Brian Condon: Letters and Documents in 19th Century Australian Catholic History

Priests' Petition to Sheil on his return from Europe. February 1871

[Source: Archives of Propaganda Fide, Rome: SRC Oceania 1873 vol. 1000, 1378-1382. Re-translated from the Italian version]


May it please Your Lordship

We the undersigned request your permission to explain to Your Lordship the following allegations.

Since the departure of Your Lordship we have sorrowfully observed, powerless to supply a remedy, the loss caused directly to education and indirectly to religion by the Sisters of St Joseph in this Diocese. We have considered it our imperative duty as persons responsible for the souls committed to our care to bring this matter officially to your Lordship's attention.

Having had the opportunity in our respective districts to judge of the ability of the said Sisters to give a satisfactory education to our children, we conscientiously declare that they are in fact unfit for such a purpose and that consequently a great injustice is being done to the children of the Catholic community in denying them a proper education that would put them on a par with the colonists of the other denominations.

In many of the far-off districts no provision in fact has been made for the education of young boys, and therefore Catholic boys have to frequent the schools of other denominations.

As a consequence of such an imperfect system of education, Catholic boys in most of the Diocese (if not in all of it) are ignorant when compared to the youth of other denominations around them.

If this state of affairs continues to exist it can only work to the discredit and shame of the Catholics of this Diocese.

We wish however to declare that, with the exception of their Father Director, the priests of this Diocese are regarded by the Sisters as persons of no standing, and as proof of the truth of this declaration we offer as only one example that, on a recent lamentable occasion when the Blessed Sacrament was taken from the tabernacle and the priests on their oaths without a sole dissentient gave judgment against a particular Sister as being the unfortunate and foolish one who was guilty of the sacrilege, the same accused Sister was, in disrespect of that judgement, retained in the responsible position of Mistress of Novices.

We wish further to declare that the opinion of the local priests is never sought or respected in the matter of education; and furthermore that without their permission (and sometimes against their express orders) collections are made in their districts by the Sisters of St. Joseph.

It is known that the said Sisters have, on their own initiative and without the knowledge of the local priest, established religious confraternities, from which they receive money which was sent to Adelaide for Masses to be said for the members of their contributing confraternities. Ignorant young girls are continually joining the community of the Sisters of St Joseph who have neither character nor recommendation nor spiritual advice in the matter of their religious vocation from the local priests.

It is our firm conviction, based on the circumstantial evidence above:

that the Sisters or those by whom they are guided are instructing to the foregoing effect those who present themselves as postulants.

that at least 3/4 of the actual members of the community are in fact incapable of teaching:

that, if the number of candidates admitted in future continues in the present formidable ratio, the Diocese will be quickly inundated with a multitude of uneducated and ignorant Sisters who will be an intolerable burden on priests and people while being of no use in the instruction of the Catholic youth of this colony.


Patrick T. Russell

Frederick Byrne

C.A. Reynolds

Peter Hughes

Timothy Murphy

C.H. Horan OSF

Bernard Nevin

James Maher

Modestus Henderson

Michael Kennedy

John J. Roche




EVIDENCE OF SISTER MARY OF THE CROSS [MacKillop], Sister Guardian General of the Congregation. [1383-1385v. Original in Latin]


Question: Did the Bishop approve your Rule?


He did, and in a document signed by himself sanctioned our coming to Adelaide in 1867. The first foundation of the Congregation was made at Penola, where I had the good fortune to have Fr. Julian Woods as Spiritual Director.

The new Congregation was to educate girls, boys and infants [parvulos] and, where the necessity arose, also to undertake the care of Charitable Institutions, so that through the Institute we might be enabled to provide education, principally to the children of the poor.


{Sister then showed Dr. Murphy (Apostolic Commissioner) the document signed by Bishop Sheil. Dr. Murphy examined the signature}


Q. Were any complaints made against the Sisters?

Certainly some minor complaints about the Sisters' work were reported from country districts.


