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


[Source: Archives of Propaganda Fide, Rome: SOCG 1873 vol. 1000, 1416-1419v. Original in Latin]


In accordance with the wish of Your Lordships, I recount what happened at the time of the excommunication of Sister Mary.

Unless I am mistaken, it was on the day before the excommunication that the Bishop sent for me in the school near the Cathedral where I was teaching and said to me that he was about to change certain matters in the Rule: he would divide the Sisters into two classes, Choir and Lay; postulants would go back home and go to school for a year, and all any professed Sister who was not suitable for teaching and did not agree to remain as a lay Sister should return to the world; each Convent was to be directed by the local priest, and there would be no General of the Sisters, the Bishop himself being the head of the Institute.

I made known my desire to adhere to the old Rule which His Lordship had approved. He said he had made the Rule and could change what he pleased. He knew what was better for the Sisters, what would benefit their souls; that we had not made our vows to Fr. Woods. I said we had not done that, but we vowed to obey the Rule and the Superiors, and if the Rule were changed in an essential matter, I did not wish to remain. To this the Bishop replied that if any Sister could not bring herself to accept the changes in the Rule she could freely return to the world. He said we all had false ideas of religion, nor did we understand what religious life entailed. He reproved us for bringing our pupils to the Altar to perform acts of reparation which they did not understand, and for other devotions which were more suited to adults. Fr. Horan accompanied the Bishop.

September 22: The Bishop with Frs. Horan, Murphy, Roche and Cleary came to the Convent of St. Joseph. The Sisters gathered in the Community room as the Bishop wished. As she was ill, Sister Mary could not be present, but she was immediately summoned. When she entered the room she knelt for a blessing, which the Bishop refused.

She rose, but the Bishop told her to kneel. He told us all to go to the Oratory. There the Bishop told Sister Mary to kneel in front of the Altar. Sister Teresa knelt beside her. The Bishop said "What is this? Go back." She obeyed him immediately and retired. The Bishop was wearing Surplice and Mitre and, unless I am mistaken, was carrying his crozier. Speaking to Sister Mary, he said he considered her heedless of his authority, and on this account he was about to pronounce the terrible sentence of excommunication on her. He read this in Latin and said to her that nothing remained for her, Mary MacKillop, but to return to the world. He feared that a great part of the malice of the world had been brought into the Institute. He then commanded her to remove the habit and leave the Convent, and to us he said that if we communicated with her we would also be excommunicated. Sister Mary rose to leave; seeing this the Sisters could not restrain tears and sobs, two clung to her with embraces, one of whom, Sister Paula, her whole body wracked, cried out, "Oh Fr. Woods, Fr. Director, where are you?. Oh, what a sad day's work for the Church." She was taken into the school near the Oratory. Since she was half out of her senses she presented a state of great confusion; almost all the Sisters followed her, trying to help her. I think I remained in the Oratory for some minutes after the others; I forget whether other Sisters remained in the Oratory.

When I entered the schoolroom I restrained Sister Paula from following Sister Mary, as she was trying to do. A little later she was taken from the school and peace returned. Later I heard that, while Sister Paula was in that state, Fr. Horan came into the school, rebuked certain Sisters for being with Sister Paula and told them to be quiet, and that Sister Martha, turning to him, said, "Do you think we are dogs?." She acted thus because of being vehemently agitated by sorrow and indignation.

I heard also that when the Sisters left the Oratory at that time the Bishop and priests interpreted it as having been done in contempt of them, but it was not so. It is true that the distress of the Sisters when they heard such a sentence pronounced on her whom they loved and venerated caused them to momentarily forget the presence of the Bishop, and their natural feelings prevailed. The form in which the distress showed itself displeased the priests, but it could not be restrained, and the actions of that time could not be called contempt since they were completely involuntary. Also, some Sisters did not know that the Bishop had further things to say; as soon as they knew this and had regained their composure they returned to the Oratory, with the one exception of Sister Paula, who could not do so. Then the Bishop said that a false notion of religion possessed the Sisters, that the devil had come to them, and that (unless I am mistaken) it was his duty to expel them; he said they could freely return to the world.

Many Sisters then approached and, kneeling before the Bishop, requested a dispensation on the grounds that they could not follow the new Rule. To them he said that they should be mindful that, for as long as he pleased, any of those who attempted to leave the Institute without his permission would be at once excommunicated by him. Then, unless I am mistaken, permission was given to the Sisters to leave the Oratory. The Bishop spoke with the Postulants and left. I went to him asking whether we were to go to the School near the Cathedral on that day. "Yes", he said, "Go to the school, the duties remain." I went to the school with three other Sisters.

