Irish Nuns during English Benedictine Rule: The Impact of Irish Sisters in Early Catholic Australia

By O'Shea, Robert | Journal of the Australian Catholic Historical Society, Annual 2012 | Go to article overview

Irish Nuns during English Benedictine Rule: The Impact of Irish Sisters in Early Catholic Australia


O'Shea, Robert, Journal of the Australian Catholic Historical Society


The desire for a cohesive Australian identity is a ceaseless one that permeates many aspects of society, including religious traditions. However, fashioning a meta-narrative of a distinctively Australian manner of belief is complicated by differences of denomination and ritual, which are often predicated upon ethnicity. The Catholic Church frequently invokes its supposed universality to diminish these divisions in its rhetoric, as exemplified by Archbishop Polding's 1856 pastoral letter: 'Before everything else we are Catholics; and next, by a name swallowing up all distinctions of origin, we are Australians ... we are no longer Irishmen.' (1) Yet this unity is fragile, as Polding proceeds to proclaim 'the man who seeks by word or writing to perpetuate invidious distinctions is an enemy to our peace and prosperity'. (2) However it was not only men who sought to infuse their faith with Irishness: lay women and in particular religious sisters brought Irish notions of Catholicism and applied them to an Australian context. Whilst Polding's phraseology suggested nationality was irrelevant, his vision for a Benedictine abbey-diocese was perceptibly English in origin. (3) Fearing that such a model would alienate the primarily Irish laity, Irish Catholic leaders encouraged orders such as the Irish Sisters of Charity to take a more active role in society. Furthermore, Irish nuns acted on their own volition to remould the Church community in closer emulation of the Irish 'devotional revolution'. (4) Their close connection with the laity and the secular public gave them a substantial influence within Australian Catholic society which continues to resonate through the schools, hospitals and social institutions which Irish nuns enthusiastically founded.

Nineteenth century Irish emigration was not confined to lay people alone; Irish clergy developed an efficient system for gaining foreign episcopal appointments, especially through the influence of Paul Cullen, Rector of the Irish College in Rome and later Archbishop of Dublin. (5) All Hallows Seminary in Dublin was established especially for the information of missionary priests. (6) The pattern of religious exports extended to nuns; many Bishops had cousins or sisters who belonged to religious orders, providing a pool of loyal supporters to found convents in newly-established overseas dioceses. (7) Moreover, Irish women were progressive in establishing new orders which took simple vows rather than solemn vows, a move which had been resisted by the Vatican for three centuries. (8) Such vows permitted nuns to leave the cloister and become more vigorous in ministry, especially to the poor; this earned them the colloquial designation 'walking nuns' amongst the Irish. (9)

Thus the nuns were integrated into an increasingly active Irish community, energised by Daniel O'Connell's popular political movements. (One of the pioneering nuns in Australia, Scholastica Gibbons, was O'Connell's relative). (10) Irish immigrants to Australia were accustomed to parishes where 'social and political motives mingled inextricably with religious'. (11) Suttor observes that similarly, 'the other organs of Irish Catholic resurgence, the newly founded religious congregations ... had the same character'. (12)

In this period of Irish missionary zeal, the status of the Bishopric of New Holland as a monastic domain was atypical. John Bede Polding, nephew of John Bede Brewe, head of the English Benedictines, was appointed to lead the Australian Church by Pope Gregory XVI, himself a Benedictine, in 1834, just before the rise of Irish ecclesial expansionism. (13) In childhood, Polding's fascination with the colonisation of Australia caused his fellow students to mock him as the 'Bishop of Botany Bay' and by the time this nickname was fulfilled, Polding had an ambitious vision for the colonial Church. (14) He envisaged an abbey-diocese, served by monks instead of diocesan priests, believing that the strictures of monastic living would disguise differences of nationality amongst the professed and have an edifying impact upon the convict-tainted laity. …

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