Q. Were the Sisters capable teachers?

Generally they were. The complaints were not major ones; rather they were misunderstandings.

Q. Was any written complaint against the religious conduct of the Sisters sent to the Bishop?

None as far as I know, except against a certain Sister living at Kadina. This happened in 1871.


Q. Were accusations against the Sisters brought to the Bishop's attention?

None except the case mentioned. According to the local Parish Priest the complaint was groundless and he had told the Bishop so, in writing. Another Sister, who was talkative and frivolous, was heard only within the Community; no complaint about her was made by the Parish Priest.

The Bishop habitually praised our Institute. September the 7th. 1871 was the first occasion on which he gave me any hint of dissatisfaction.


Q. Did you have a Novitiate?

At first we had no Novitiate, but Father Woods gave us instructions. Finally in 1869 we had the first Novitiate and a Mistress of Novices was appointed. The Sisters, however, received no instruction in Novitiate discipline except that of Father Woods and my own.

This was done for the complete year, on the completion of which it was customary for vows to be taken for one year at first, then for two years, after that for life. The Novices took on teaching. There were 40 Sisters in the beginning of the Novitiate. One Sister bound herself to us for the second time, while another seven bound themselves to the Lord for the first time.

Each day we were instructed by Father Woods in the law of the religious state. This took place in the morning. Only from the 19th. of March 1871 did we have a separate meeting place for the Novices. The Novices also had a separate Chapter from the professed religious. Much the same can be said for the Postulants regarding place and Chapter.

The reason for our not having a Novitiate from the beginning was the lack of a suitable place or room, and the frequent demands on Sisters for teaching in the schools. At the beginning of September 1871 the number of Sisters in the Register was 122, of whom 70 were teaching in Schools: all those who were capable of it. Others less well prepared still taught, but only under the direction of the skilled.


Q. Were all sufficiently instructed and suitable for teaching?

They were, unless it happened that, to replace a Sister who had been teaching satisfactorily but had fallen ill, we had to send someone who was not skilled. There was the beginnings of a system for the preparation or approval of the Junior Sisters. This was in St Francis Xavier's Hall, and was designed to prepare them to teach; they were later to be sent to the country schools.


Q. How many well-prepared Sisters have you sent out or received?

60 or 70. Those in charge of schools were all capable of the work. We did not require a superior education in the Postulants we received, but only a suitable disposition or character. According to our Rule, two Sisters were always sent to take charge of a school. There was no distinction of grade among the Sisters; this was in accordance with the spirit of our Rule.


Q. Was there ever any petition made to the Bishop concerning the Sisters?

I heard there was, but I was away at the time, and the Bishop did not mention to me any complaint concerning the lack of aptitude of the Sisters for teaching in the Schools. The Bishop never complained during the period after his return from the General Council. On the contrary, he clearly expressed in his Pastoral Letters his support for the schools of the Sisters, nor did he in any way condemn us. Indeed he showed himself content with the way our Institute was proceeding up to September of last year. I had not sought any explanation until a reason was offered to me for doing so. [Marginal note: 'The Bishop having proposed a new Rule in the month of September'] The Bishop said he wished the Sisters to be examined, because he was dissatisfied with the Sisters' practice of having frequent singing in the schools. The questioning of the Sisters, however, was not to take place before the end of the year.


Q. How many Sisters left the Institute on account of the action taken against it?

Fifty-one left. Some of these were dismissed, others sought a dispensation rather than be forced to accept the new Rule. All who left the Institute ceased to wear the habit. Some went to friends, some took up various jobs for a living. The younger ones especially were supported by earning from service and by help from their friends, which help was given without any solicitation. All except 14 have returned to the Institute. The scattered Sisters were in confusion. A house was offered by a Jewish person, and Sister Monica, who formerly had been Mistress of Novices, lived there with the Sisters who had not yet left the Institute but were not wearing the habit. They followed the old Rule. The New Rule was not given in writing by the Bishop. He only spoke about it.


