CALLAN NUNS BLAZE A TRAIL DOWN UNDER
BY JOHN FITZGERALD
The nine Callan sisters travelled to Tilbury Docks in England, which they reached on October 11th. Cardinal Moran had turned up to accompany them on their journey to Australia. He met them at the docks.
Another top brass cleric and four priests flanked the senior church dignitary as he shook the hand of each nun, praising their commitment to education and good works. The nuns were heartened to learn that some of the “big knobs” of the Catholic Church would travel with them.
The nuns and their distinguished entourage boarded a steamship, the Cuzco. The nine sisters prayed quietly and looked to Heaven for guidance as they set sail towards the new lives that awaited them.
It was a long journey. It took almost five weeks for them to reach the Australian coast. The first days of the voyage were the worst: The nuns were afflicted by both homesickness and seasickness.
The vessel was tossed on turbulent seas, winds howled, and fierce thunder and lightning storms raged as the steamship progressed slowly with its hallowed passengers.
The nuns found it difficult to keep down food and the thought of leaving Callan behind filled them with thoughts of utter desolation. They chatted longingly about the “gas characters” back in Callan: the cheery farmers…the happy tailors…the abbey meadow…with its rolling sward and ancient memorial to the Friars… the laughter of children playing…the old Reverend Mother in her lighter moments…the hustle and bustle of fair days…the women who gossiped from dawn to dusk…and the barefoot hurlers on the Green who gave townsfolk cause for merriment at weekends.
Tears flowed as the full significance of their leave-taking began to sink in. Brooding gave way to prayers, and prayers to further gloom and heartache.
To distract them from such morale-dampening ruminations, the Cardinal ordered four masses per day to be celebrated on the steamship. “That should keep their minds off Callan for a while”, he jested, as he sipped a glass of 1850 French claret in his cabin.
And each week he delivered two in-depth Conferences (lectures) on the merits of the Blessed Virgin, emphasising the need for nuns to follow her divine example in their daily lives.
The masses and lectures certainly cured the sisters of their homesickness. Consumed by religious fervour, they had little time to let their minds wander back to the Town on the King’s River.
But the Cardinal had a pleasant surprise for the nuns. He allowed them to observe an Australian Cricket Team who played on deck in the fine weather. This provided much-needed divertissement for the heavily indoctrinated women.
The steamship stopped off at Naples in Italy, where the nuns received a Papal Benediction. A loud rumbling noise, and what sounded like explosions, startled them that evening. One of them wondered if God was about to punish them all for not paying enough attention to their prayers in the first week of the voyage.
But a smiling Italian bishop laughed heartily and informed them that what they heard was nearby Mount Vesuvius erupting. Departing Naples, they continued on their journey.
On November 18th, the pioneering Callan nuns caught sight of Australia’s West Coast. At Adelaide, the Dominican sisters gave then fruit and flowers. On November 29th, the Cuzco steamed into Sydney Harbour. The nuns could scarcely believe what they saw: About thirty boats had come to greet them.
Colourful banners fluttered from each vessel and bands played rousing musical scores. The Cardinal stepped into the leading boat. The nuns followed in one of the other vessels.
Arriving ashore, Cardinal Moran instructed the Parish Priest of Parramatta, Dean Rigney, to ensure that the convent was suitably furnished for the nuns. In the meantime, they had to stay with the Sisters Of Charity at St. Vincent’s.
On December 1st, the Callan group decided that the time was ripe to take up residence in their allocated convent. Unfortunately, the PP had apparently forgotten about his promise to furnish the building.
One theory is that his orders from the Cardinal had slipped his mind in the course of a marathon drinking session in three local pubs to mark the arrival of the nuns.
But there was also a suspicion that the Dean was prejudiced against the Callan group. The Monte Sisters had just left Parramatta after fourteen years of service to the community. As already stated, the reason for their departure remains a mystery to this day.
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).