Sisters of Mercy celebrate 175th Anniversary

21 Jan 2021

By Contributor

By Sr Joan Smith RSM

In celebration of the 175th anniversary of the Mercy Sisters arrival in Western Australia, Sr Joan Smith RSM gave the following account of their incredible journey at a Mass on 8 January.

An old photo of Sr Ursula Frayne.
Sr Ursula Frayne. Photo: Institute of Sisters of Mercy Australia & Papua New Guinea Archives and Heritage Centre.

“Hurrah for foundations: makes old young and young merry.” Catherine McAuley RSM

Today we remember 175th anniversary of the arrival of the Sisters of Mercy in the Swan River Colony.

Six young women, aged between 22 to 41 were passengers on the Barque Elizabeth.  Ursula Frayne, Anne Xavier, Catherine, Baptist, Aloysius and Ignatia our pioneer Sisters.

They were part a group of missionaries led by Bishop John Brady which included members of the Benedictines and Spiritan Orders.

After an overnight stay in Fremantle, the Sisters continued their journey on the River to the centre of the colony to find no arrangements had been made for their accommodation. Fortunately, they found rented rooms with a Mrs Crisp who made them welcome. 

A view of Fremantle in 1864. After a short stopover in Fremantle, the Sisters arrived in the Swan River Colony on 8 January 1864. Photo: State Library of Western Australia.

These women became known for their deep faith, their courage and wisdom and their very strong reliance on Divine Providence. Qualities that were woven throughout their mercy service in the Colony.

Their focus was about setting up the ministry of education and very early on the first morning after they arrived, they began their search for a place that would be suitable for both living and beginning a school.

A Cottage was found on St Georges Terrace and they signed a rental lease for six months.  Within a week, they had prepared the premises for both living and learning.  Here they began day classes for children, evening classes for adults and religion classes on Sunday.

Shortly after their arrival, Sr Catherine became very ill and died during the last week of their contract. 

The small community of Sisters were deeply affected by her death and requested that a few extra weeks to be added to the rental contract.

Their second Cottage in Lord St (now Victoria Avenue) was much smaller and even with their creativity they were unable to reorganise the rooms to continue lessons with the children.

Each day for two years they walked up the hill to a ‘lean to’ attached to the Church. At this time their writings stressed the heat, flies and mosquitoes. 

A view of Victoria Square and the surrounding area, taken in 1871. Image: Supplied.

In August 1847, a very joyful ceremony was held to lay the slabs of the first purpose built Convent/school and small boarding area on the Victoria Square site. This building, The Holy Cross Convent, is still standing.

It was not until 1871 that the Sisters, now 17 in number, moved into accommodation they could call home. A place where they would share their community and prayer life.

With very few resources, space or comfort, they established an incredible education System.  They formed relationships with many groups of people and were particularly caring of the families who had been living in the Colony for 14 years without a priest and therefore Sacraments.

To supplement their funds, they made jam with fruit supplied by a prominent Protestant man. Often the jars, cooling on the window sills, disappeared!

Not everyone appreciated the Sisters.  One lady referred to them as Papist women.  However on the death of her husband, a doctor in the colony, the Sisters sent her a letter of sympathy and promise of prayers.  This letter is conserved in the Collection belonging to that woman’s family.

Ursula boasted one day that a ship never left Fremantle without letters from the Sisters recounting their daily life. 

They were great communicators and have left us with very detailed information about their life. It is through these letters and many other original hand written records, that we have a privileged glimpse into the reality of the growth of the Sisters’s ministry.

In 1929, on the occasion of the anniversary of the founding of the Swan River Colony, the Governor asked if the Sisters could organise a religious ceremony to mark the occasion. More than 1000 children and staff from various schools celebrated Mass in the grounds of Victoria Square. Countess Fillipini conducted the singing, Sr M Dominic Brady was the organist and Dom Moreno’s Mass was sung. Photo: Supplied.

These women were also very grounded.  They faced life as it was in the colony.  Their eyes on the situation and their trust in God.  As we celebrate 175 years, we also remember all those women who have followed in their footsteps – including the Sisters here today and throughout Australia.

As I was walking into the Church today, I felt a sense of standing on Holy Ground.  It was the first time I had noticed the sign for Salvado Road. A public memento.  The community of Subiaco acknowledging one of the pioneers who was a great support to the Sisters.  Then I noticed the image of Dom Salvado, staff in hand, looking as if he was in an incredible hurry.

Today there is no pomp or very public ceremony.  It is similar to the simple and quiet arrival of the Sisters and other travellers on the Elizabeth.

Thank you Monsignor Kevin for making this possible and offering the hospitality of the Parish of Subiaco.

Although the original invitation to the Sisters was related to Education and Faith Education in particular, over the years it was very obvious that the Sisters were being called to many aspects of education, health, welfare, pastoral and spiritual works of mercy.

Ministries close to home, including MercyCare, Mercy Health, Mercy Education are a few of the ways in which the original “call to mercy” is being ministered today.

The 150th anniversary of the Mercy Sisters was celebrated in 1996. Photo: Archdiocese of Perth/The Record.

As I conclude, I would like to go back to the reliance the Sisters had on Divine Providence.  This comes through so strongly through their writings a their daily life with its ups and downs.

Based on the words from 1 Corinthians 16:13 the motto FIRM IN FAITH was chosen for one of their earliest schools.

Keep alert, stand firm in your faith, be courageous, be strong.  Let all that you do be done in love.

We too can say HURRAH!