SPECIAL REPORT: Pandemics spread throughout Sisters of St John of God 150 year history

13 Oct 2021

By Contributor

By Marcelle Mogg

St John of God Group Director Mission Integration writes about the milestone 150th anniversary of the arrival of the Sisters of St John of God in Perth, reflecting on the impact they have had on our communities, and interestingly, the role they have played, and through SJOG Health Care, continue to play, during pandemics.

Pioneer Sisters of St John of God, Adelaide Terrace Convent, 1897. Back row, from left to right, Sister Ita Gleeson, Sister Assumpta Hanley, Sister Ignatius Lynagh, Sister Senanus Carey, Sister Bridget Hanlon, Sister Veronica O’Hanlon and Sister Joseph Codde Front Row, from left to right, Sister John Gleeson, Mother Cecilia Dunne, Sister Antonio O’Brien, Sister Patrick Mullally and Sister Angela Brennan Photo: Supplied.

A worldwide pandemic seemed a fitting, albeit bleak, backdrop to mark the 150-year anniversary of the foundation of the Sisters of St John of God on Thursday 7 October 2021.

That is where we, at St John of God Health Care, find ourselves in recognising this milestone of the founders of our organisation as COVID-19 continues to affect our daily lives.

A photo of Sr Barbara, who contracted Smallpox while caring for a patient, passed away at Woodman’s point. Her fortitude and willing sacrifice won the admiration of the whole State. Photo: Supplied.

Since the Congregation of the Sisters of St John of God formed in Wexford, Ireland in 1871, the Sisters have readily and courageously put themselves in dangerous and unknown circumstances to care for the sick and injured.

Such was the case when the first group of Sisters arrived in Perth in 1895 in response to the call from then Bishop Matthew Gibney to care for the people of Western Australia.

In those first years, the Sisters cared for men, women and, sometimes, children with typhoid.

They set up tent hospitals on the goldfields and nursing stations in Kalgoorlie, Coolgardie and Subiaco, as well as going into the homes of the seriously ill to provide expert and compassionate care.

Unfortunately, several Sisters, many young, caught the deadly disease and some died.

This care, and selflessness, was highly valued by their communities. An article in the Freeman’s Journey from December 1896, spoke of “their cheerful faces and kindly manners are the best prescription in the world. They are truly ministering angels of the Kalgoorlie field.”

Similarly, the Sisters readily made their care, facilities and services available to communities across Australia in the response to the Spanish flu and later in the 1930s, the smallpox epidemic.

The experience of a Sister of St John of God, Sister Barbara Smith, during the smallpox outbreak, is a chilling reminder for each of us today of the life-saving power of vaccinations.

In 1930, Sister Barbara was one of five Sisters who cared for a patient with smallpox at St John of God Subiaco Hospital. Unlike the Irish-born Sisters, locally-born Sister Barbara had not yet been vaccinated against smallpox as Australia did not introduce preventative community vaccination until 1932.

Unfortunately, Sister Barbara was diagnosed with the illness within days of exposure, and died within a month. Her fellow Sisters had cared for her at her bedside before they were released from quarantine to continue their Mission.

In regional northern Western Australia, the Sisters of St John of God responded to the need of Aboriginal communities experiencing significant leprosy outbreaks from the 1930s and into the 1980s. They ran Australia’s last standing leprosarium in the Kimberleys, which closed in 1986 with the final four elderly patients transferred to Derby Regional Hospital in the company of several Sisters of St John of God who continued to care for them.

It is these examples of caring for the community that we, at St John of God Health Care, have strived to embody in our response to the ongoing COVID-19 outbreak in WA, Victoria and NSW.

We have readily made available our services, facilities, equipment, and care, and supported communities with expert advice, testing, information and communications, including the provision of vaccinations. Our care has extended from WA to Victoria and NSW and even to Timor Leste where our health care team has provided direct care and assistance to the community in responding to the impact of COVID-19.

This year, at St John of God Health Care, we pay tribute to the contribution that the Sisters of St John of God have made to our organisation and, more importantly, to communities across Australia in responding to people in need.

A photo of Subiaco Hospital, left and the SJOG Convent, right, in 1910. Photo: Supplied.

At a time when we are mindful of the importance of the health and wellbeing of individuals and the community, it is fitting to reflect on the tradition of health care, marked by excellence, compassion and respect, that the Sisters of St John of God established in Australia.

They have created a great legacy for those of us at St John of God Health Care to follow, and we are proud to walk in their footsteps in continuing to care for the community.

We can think of no better way to pay our respect to the Sisters of St John of God and 150 years of service.