Melbourne News

Mary MacKillop’s Victorian foundations

Kairos: Volume 21, Issue 0121-1-mary-pg18

On Wednesday 2 December From Humble Beginnings, the story of the Josephite Sisters in Victoria, was launched at Mary MacKillop Heritage Centre in East Melbourne by Josephine Cafagna. Josephine, the popular presenter of State Line, was educated by the Sisters of St Joseph.

The story of Mary MacKillop’s return to central Victoria in 1890 with three Sisters to set up the first St Joseph’s Convent in the Colony and of her involvement in the rapid development in Victoria makes for compelling reading.

Mary and the Sisters arrived in Numurkah on 12 January 1890, in the blistering heat of a drought. A few weeks later Mother Bernard, then the congregational leader, accompanied three more Sisters to establish the second convent and school in Bacchus Marsh.

The worldwide depression of the 1890s hit Melbourne hard; land prices collapsed and the inner city was a place of destitution and despair. Though the first foundations were for rural schools, within months Archbishop Carr urged the Sisters to assist the newly founded Home for Destitute Children in rural Surrey Hills.

By May 1890 the Sisters were at Surrey Hills; by 1893 the home was so overcrowded that children sometimes slept three to a bed; lacking chairs in the dining room they ate meals standing. The Sisters ate in a corrugated iron shed.

The Archbishop’s next request was for Sisters to work in the notorious neighbourhood of Little Lonsdale Street. He wrote: “Only by living in the area could much good be done.” He feared that the Sisters would object, but Mary replied that this was “where the real work lies”.

Thus began the Victorian chapter of the Josephite story. The book traces the story of the Sisters through the decades: the world wars and their aftermath, the Great Depression, the population growth in the western suburbs and the Latrobe Valley, the soldier settlement blocks, the influx of migrants to the schools and parishes, the contacts with Aboriginal Australians.

Jill Barnard, the author of this history, is a graduate of the University of Melbourne and of Master of Arts in public history at Monash University; Jill has worked as a professional historian for almost 20 years.

Jill said: “It has been my aim in this history not only to coax out the Josephite spirit as it was expressed in Victoria but also to portray as far as possible the Sisters as individual women.”

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