Q. Were any Institutions or Schools closed?

Seventeen schools and one Institution were eventually closed. The Bishop, however, gave us permission to remain in the house called 'The Providence' until the lease should expire. Another house, called 'The Solitude', was not closed, and seculars taught in the other schools relinquished by the Sisters.

A lady paid ´┐Żl. 5. 0. a week to support 'The Solitude'. The Orphanage and another house called 'The Refuge' remained under the care of the Sisters.


Q. How long did you remain subject to the excommunication?

For five months, from 22 September 1871 to 21 February 1872, on which day I was absolved by Father Hughes, whom the Bishop had delegated. After the publication of the excommunication I stayed in a Catholic house (Mr Woods's) for a fortnight, then I stayed with Protestants. I did not appear in public, nor even in Church. I am now filling the office of Superior without another election. I assumed this responsibility soon after the lifting of the excommunication, on the understanding that this was the wish of the Administrator and the Sisters.

I followed the old Rule, and none of the Priests made any difficulty for us on account of this. Two Sisters were a difficulty for us because they were said to have visions. No inquiry about this was made. Dr Smyth VG came once to inquire concerning a certain Sister, who was not seen in the house for some time one evening. She affirmed that she was taken by supernatural power. The Bishop was then absent. When he returned he directed the Sister to put these things out of her mind. The Sister had been absent from 7 o'clock to 9 o'clock. She was certainly not in the Convent at that time, and the Bishop said that this was a mystery to him and that he could form no certain opinion about it.

The Bishop saw one of the Sisters in ecstasy. The Sister who was absent from the house in that way does not now wear the habit. Her name is Sister Mary Angela; she does not wish to leave the Institute.

Two Sisters, Mary Angela and Ignatius, frequently had visions, especially in Passion Week and during the month of March. Sister Ignatius now lives in the Convent. Sister Mary Angela is accustomed to live in great simplicity but does great good, particularly among those detained in Jail. She is much afflicted with poor health. Sister Ignatius also suffered much. She was not of the same simplicity, but a deeper character. Father Woods seemed to believe in these visions, which perhaps strengthened the Sisters in no small way.


Q. Was a penance imposed on the Sister who took away the Blessed Sacrament?

No, because it was not known who had taken the Blessed Sacrament. The Convent was locked in such a way that externs did not have free access. Sister Mary Angela stated at Kapunda that she had taken the Blessed Sacrament. Afterwards she told me the history of this confession, and gave me a written copy of it; I have it with me now. My opinion is that she did take the Blessed Sacrament - not from malice, but because she was not "sui compos" at the time.


Q. How did the Sisters of the Institute support themselves?

By school fees and by alms.


Q. In what way?

According to the Rule: we went begging only when necessity arose.


Q. Since you are forbidden to have endowments, how do the Sisters support themselves so that they can carry on the schools?

The Sisters support themselves by the school fees. If these are not paid or are insufficient, they ask for alms or live on the charity of friends.


Q. You seek no more in your begging than the bare necessities?

Nothing, except when the Bishop gave permission to beg for the building of the convent and the Poor School.


Q. How do those support themselves who are in the various institutions: in the orphanage, the Refuge, and the Providence?

As far as the orphanage is concerned, it is subject to its Directors and the Sisters merely provide care. The Refuge returns some money and many gifts are made. Once a year during October, with the permission of the Diocesan Authorities, the names of those who make an annual contribution are published; among them are many non-Catholics, who give liberally.

In the Providence, they support themselves for the most part by begging and with the help of friends. In the Solitude they live partly by the labour of their hands, partly they pay their own expenses. If a gift is given for the poor women, the old or the young, it is not for those who serve. The Refuge is an asylum for so-called Magdalens. The Solitude is an asylum for penitents where, having amended in the former asylum, [they] now seek to serve for the future, and regarding the others seeking a solitude more conducive to amendment. Some sick old ladies also live there.


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