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Brisbane Sisters celebrate 175th Anniversary

brisbane thumbSaturday 31 May 2014 was truly a day of festival and joy for the Sisters of Charity of Australia writes Sr Jeannie Johnston.  The sisters gathered together with their families, friends, co-workers and supporters in St Stephen’s Cathedral, Brisbane, to celebrate and to give thanks to God for 175 years serving in Australia, impelled by the love of Christ. Over 1300 people shared in the joy and thanksgiving.

People started arriving at the Cathedral very early not only to get one of the 900 seats but also to enjoy at their leisure the informative Historical Display in the Francis Rush Hall organised by Sr Christine Henry rsc; Dell Cuddihy, Archivist at St Vincent’s Health [Qld] and Julie Walden, Mission Executive of St Vincent’s Health [Qld].   There was a new intuitive portrayal of the First Five Women Religious in Australia by the artist Hazel Cope which was on public display for the first time (see below). People loved it. The painting depicts the five Sisters as they may have looked when they arrived in the Colony on Monday 31 December 1838, so it depicts a much younger looking Eliza Xavier Williams and Margaret John Cahill.
The beautiful singing of Mt St Michael’s Liturgical Singers and the Cathedral Choir rehearsing filled the air as people were approaching the Cathedral. The excitement and joy this generated were contagious and the Cathedral buzzed with happiness. Each Sister of Charity was given a corsage of white Singapore Orchids trimmed with the Congregational colours – this simple idea made each of the 38 Sisters of Charity readily recognisable in the crowd. At 11.00 a.m. all the Sisters of Charity present gathered on the front steps of the Cathedral for a group photo –it was like facing the paparazzi. The guests from other Christian Traditions - the Rev Dr Peter Catt, Dean of St John’s Cathedral; Rev Canon Richard Tutin, Queensland Churches Together and Rev Kay Ronalds, Moderator, Uniting Church in Australia, were welcomed at the Cathedral Door by the Dean of the Cathedral, Fr David Pascoe, and escorted to their seats in the front row of the Nave.  The Mt St Michael’s Drama Students silently took up their positions on the Sanctuary steps. At 11.28 a.m. the passage from the Prophet Zephaniah (The Lord your God will exult with joy over you; he will renew you by his love; he will dance with shouts of joy for you as on a day of festival. [Zephaniah 3:18]) was proclaimed and Aunty Joan Hendriks on behalf of the indigenous peoples of the greater Brisbane area and Moreton Bay welcomed us into their country. Soft Irish music played filled the Cathedral as Sr Annette Cunliffe, the Congregational Leader, carrying the Queensland 175 years Candle and accompanied by 7 year old Vada Wardlaw, holding the Congregational Candle, made their way down the centre aisle to the Sanctuary where Annette took a light from the Paschal Candle and lit the 175 Years Candle and from this, lit the Candle held by Vada signifying the handing on of our charism to the future generation.
The telling of the story in narrative, mime and dance began.  The Five Sisters, dressed as Irish Widows in the Mary Aikenhead Ministries colours and with raffia woven into their chignons to represent short brimmed hats worn to protect their complexion against the sun, were called forth by Mrs Pat Lye after Stephen Campion had read selected passages from Dr Ullathorne’s autobiography giving the background to the Australian Mission.
Five women are dancing, dancing circles of hope”… the lovely Sacred Circle Dance was the preliminary to the journey on the Francis Spaight. The forming of the ship in full sail, the rough sea voyage culminating in the docking at Sydney Harbour and the ministry at Parramatta held the congregation spell-bound. The Mt St Michael’s Dancers and Drama Students were brilliant. The Australian Sisters of Charity story was told and the challenge of the 5 Cs – Competence, Compassion, Confidence, Commitment and Conscience- was given as the 5 Sisters exited the Cathedral in 5 different directions, each taking with her as she moved from the centre of the Sanctuary, a 4 metre length of coloured fabric –red, gold, green, white and blue - held also by 5 Convict women who followed after.  
