Homily: Sisters of Mercy - 140th Anniversary

31st January, 2016

European settlement in what is now the Diocese of Sandhurst was prompted by the gold rush in the 1850s.  Settlements were initially around the Sandhurst area which is present day Bendigo, but with further discoveries of gold stretched beyond here further east. The discovery of gold brought great excitement to many people, especially those from Ireland who had suffered through the famine in the 1840s and had found their way to Australia, but also many others, Chinese were notable amongst the early miners, seeking financial security and wealth.

By the time that the Diocese of Sandhurst was created in 1874 the settlement had moved from a raw mining site, to a stable community showing signs of prosperity. The original stone church of St Kilian had been build and the first priest on the goldfields, Dr Henry Backhaus, had begun a Catholic school.  The discovery of gold in Ballarat had brought that settlement to a similar stage of development.  These rural developments prompted Archbishop Polding of Sydney to petition the Holy See for the establishment of the Province of Melbourne, through raising that diocese to an archdiocese and creating the two suffragan sees of Ballarat and Sandhurst.  Subsequently, Michael O'Connor was appointed the first Bishop of Ballarat and Martin Crane, the then Irish Provincial Superior of the Augustinian Fathers in Dublin, as the first Bishop of Sandhurst.

I am sure that Bishop Crane had no illusions as to what awaited him in the new diocese.  There were rumours that prior to his appointment, two priests had declined the appointment, pleading ill-health, but perhaps daunted by paucity of resources and people in the new diocese.  Conscious of the few resources of the diocese and the challenges ahead, Bishop Crane took the opportunity prior to his departure, to enlist as many missionaries as he could to join him in Sandhurst.  His brother, Father Nicholas Crane, an Oblate priest of Mary Immaculate and his cousin, a younger member of the Augustinians Fathers, Father Stephen Reville OSA accompanied him on the voyage and spent the rest of their lives in Bendigo.  In 1885 Stephen Reville was appointed Co-adjutor Bishop and succeeded Bishop Carne, as Bishop of Sandhurst on Bishop Crane’s death in 1901.  Bishop Crane made approaches to both the Sisters of Mercy at Swinford, Ireland and the Brigidines Sisters to come to Sandhurst, primarily to assist with providing Catholic education.  As we are celebrating today, the Sister of Mercy arrived in January, 1876.  The Brigidines Sisters arrived in 1886 and established their first house in Echuca.

Bishop Crane and his companions arrived in May, 1875 and were joined by the Sisters of Mercy in January, 1876. They were welcomed by the Bishop and Sandhurst community at a Mass celebrated in the stone church, which was the pro-cathedral, of St Kilian.  From few resources the Sisters undertook educating both girls and boys, but with the arrival of the Marist Brothers in 1893, educating the boys became the Marist Brothers’ mission.

In the history of Catholic education in Bendigo, it is easy to identify the influence of the Sisters of Mercy in the development of St Kilian’s School, St Mary’s College (in 1983 it became co-educational under the new name of Catholic College, Bendigo) and a number of schools in the area, however, from their humble beginnings their work in Catholic education extended through the diocese as far as Wodonga, Yarrawonga, Cobram, Shepparton, Mooroopna, Tatura.  To limit the Mercy influence to education would be a great understatement of their significance to the mission of the Church of Sandhurst.  For a period they were responsible for our Catholic hospital here in Bendigo and for some years have been the provider of Catholic care for the aged at Bethlehem, Bendigo and Mercy Place in South Shepparton.  Over and above these contributions, the Sisters’ presence and participation in the life of our parishes has been enormous.  The pastoral dimension they have contributed through their schools/hospital/care of the elderly/parish involvements/etc., have served the Gospel by showing encouragement, support, compassion and sympathy, as they have reached out to those in need.

In reflecting in this way on the contribution made by the Sisters of Mercy over their one hundred and forty year history in the Diocese of Sandhurst, it is appropriate to ask what was the driving force behind their achievements – what drove the courage and commitment that brought a small band of women to a foreign land on the other side of the world, with no more than the security of the word of the bishop that they would find a home, support and security in this new life, from which they were very unlikely to ever return home to the comfort of family and friends.

The scripture readings of this Four Sunday of Ordinary Time, Year C, present the faith foundation for such a commitment.  We see in the Prophet Jeremiah, speaking of a confidence founded in God that gives courage against adversity, while the experience of rejection of Jesus, in the Gospel, keeps us realistic about the hostility we will encounter in life, as a disciple of Christ.  However, St Paul in the passage from his First Letter to the Corinthians captures the motivation for our mission – giving expression, in gratitude, to the love of God we have received, by seeking to share this love with our world, in our service of others.  That means being prepared to forsake home, family, comfort, and time for oneself, to serve others in their need and to give witness to God’s love as we show this love in our actions towards others.

The Sisters of Mercy had a presence in Australia through the arrival of Mother Ursula Frayne and her companions, initially in Perth and then Melbourne, prior to the arrival of the Sisters in Bendigo, however, as each foundation was separate, in accordance with wishes of their foundress, Catherine McCauley, the Sandhurst Sisters were in a real sense on their own.  From Melbourne the Sisters made foundations in Geelong, Warrnambool, Ballarat and Colac, it was the Sandhurst foundation that gave life to the subsequent foundations within this Diocese.  It was in later years, in response to the change in Canon Law of 1889, that amalgamation occurred in stages between communities, affording broader community life and the benefits that that brings.    

I am sure that what I experienced through my primary and secondary schooling in Mercy schools would be characteristic of Mercy care – deep, selfless dedication that put the benefit of the students ahead of personal considerations.  This dedication drove the long hours of work, imagination, enthusiasm and energy that met the needs of their charges.  The initial Irish Sisters were replaced by local vocations, no doubt inspired by the love of Christ they had experienced through the ministry of these Irish Sisters.  Some of these vocations from St Mary’s College, Bendigo, in turn minister in Mildura having a direct impact on my own faith development and vocation. With deep gratitude, I thank you Sisters, on my own behalf and that of the people of the Diocese of Sandhurst, for what you and the Sisters that have gone before you, have done for me and countless others, to enshrine the faith in our souls, to afford us the experience of discipleship and enhance our education.

There is nothing more I can say, but to assure you of our deep gratitude, which we express in our good wishes at this joyous celebration to all the Sisters of Mercy and our commitment to continue to support you with our love, and our prayers.



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