After our departure a priest came and took away the Blessed Sacrament, and two other priests turned the whole Convent upside down. On the evening of the same day all the Sisters left the Convent for another house. They stayed there for a month, and we taught in the school near the Cathedral. Sister Mary was not with us nor did she tell the Sisters where she lived, fearing they would be tempted to go to her on account of the affection they bore her, an action which could easily give the appearance of a lack of submission to the Bishop.

The Bishop wanted the furnishings of the Altar to be sent to him, and this was done. In the month of October he dismissed Sister Teresa from the Institute, and the school was now handed over to me. A little later he made me Superior. I asked him whether I should be Superior of the Convent. "Yes", he said, and I said I wished to know about the changes to the Rule, since I could not remain under the new Rule. Then His Lordship said, "There is no change in the Rule." I showed how the mode of government was totally changed: His Lordship had removed the Superior General of the Institute, and had made each Convent subject to the local priest; he said, "These changes are not great." Each Convent was to be subject to a priest, and the Bishop himself would be the Superior. "Under these provisions", I said, "each Bishop could change the Rule, which in time would be altogether different from what it was in the beginning." The Bishop said that this was essentially his understanding, and that such changes had a place in all Orders - his own Order had likewise been changed. But at the same time he repeated two or three times that there was no change in the Rule.

Fr. Murphy, who was with the Bishop, said that the new Rule was not yet written down, which words made me even more uncertain, for why did they think of writing down the Rule if there were to be no change? "If the Rule was confirmed by the Pope I could not touch it," the Bishop said, "But as things are you are completely subject to me." I said, "I know that Your Lordship can do as you please." He said, "I not only can but should, as Bishop, fulfil my obligations." He added that the conduct of the Sisters arose from an erroneous conscience, but that he had had good reasons for dealing thus with Sister Mary, and he had thought about it for some time: Archives of Propaganda Fide, Rome: Sister Mary had incited the Sisters to rebel against the Bishop.

I said that this was not true, that there was no incitement by Sister Mary either to follow or to reject the changed Rule. "How is it, therefore," he said, "that all, even the newest of the Postulants, used the same words?" I replied to his Lordship that wherever they had got these words, it was certainly not from Sister Mary, and that we could not follow the new Rule in safe conscience. To this Fr. Murphy said he thought the Sisters invoked conscience without knowing its meaning. The Bishop asked me whether the remaining Sisters in the School were of the same mind as myself. I thought they were, but that he should deign to ask them, which he did not wish to do. He replied to my question whether I should consider myself free of the vows: "Not before you remove the habit. But there is no need to hurry. You can come to me again or I will send Fr. Murphy to you."

Both in this and in a former conversation which I had with His Lordship on the new Rule, the Bishop appeared to be excited and hardly allowed me to speak; when I sought to explain my motives, he interrupted me often and barely listened to me. I often said to his Lordship that I considered myself to have reverence for him, but that conscience forbade me to follow the new Rule, that from tender years I always revered the Bishops and priests. On my return home from school I wrote to the Bishop seeking a dispensation from the vows for myself and for the Sisters of the Adelaide Convent, since none wished to follow the new Rule.


The letter was as follows:


Most Reverend and Illustrious Bishop:

Your Lordship spoke to me this morning in the school about my affairs. However, I am still not clear in my mind about the dispensation of my Sisters and myself. Since Your Lordship also made me Superior of the Convent, the professed Sisters ask me to seek for them a dispensation from their vows and, for the two novices who remain, permission to put on secular dress, for despite our every wish to obey Your Lordship we cannot in conscience follow a Rule other than that which we vowed to keep inviolate when we entered.

Nothing was decided whether we should leave the school near the Cathedral immediately. We request that Your Lordship would kindly inform us if we should notify our pupils before our departure.

Having read the letter, he said to the person who had brought it: "I will not send a reply." For some days we heard nothing new from the Bishop, and our anxiety grew, through lack of knowledge of what we should do.

One day the mother of Sister Martha came to the Convent urging her daughter to come home with her. Sister Martha asked me to go with her to the Bishop to ask for a dispensation. The Bishop said to us that he had received the letter and that he would dispense everybody next Friday - it was then Wednesday - and that no Sister was to appear in the habit from that day.

Sister Martha asked whether she could go home with her mother the following day, since her mother had come for this reason. The Bishop agreed and said, "I dispense you from all your vows and obligations." On her knees she asked for a blessing and obtained it, and on leaving she said she hoped that no distress of mind was caused to His Lordship by her leaving. "Not at all", he said, "I think you will be happier and serve God better in the world." As we left we met Fathers Murphy and Horan, and Sister Martha said goodbye to Fr. Murphy: "I am what I was, Catherine Ryan", she said in a sorrowful and quiet voice.

