Sisters of Charity 175th Anniversary Celebration Mass - "For the Love of Christ Urges Us On"

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“For the love of Christ urges us on” (2 Cor 5:14). These words of St Paul in his second letter to the Corinthians, I believe, very aptly capture the spirit of Mary Aikenhead and the Sisters of Charity. It was this bold willingness to serve where needed, impelled by the love of Christ, which led Mother Mary Aikenhead to respond to the request of Bishop Polding to send Sisters to work among the female convicts in Sydney. Her order was still new, the needs in Ireland were great indeed, but she responded with great trust in divine providence and sent five Sisters to far off Sydney.

The Sisters of Charity were founded in 1815 in Dublin against a backdrop of great unemployment, outbreaks of cholera and famine. The work of the Sisters included the establishment of schools, hospitals and orphanages for people in need, and very importantly the visiting of the poor, especially the sick in their homes, and those in prison. Yet with so much needed in Ireland Mary Aikenhead acceded to the appeal of the Bishop from the other side of the world.

The five Sisters who volunteered arrived in Sydney on 31 December, 1838 becoming the first Religious Sisters to set foot on the Australian continent. Their charism, their gift to the Church, was service to the poor. Indeed it was a fourth vow taken by the Sisters of Charity. In this colony established to take the convicts from the overcrowded jails in England, the Sisters encountered women and men living in the vilest of conditions. Their physical, moral and spiritual poverty was so great. The Sisters set to work among these and other poor in the struggling colony, urged on by the love of Christ. The forms of work took on many shapes as the Sisters responded to the needs that they saw before them.

Within two years of their arrival there is an interesting story that is worth recalling today. It is a description of the procession that took place on the 25th August, 1840 from St. Mary's Cathedral for the laying of the foundation stone of St. Patrick's, Church Hill. It was recorded that six hundred children marched behind a cross being carried by an aboriginal boy. This report, likely included in the letter to the Irish Congregation, would have caught the attention of Mother Mary Aikenhead who in sending with the Sisters to Australia gave them a crucifix whereon the figure was that of a Black Christ. This gift to the first Sisters emphasised to the Sisters the necessity to present Christ to the black inhabitants of their new land. That crucifix was carried in today at the head of the procession.

The Church produces some of the most inspiring of human actions, but it is also very human in its frailty. The Sisters encountered difficulties with the expectations of Bishop Polding and this led to three of the original pioneering Sisters accepting an invitation from Bishop Wilson of Hobart Town to undertake their work here. They arrived in June 1847 and resided next to St Joseph’s Church where they were to remain for over a century.

Having established themselves in Hobart the Sisters began a daily regime of visits to the Catholic women detained at the Cascades Factory. They were not allowed to communicate with the Protestant women. To give you some idea of the misery awaiting the Sisters, the Factory was located in an area of damp swamp land, and with overcrowding, poor sanitation and inadequate food and clothes, there was a high rate of disease and mortality among its inmates including children. There was indeed much suffering into which the Sisters brought the love of Christ.

Mary Aikenhead, is said to have insisted that “if what we are engaged in is truly God’s work, it will thrive”. The ministry of the Congregation in Tasmania, with the support of Bishop Willson did indeed prosper. In August 1847, the Sisters opened St Joseph's School in Hobart - later described by the state Director of Education in the following terms:
"There were two thoroughly efficient schools in Tasmania; one was the Central School. The other was that conducted by the nuns in Hobart town."

For the next 120 years the Sisters continued to open schools in the Archdiocese of Hobart – some 8 in all. In 1879, Mother Xavier Williams established St Joseph's Orphanage. St Vincent's Hospital Launceston was blessed and opened in 1944.

Sisters, today we, the Church of Tasmania, want to thank you for your presence among us. We are indebted to you and the service that you and your predecessors have so generously given to countless thousands here. Through you we express our gratitude to all the Sisters who have been instruments of the love of Christ here in Tasmania since 1847. As St Paul said in the second reading today: “work for the Lord with untiring effort and great earnestness of spirit”. This you have done and the world and Church is the better for it. Thank you.

Sisters, may the love of Christ continue to impel you as you move to the future.

For all here present today celebrating this significant anniversary let us allow the example of the Sisters of Charity to be an inspiration to us. Let us desire to receive the love of Christ more and more into our hearts and allow this love to impell us in our personal Christian life and in the actions that flow from it.

Let us allow the love of Christ to so stir within us, that we will keep alive the spirit that inspired Mary Aikenhead and those pioneer Sisters who, having consecrated their lives to the service of the poor, brought the love of Christ to those in great need.

May the love of Christ impel us all.

Saturday, June 21, 2014