The Magnificent Nine

Church Street in Parramatta in 1861




The energetic Callan nuns in Parramatta didn’t waste any time: Early next morning, December 9th, they opened their school. On that first day, fifty-five pupils enrolled for classes.

Christmas arrived and the nuns spent much of the day reading letters from home. Their pals back in the Convent of Mercy sent them greetings and shared all the latest gossip about the goings-on in Callan.

And the Reverend Mother offered words of spiritual encouragement. In a letter, she urged them to “face the future with determination, faith, and courage.”

In the months and years that followed, Mother Clare and her eight colleagues made astonishing progress. Their activities spread to the wider Sydney area, where a dual commitment to education and charity transformed the lives of many people.

Mother Clare’s convent stood the test of time, standing firm against initial prejudice and misunderstanding, the ravages of poverty and economic recession in later years, and even the decline in vocations to religious orders in the second half of the twentieth century.

The nine brave but homesick women from Callan who set foot on foreign soil in the winter of 1888 would have been heartened if they could have foreseen just how successful their mission was to be: By 1930, the community of nine Irish nuns had grown to one hundred and eighty.

Other Callan girls and past pupils of the Convent of Mercy joined the Parramatta community in the years that followed the foundation. Sister Monica Molloy was an aunt of Pat Molloy, the legendary stonecutter and one of Callan’s most popular undertakers of the twentieth century.

Callan Convent of Mercy today

Sister Rita Kerwick (of Kerwick Newsagents) devoted forty years of her life as a nun in Parramatta and elsewhere before returning to her native Callan, where she spent her final years as the librarian of the school.

Though the original nine volunteers never returned to Ireland, they and their successors maintained strong links with Callan. There has been no let-up in the flow of letters between the convents in Callan and Parramatta.

In the 1950s, the first two Parramatta nuns visited Callan, Mother Lynch and Sister Aidan. The school threw a party for them and the streets of the town were bedecked with banners and flags. A Guard of Honour lined up to welcome them. The scene was reminiscent of the one that greeted the nine sisters on the day of their departure from Callan in 1888.

In January 2001, a large group arrived from Parramatta: School Principal, Sister Ailsa, three teachers, and fourteen students set foot in Callan, anxious to see the town their founders had left behind so long ago. The school from which they had taken a break to visit Callan now has more than 900 pupils.

Like the Convent in Callan, Our Lady of Mercy College in Parramatta is today renowned for its exceptionally high educational standards.

Apart from the academic excellence and an unmatched reputation for musical tuition in schools run by the Parramatta sisters today, the successors of the nine women who founded the community are noted for their acts of mercy, caring for the aged, nursing, and a bewildering range of voluntary efforts.

This work is partly a tribute to the courage and remarkable foresight of those pioneering nuns back in 19th century Callan: The Reverend Mother, who was as tough as old shoe leather but had her heart in the right place; Mary Clare, whose uncommon valour and wisdom held fast in the darkest days of their mission; and the other young women who sacrificed everything to help make the world a better and kinder place for the rest of us.

In our ultra-modern age, they might be seen as naïve or spaced–out in their thinking and severe authoritarian lifestyles. The veils and habits too might be laughed at and dismissed as relics of an antiquated and obsolete way of life: But not in Callan, hopefully.

Here, the Magnificent Nine will be recalled with joy and pride, tempered with humility… as modest, self-effacing but heroic women. Their memory will be enshrined forever in the town’s Roll of Honour.

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