I make mention of this matter because afterwards I was told that on this occasion she had used the name 'Tim' or 'Father Tim'. This is not so: she used the words which I have given. Before she was a Sister she was friendly with Father Murphy. Father Murphy frequently came to visit her and, as is usual, they had chatted with one another.

On the same day Sister Ignatius arrived from the Convent at Kadina. The Bishop had informed Father Kennedy that he was forced for grave reasons to expel that Sister. What these reasons were he did not say. Fr. Kennedy advised Sister Ignatius to go to the Bishop and ask his pardon if she had given any cause for offence, although she herself knew absolutely nothing which would merit his anger.

With me she went to the Bishop and said she had heard from Fr. Kennedy that she had been expelled from the Institute for grave reasons, she was sincerely sorry if she had in any way displeased His Lordship, and kneeling she asked pardon. The Bishop said he was not offended, but for various reasons he thought it expedient that she should be dispensed. Unless I am mistaken he asked her by what name she was called formerly and where her parents were, and added that he gave her a dispensation. And to me: "You have already received a dispensation." Sister Ignatius said she feared she had done something which greatly displeased His Lordship, since on one hand he had sent a message that she was to be expelled, and on the other she herself was completely ignorant of how she had offended him (for Sister Ignatius had been in Kadina during that disturbed period and had not been involved in any of those matters). The Bishop replied: "You have done nothing, nothing at all, only I thought it expedient you receive a dispensation. You know the Bishop is not bound to give reasons for what he does." He asked me if I needed anything. "No", I said gratefully. "Do you not need money so that you can return to your family in Melbourne?." I said I would not return, and when he asked the reason I said I would never return to my family, once having left it to enter religion. "Well", he said, "I cannot change that, since you do not agree to the changes which I wished to make." He added that if I wished to continue to teach he would provide me with a house. If I desired a school I should go to Fr. Murphy or Fr. Nolan.

The following day - Friday 20th. October - all the Sisters removed the religious habit. Since they were without a school they were also without money to pay rent. Hence they left the house and moved to another which a Jewish person had offered them.

I went to Port Adelaide, where Sister Gertrude and two other postulants were now teaching. The local priest and the Bishop were not opposed to that. I taught both in their school and in another which was on the Peninsula, and so we carried on our lives until almost Christmas. Sister Gertrude's father often came to persuade her to return to her paternal home. Finally he said to his daughter that it was the command of the Bishop that she return home. Thus at Christmas, leaving the school, Sister Gertrude lived with her parents for some time. I joined the other Sisters. Sister Mary was not living with us. We were prohibited from speaking to Sister Mary as long as we wore the habit; after we removed it we were accustomed to visit each other, but in secret lest any cause for offence be given to the Bishop. There was no means of livelihood all that time except what the charity of others provided, or the Sisters earned through work. Sister Teresa was directing the Sisters. I myself went to teach in a private house near Gawler. Three months went by in this way. Then the religious habit was again restored to the Sisters and I had great joy in returning to them and in again receiving my Holy Habit, on the Monday of Easter week, 1st. April.

After the excommunication of Sister Mary His Lordship had decreed that the Sisters were no longer to confess to Father Tappeiner as they used to, but to a priest of the Cathedral; we did this as long as we wore the habit. In Confession we were told that we should obey the new Rule, that we were not to oppose our opinion to that of the Bishop, who knew Theology better than we did, and every means was used to persuade us. Our Institute was to be destroyed, hence it was not much help for us to go to Confession.

After the Sisters put on secular dress they were ashamed to go to the Cathedral for Mass since the priest spoke against them from the Pulpit, and they feared they would be denied Communion. Hence each day they walked to Norwood Church, until they found a house there, the one in which we now live. The report was that the Bishop judged it to be rebellion that the Sisters, having put off the habit, were living together. But such was far from our thoughts, nor was anything further from our minds than any action which might provoke the Bishop. Having once left the world to live in Religion we did not desire to return to the world, nor could we follow another Rule than that in which we had made our vows. We tried to live together without mixing in the affairs of others, since there was always alive in us this confidence that all these things were sent to us by Almighty God in His mercy, to try us; He, however, would not abandon us or cast us away into the world against our will. Before that unhappy and disturbed time the Bishop was always supportive of us and of the schools of the Sisters, so that we have no doubt that he was deceived and led to think badly of us through particular people who counselled such things. We hoped that the time would come when he would see things as they really were.


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