“˜LORD SEND US A BREEZE’
In the years immediately prior to 1888, the Bishop of the Vicariate of Cooktown, Bishop John Hutchinson OSA realised that the immigrants arriving in Cooktown to join the frenzy of the Palmer River Gold Rush, in varying capacities, were poor and unable to adequately educate their children. He decided, while visiting Ireland and after advice from his fellow Augustinian priests in Dungarvan County Waterford, to approach the Sisters of Mercy and ask them to come to Cooktown.
In the spirit of their foundress Catherine McAuley, who founded the Congregation in 1831, the Sisters at the Convent of Mercy Dungarvan, County Waterford gave their consent for Sisters to travel to Cooktown. Every sister in the community volunteered to take the arduous journey, however five Sisters were chosen according to their qualifications: management (Mother M de Sales), financial administration (Sr M Josephine), music ( Sr M Joseph), education ( Sr M Evangelist), domestic organisation and home economics ( Sr M Rodriguez).
The daily organization of the ministry of the Sisters of Mercy at St Mary’s Cooktown followed the model developed by the Sisters throughout Ireland. The Sisters in Cooktown introduced the basic educational subjects necessary in the school and broadened their curriculum to include the arts and music. Some students boarded at the Convent and the school soon became both a primary and high school. In the years following, other Convents sprang up and adapted to local needs; the Sisters working closely with the Bishop and local people.
Weathering economic downturns, population shifts and cyclones, the Sisters kept up their morale, despite the tropical heat, with its humidity and high temperatures. The Sisters were heard to say they had only one prayer, “Lord send us a breeze!” At the invitation of Fr Murray OSA in 1892, Sister M Evangelist Morrissey travelled to Cairns to continue the education of the children at the established school of St Monica’s. The Secondary College was opened in 1933.
The steady growth of the population in the Far North of Australia saw many more schools built and staffed by Sisters- St Thomas’s Mareeba in 1901; St Patrick’s Herberton in 1910 and St Nicholas’s Chillagoe in 1914. Mt St Bernard in 1921, (owned and staffed by the Sisters), St Joseph’s Atherton 1923,St Michael’s Gordonvale in 1923, St Rita’s Babinda in 1926, St Therese’s Edmonton in 1929, St Joseph’s Parramatta Park the school in 1927 and convent by 1947, St Augustine’s Mossman in 1934, Mother of Good Counsel North Cairns-the school in 1936 and convent in 1947, St Theresa’s Ravenshoe in 1950, Our Lady Help of Christians, Earlville in 1964.
In 1968, the Bishop of the Cairns Diocese, Bishop Thomas Cahill DD, asked Sister Mary Oliver O Halloran RSM the Superior of the Cairns sisters of Mercy to send Sisters to the Sacred Heart School on Thursday Island, which had been managed and staffed by the Daughters of Our Lady of the Sacred Heart. The Diocese had incorporated the Torres Strait into the Cairns Diocese from the Diocese of Darwin. It was now easier to serve the people of the Torres Strait from Cairns.
After 1970 the Sisters in the Cairns Diocese began to give more responsibility of leadership in the schools to others and the schools gradually became staffed predominantly by lay teachers. This coincided in part with government subsidies for the part payment of teachers’ wages in Catholic Schools and the reduced number of young women entering Religious Life. The Sisters of Mercy set the ground work for the schools of today and are still connected with education in the Diocese in varying capacities.
The Sisters of Mercy were responsible for owning and staffing Bethlehem Home for the Aged from 1967 until 1996. In 2015, the Institute of Sisters of Mercy of Australia and Papua New Guinea- Mercy Health purchased Holy Spirit Westcourt which comprises the Bethlehem Nursing Centre, the Coral Sea Gardens Retirement Village, and Holy Spirit Mary Potter. In a wonderful homecoming, Bethlehem Home was previously operated by the former Cairns Congregation of the Sisters of Mercy and is now part of the new Institute. Mercy Health forms a strong bond with the local Sisters and with other services in the area including Mercy Partners.
During and since the late 1970s the Sisters have owned and staffed the Seville Mercy Conference Centre at Earlville which is now used by many organizations throughout the Cairns and Tableland areas. In addition to pastoral work in parishes in the Diocese, the Sisters continue to be active in ministering to spiritual needs, education, hospitals, care homes and the homeless.
After December 2011, the Cairns sisters of Mercy joined the newly formed Institute of Sisters of Mercy of Australia and Papua New Guinea. and became part of the Northern Community of the Institute.
The Institute comprises over nine hundred Sisters whose Ministries employ thousands and also engages just a few in smaller local concerns. The Ministries of the Sisters of Mercy throughout Australia and Papua New Guinea fall under the major mission areas of Indigenous, Community Services, Health, Education, Community Development, Justice and Advocacy, Refugees and Asylum Seekers, Eco Spirituality, Prayer and Presence, Ministry Support Services, Communications and Multimedia.
The Sisters of Mercy in the Cairns Diocese, united as one with the Board of McAuley Ministries Ltd and the local Mercy Ministries Far North Queensland, is part of a continuing development of Mercy proclaiming the Gospel through the vision of Venerable Catherine McAuley. “Whatever and wherever our ministry is, we are part of the one mercy mission, part of the ongoing mission of the compassionate Jesus.” [Institute of Sisters of Mercy of Australia and Papua New Guinea, Constitutions.4.03]
Messages to: Rovena Duffy rsm