The Organ struck the opening chords to All People that on earth do dwell and 5 dancers with 4 metre hand-painted silken banners streaming behind them, ran through the Cathedral criss-crossing each other when they reached the Sanctuary – these were the new generation sharing in the charism and ministry of the Sisters of Charity in Australia. Following them were the banners from the Schools proudly led in by Mt St Michael’s College, then St Finbarr’s, Ashgrove; St Mary’s, Kingaroy; Mater Dei, St John’s Wood and St Peter Chanel, The Gap. These were followed by the Health Care Facilities- St Vincent’s Hospital, Toowoomba; St Vincent’s Hospital, Lismore; St Vincent’s Hospital, Brisbane; St Vincent’s Hospital, Robina; Holy Spirit Northside; St Vincent’s Care Services and the Downs and West Community Support. 18 Priests and 4 Bishops - Bishop Heenan, Bishop Mc Guckin, Bishop Gerry and Bishop Jarrett - preceded Archbishop Mark Coleridge into the Cathedral.
The First Reading from Zephaniah was read by Sr Elizabeth Wall and Sr Patricia Coyle did the Second Reading which was taken from the Letter to the Romans. The Responsorial Psalm was sung by the Mt St Michael’s singers. The Celtic Alleluia complete with trumpets rang out to welcome the Gospel. Archbishop Mark Coleridge in his homily paid tribute to all Congregations of Women Religious: “…These five women, the first Sisters of Charity, were also the first women religious to come to these shores, and the historic significance of that is inestimable. The Congregations of Apostolic Women Religious have in fact been, in Australia, the prime evangelisers. ……We owe these women an un-payable debt of gratitude, and when I say ‘we’ I don’t just mean the church, for that is stating the obvious, but Australia owes these women, the Sisters of Charity, an un-payable debt of gratitude. Without the seminal contribution of apostolic women religious in the Catholic Church, Australia would be unrecognisably different and a far more brutal place.“
Srs Margaret Mines, Cate O’Brien, Mathilde Harnischfeger, Christine Henry and Jeannie Johnston read the Prayers of Intercession which were followed by the Renewal of Vows. The singing of the Caspar Ett Magnificat, which had been brought to Australia by the first Sisters and is very dear to many of our Sisters, concluded the Liturgy of the Word. Miriam Townsley, Director of Music at Mt St Michael’s, was able to source the original musical accompaniment and so the Magnificat was sung as it had been originally composed in 1825 - SATB. It was truly magnificent as the male voices of the Cathedral Choir gave it an added dimension.
The trio of Irish musicians played while Srs Patricia Heenan and Karan Varker brought up the Gifts. The lovely Silver Chalice that Mary Aikenhead sent out with the first Sisters was used at this Mass. In her address after Communion, Sr Annette Cunliffe thanked the people of Queensland for their 94 years of support to the Sisters of Charity and also everyone involved with the preparation for our day of Festival and celebration.  The Blessing of St Clare was imparted by the Archbishop and as Sr Leone Wittmack with her drum led the singing of 'The Charity of Christ', the Sisters, with the portrait of the First Five Women Religious in Australia bringing up the vanguard, processed out of the Cathedral to the deafening applause of those who had gathered to share this celebration with us. Handel’s March from Scipio brought this event to its conclusion
In the grounds of the Cathedral Precinct refreshments were served by Ab Fab catering staff boosted by 30 Hospitality Students from Mt St Michael’s College. One guest could not believe it when he saw ‘Percolated Coffee’ at one of the five stations set up for the serving of drinks and that it was served in a cup and saucer and not a styrene mug. The left-overs were sent to Rosies and to St Vincent de Paul so later that evening the homeless on the streets of Brisbane shared our celebration.
The website of the Archdiocese of Brisbane has archived the webcast of the celebration and it can be viewed by clicking HERE and then clicking on the Mass entitled ‘Mass for Religious’.

For photos click HERE.


This is the painting depicting the First Five Sisters by artist Hazel Cope. Hazel has endeavoured to portray a youthful version of the three images that most sisters are familiar with, namely Margaret John Cahill, Catherine De Sales O'Brien and Eliza Xavier Williams... this is as she, Hazel, sees them as they would have been in 1838/1839.  
It is watercolour and done on a heavy Bockingford paper.