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Australian Memories

I recently returned from Sydney Australia where I spent 3½ months thanks to the generosity of my Province and Congregation.  The Australian RSC’s with whom I stayed before and after the Course I was doing there, were also most generous and hospitable to me.

Sydney is a wonderful city, with its harbour bridge and many islands.  We spent every weekend exploring the city and became very adept at using the buses, trains and ferries, especially on a Sunday when we were able to travel all day on any form of Government transport for two dollars and 60 cents!
Australia is an expensive place to live in but salaries and wages are high for those who have work.  As in most cities the poor are not so visible, although Australia too has its homeless people.

Australia is an expensive place to live in but salaries and wages are high for those who have work.  As in most cities the poor are not so visible, although Australia too has its homeless people.

The group of priests, religious and one lay woman with whom I shared the three month course in Marymount Mercy Centre quickly gelled together.  It was a wonderful time of intercultural and inter-racial experiences.  There were twenty-two of us from fourteen different countries and four continents.  Most of the participants were on sabbaticals/breaks from ministry while seven were preparing to become formators in their Congregations.   Some of these Congregations are new i.e. 40 years founded, while others like the Vietnamese are bursting at the seams with candidates and novices.

On St Patrick’s Day/night I organised an intercultural concert which was most enjoyable.  In this photo a group performed a Pacific dance for us.  The countries represented here were Samoa, Wallis Island, Solomon Islands, and Papua New Guinea.  I tried to teach some very willing participants the Siege of Ennis and they were pretty good at it until the night itself when it descended into gales of laughter.  Apologies to all who teach Irish Dancing.  You might have been horrified at the outcome.  But it was all good fun.

The study course focused on Personal Life Development and one’s own story, and also covered some topics e.g.  spirituality, scripture, theology, mission and ministry, spiritual companioning and finished with a guided retreat.   Many of the participants were returning after a break to do a further three months study.  We had lectures four mornings a week and spiritual guidance on the fifth morning.  Some courses were full days.   The afternoons were for reading and personal reflection.

Marymount Centre was situated about 35 km from Sydney city in a residential suburb.  The long avenue up to the Centre with its line of trees and lawns/fields on each side gave us all plenty of opportunity for exercise.   We had access to a small swimming pool also which was lovely in the warmer weather.  Temperatures when I arrived were often in the 30’s and gradually went down so that in May when I was leaving they were back in the teens.  Pretty much like home although the Australians find these low temperatures very cold.  My companions from Papua New Guinea and Africa found these temperatures very cold and were usually wrapped up in several layers. At night some went out for long walks while others played cards or watched a movie or television or just sat around chatting and generally enjoying the company.

The Centre organised two day trips, one to Canberra the capital city and the other to the Blue Mountains.  Apart from this it was up to ourselves to do our own exploring.  

There were two areas of interest for me outside of the course content.  One was to re-visit the history of our own Sisters coming to Australia.  The five Sisters who set out from Dublin in 1838 were the first ever religious sisters to step onto the shores of Australia.

They were Mother Mary John Cahill, Sister Mary John Baptist De Lacy, Sister Mary Xavier Williams, Sister Mary Lawrence Cater and Sister Mary Francis de Sales O’Brien.  These five sisters volunteered and left Ireland in August 1838.
They first settled in Parramata, Sydney, and one of their main ministries was visiting and assisting the female convicts deported to Australia from Ireland, and England.

The lady on the right of this photo, Mrs Anne Matthews in purple, is one of the ‘Friends of Paramatta’.  This group are attempting to have the site of the Female Factory declared a world heritage site and to develop it as a Visitor Centre.   The photo shows some of my group from Marymount, centred around a plaque erected by the Australian Sisters of Charity.

Anne, who gave us a tour of the buildings and grounds which once housed the prison, spoke highly of the Sisters.  The Sisters visited the prison twice daily, teaching the women about God, but also teaching them to read and write, to sew and to take care of themselves and their children.  6,000 women passed through this factory, called a factory rather than prison because linen was produced there and sold.  The male convicts made the bricks to build the accommodation which was very primitive and grossly overcrowded.  In a room which was to house 30 women sleeping on the floor, 300 were housed. Many of them were abused on the ship coming out to Australia, gave birth to children when they arrived and were allowed to keep their children until the children were aged 3 and then they were separated.  The children were moved to orphanages, never to be re-connected again.  One can only imagine the heartbreak of these women and children.

The male convicts made the bricks for the prison, quarrying the sandstone nearby and each of them marked their bricks with a type of ‘chicken’ marking.  This was to show the prison officer in the evening just how much work they had done in the day.  They could point to their stock of bricks and say, these are the ones I made.  One convict marked his with a cross which you can just about see in the middle of this picture. Perhaps it was his attempt to hold onto his faith in a very hostile environment.  Some of the women were married off to convicts who had finished their prison term so the state would no longer have to care for them.  Sometimes the men when they had served their sentence, were given some land in the outback and left to fend for themselves. There was no possibility of returning home.  The Australian descendants of these convicts today are proud of and often pay tribute to the resilience and determination to survive shown by these men and women.  I also visited Hobart, Tasmania, where the first three sisters who remained in Australia are buried.

A memorable experience, Deo Gratias.
Phyllis Behan RSC