger members of his family currently enrolled at McAuley Catholic College, did wonders with the luncheon which was served in the convent dining room. Guests were able to relax and share so many memories and stories.

Then, when the crowd had dwindled, the sisters went to the old Grafton Cemetery where all but one of the pioneer sisters are buried. Sister Bev Whitton had prepared a simple ritual of prayer and remembrance. A single rose was placed on each grave and once again, stories and memories were shared.

Present with us for the 125th Anniversary Celebrations in Grafton were Sisters Nerida Tinkler, Caroline Ryan and Karon Donnellon from the Institute of the Sisters of Mercy of Australia and PNG, Sister Patricia Bell, Leader of the Institute of Our Lady of Mercy of Great Britain, Sisters Faye Kelly and Margaret Rush (Cairns), Berneice Loch and Joanne Molloy (Rockhampton), Helen Baguley (Gunnedah), Pat Lynch (Wilcannia-Forbes) Marie Duffy (Goulburn), Ailsa Mackinnon (Parramatta) Mary Lynch (Bathurst), Faith Jones (Singleton) Mary Bennett and Carmel McCormick, (Melbourne).

Greetings and flowers came from Bermondsey and Eltham, a branch house of Bermondsey and home to at least four of the pioneer sisters.

The story of the Grafton foundation is not over yet! As sisters and friends read and reread the letters written ‘home’ between 1884 and 1939, there is no doubt that they will be encouraged and re-energised to continue the work that was so dear to the heart of Catherine McAuley, Stanislaus Simson and the Sisters who left Bermondsey, their ‘first, dear Convent home’ to come to ‘wild Australia’.

We give thanks to God, our Mother of Mercy, the sisters who travelled from north and south, and those who sent greetings from all parts of Australia. We rejoice in the shared gifts of all who celebrated with us the blessings of 125 years of foundations in the Lismore Diocese and outreach to PNG, Asia and Africa. As Catherine herself said: “Hurrah for foundations! They make the old young and the young merry.”

From: Sister Colleen Rhodes RSM (Local Communications Facilitator, Grafton)