THEY CAME OVER THE MOUNTAINS . . .
When Dr Matthew Quinn was consecrated first Bishop of Bathurst in November 1865 he immediately entered into negotiations with the Superioress of the Charleville Convent of Mercy in County Cork, Ireland, M M Joseph Croke, for a contingent of Sisters to come to Australia to found a Convent of Mercy in his diocese. Mother Joseph Croke had been one of a band of Sisters of Mercy who nursed the wounded soldiers under Florence Nightingale in the Crimean War, so a call to a foreign mission would have been favourably viewed by this Reverend Mother. Despite Australia being virtually an unknown land and according to the Annals of the Convent of Our Lady of Mercy Bathurst, “the imaginary home of all kinds of dangers and 15,000 miles from their motherland” there was no shortage of volunteers from the Charleville community.
The group which was chosen comprised seven women: Professed Sisters, M Agnes McSweeney, M Stanislaus Duffy, M Evangelist Bohane and Gertrude Sheehy; two Postulants Srs M Joseph Murphy and M Patrick Daly. The Superior of this new Foundation was none other than Mother M Ignatius Croke, sister of M M Joseph Croke and of Dr Thomas Croke, Archbishop of Cashel and formerly Bishop of Auckland NZ. Her uncle, James Croke, had been Solicitor-General in New South Wales. Mother Ignatius certainly had a good pedigree for the job ahead. During the first years of the Bathurst Foundation some 25 missioners were sent from Charleville to New South Wales and the strong connection with the “Motherhouse” continues to the present day.
So it was that on 21 July 1866, the “Empress” set sail for Australia with the pioneer group of 7 Sisters bound for Bathurst, along with two Bishops, Dr Quinn of Bathurst, Dr James Murray, of Maitland, several priests (one of whom, Fr Byrne, became the second Bishop of Bathurst), Sisters of Mercy from Baggot Street bound for Geelong and Brisbane and Presentation nuns for Tasmania. One of the third class passengers, Bridget Minehan, was intending to become Bishop Quinn’ housekeeper, but joined the Sisters of Mercy in Bathurst in December 1866, becoming their first recruit!
On 21 October 1866 the “Empress” arrived in Sydney and on 30 October 1866 Mother Ignatius and her Sisters travelled to Penrith by train (this was as far as the train line went at that time) then via a Cobb & Co coach over the mountains, reaching Bathurst on 31 October 1866. On Saturday 29 October 2016 the Institute of Sisters of Mercy of Australia and Papua New Guinea will be celebrating the Sesquicentenary of the former Bathurst Congregation of the Sisters of Mercy in conjunction with the celebration of the Sesquicentenary of the Catholic Diocese of Bathurst on Sunday 30 October 2016. The writer of the Leaves of the Annals of the Sisters of Mercy would see this as a fitting example of the aptness of their description of Mother Ignatius Croke as “a sort of link between the present and the past”.
One of the items which came out from Ireland on the “Empress” with this pioneer group and which remains on display in the Heritage Room at St Joseph’s Mount Bathurst today is the Prie-Dieu which was a gift from the Limerick Sisters of Mercy to the Bathurst Mission. The Leaves from the Annals of the Sisters of Mercy Vol 1 Chapter XVI give the following description of life on board the “Empress”: “Most of the nuns have been able to go to communion as regularly as when at home… At one corner you see five or six white veils, with perhaps a black one in the centre, plying the needle, reciting the office, or sending up a fervent prayer to heaven on bended knees; at another a number of black veils following the avocation of the hour.”No doubt there would have been many an occasion when the Prie-Dieu was put to good use by all on board who sought to use it. It would have been quite a challenge to remain kneeling in prayer in a habit with the constant pitching and rolling of the ship!
Messages to: Carol Anderson ISMAPNG Archives, Bathurst