REMEMBERING OUR PIONEER SISTERS
8 November 2016
Leading the small group of Sisters who travelled to Australia from Ireland on board the “Elizabeth” in September 1845 to form the first Australian Mercy community was Clara Frayne. She was only thirty when she was chosen as the leader of the foundation group for the Australian mission. As Mother Ursula she was to spend nearly forty years in this new and challenging work.
Clara Frayne was born in Dublin, Ireland on October 15, 1816. She entered the Sisters of Mercy in Dublin on July 2, 1834 and she took the religious name of Ursula. Her Religious Profession took place in the House of Mercy in Dublin on January 5, 1837. In the early year of her religious life she spent time in Carlow and Booterstown (Dublin) and nursed the foundress Catherine McAuley in her last illness. In 1842 Ursula accompanied by two other Sisters of Mercy sailed on the Sir Walter Scott to Newfoundland, where she remained until 1843. After returning to Dublin she was chosen to lead the group of Sisters of Mercy to Western Australia.
In 1845 they left Ireland, accompanied by a young woman who intended to join the Order and began the journey to form a foundation in Perth, Western Australia. On her arrival in Perth she and the Sisters immediately set about establishing a school for the people in the Swan River Colony.
After eleven years in Western Australia, Dr. James Goold, Bishop of Melbourne, Victoria, invited Ursula to commence a community and ministry in that City. She left Perth in January 1857 with Srs. Anne Xavier Dillon and Sr Joseph Sherloch.
She arrived in Melbourne in March 1857 and within six weeks had raised loans to pay off the mortgage on her convent in Nicholson Street, Fitzroy. Rapid expansion followed. Large building programmes were undertaken for educational and social work, culminating in the erection of the first wing of the present ‘Academy’ in 1870 at a cost of £6000. The Sisters of Mercy were the first teaching nuns in Victoria and under the vigorous leadership of Mother Ursula their establishment included a boarding and day school for girls, together with two primary schools and a domestic training school for orphans. She also founded the St Vincent de Paul’s Orphanage at South Melbourne and managed it until the Christian Brothers took over the boys’ section, leaving the girls under the care of her Sisters. Although the 1872 Act caused temporary retrenchment in Catholic education, it resulted in expansion for the Nicholson Street community, and Sisters replaced lay teachers when salaries could not be met. Ursula Frayne’s first Victorian country foundation was at Kilmore in 1875 and especially dear to her for its rural setting.
Ursula’s leadership was such that her letters to the community in Dublin were constantly affirming the selflessness, faith, creative abilities, ”making do”, courage and determination of each Sister. She strongly affirmed their faithfulness to Religious Life and their professional commitment. Ursula rarely put herself first – she was always ready to let others share their talents.
Ursula’s ongoing acknowledgement of the spirituality of the Cross kept her centred on Jesus. She saw that the Cross for her was the hallmark of Mercy and sustained her in the many challenges she faced.
Ursula was very conscious of the importance of the environment. She commented in many letters on the fruit trees and the beautiful green scenery “… as if it had never been touched by human hands “. She also had a special concern and love for the indigenous people – sharing many hours with them including taking them on picnics, inviting the elders to recreation.
She died in the Convent at Nicholson Street on 9 June 1885 and is buried in the Memorial Chapel, Academy of Mary Immaculate, Fitzroy.
Taken from the booklet “The Pioneer Women” prepared by Joan Smith rsm and the “Australian Dictionary of Biography” Volume 4.