CALLAN NUNS BLAZE A TRAIL DOWN UNDER
BY JOHN FITZGERALD
In a letter to the Callan Convent of Mercy shortly after his meeting with the nuns, Cardinal Moran outlined the plans he had drawn up for the nine who had volunteered for the Paramatta mission:
“…They will first of all have the primary school to attend to. There are about 200 children in the Female and Infants’ School in Parramatta. I have marked out another district for the Sisters in the City of Sydney (Surray Hills). In both districts there is abundant material for a High school.
“Hitherto there has not been a High School in either district. I consider it would be advisable to open such a school at once in Parramatta. The visiting of the sick will be another important duty…”
Weeks of intensive training followed that would put a modern Commando unit to shame. The nuns were given a crash course in surviving down under, and also prepared spiritually for the task ahead. They learned of the deep-rooted cultural differences and attitudes to expect in Australia.
It wouldn’t be like Callan, they were warned, which was just recovering from a decade of faction fighting in the streets occasioned by the schism… but that was now once again a carefree, thriving market town at peace with itself.
They might have to make profound sacrifices, perhaps even the ultimate one of martyrdom, in the New World to which they had been called. And they would, in all probability, NEVER return to their beloved native land.
Towards the end of September 1888, just a week before their planned departure from Ireland, the Reverend Mother in Callan paced up and down in front of the nine sisters, like a General inspecting his troops before battle. A look of grim determination underwrote, and enhanced, her already strict authoritarian image.
Behind her on the wall of the convent day room was a large map of Australia, a thick red circle drawn around Sydney and Parramatta.
Hands behind her back, she stopped momentarily at the map and rapped her long sally rod at Parramatta. “It won’t be easy!” she intoned gravely, her voice echoing around the Convent. She again reminded them of what could lay in store. If any nun, she proclaimed, wished to opt out of the mission, she would not think any less of her. “Well?” she asked
She cast her steely blue eyes at the nine women, a rock hard but candid expression forming on her face beneath the jet-black veil. None of them answered. “Right”, declared Mother Maher, clapping her hands together loudly in a gesture of approval and contentment, “you leave for Parramatta on October 8th…May God bless and keep you…Dismissed!”
The day of departure came…the nine volunteers said their fond and tearful farewells to loved ones amid emotional scenes in the streets of Callan.
Crowds lined the pathways to give them a jovial send-off, waving flags and throwing confetti at the heroic and elite group of highly motivated young women who had agreed to sacrifice everything to safeguard the future of children they had never met on the other side of the globe.
Just before they boarded the stages to leave town, the Reverend Mother clapped each one on the back and assured all of them that she would love to be making the same sacrifice, but that she was needed in Callan.
Among the cheering throng was a teenage girl from St. Brigid’s Missionary School in the town. Teresa Kearney was mesmerised by the sight of the fearless women in black who were heading off to save the foreign children and spike the guns of Atheism. She decided there and then that she too would don the veil and become a nun someday. Within six months, she would follow the “nifty nine” to Australia.
Years later she became Mother Francis Kearney and among her finest achievements was the erection of the Mother Mary Clare Memorial Chapel.
To be continued…
(My book Invaders tells the story of how a small band of men and women stood up to one of the most powerful armies on earth. It’s available in all Kilkenny bookshops and from Amazon).