Mitcham Order of St Joseph's Cemetery
SISTERS OF SAINT JOSEPH OF THE SACRED HEART
South Australia, the birthplace of the Congregation of the Sisters of St Joseph, was a colony where white settlers came to find religious and political freedom. Its founding fathers, the first of whom arrived in 1836, decided that there should be no government support for organised religion or religious education. Instead, members of each religious denomination should support their own pastors, build their own churches and teach their children the tenets of their faith. The state made secular education available to all.
The earliest Catholic settlers, most of whom were Irish and extremely poor, enjoyed this religious freedom but were unable to build and maintain separate Catholic schools. When Adelaide's second bishop, Patrick Geoghegan, arrived in 1859, he was deeply distressed at this state of affairs. He feared that many young Catholics would lose their faith, especially if they attended the secular state schools freely available to them. He wrote a strongly worded pastoral letter urging his clergy to establish Catholic schools. The children's faith must be protected, whatever the cost!
The response of the clergy was immediate. Within weeks there were small independent Catholic schools in many parts of the colony. One of the priests concerned was Father Julian Woods of Penola. He met with mixed success, however, because his people were poor and were spread among the widely scattered settlements throughout his huge parish.
His prospects changed, however, when young Mary MacKillop arrived in Penola and expressed an interest in becoming a religious and running schools according to the bishop's mandate. They decided that the best way to do this was to establish a new religious order of women dedicated to the service of the poor especially in isolated country districts. Their dream became a reality with the opening of a truly Catholic school in Penola in 1866 and Mary's subsequent commitment to becoming the first Sister of St Joseph.
In June 1867, Mary moved to Adelaide and, within a few months, Sisters of St Joseph were running schools in many Adelaide suburbs and country towns. Within twelve months they were also involved in social welfare activities, having taken charge of the diocesan Orphanage and having founded a House of Refuge for women from the prisons and the streets and a House of Providence for aged or homeless women.
The new Congregation expanded quickly but soon fell foul of some Church authorities. Hence, in 1871, Bishop Laurence Sheil excommunicated Mary MacKillop from the Church, attempted to suppress the Congregation and banished Father Woods from the diocese. After some months Sheil realised that he had made a serious mistake, removed Mary's sentence and called the Sisters together again. Once more the Congregation prospered.
South Australia provided the nucleus of several foundations outside that colony. In December 1869 four Sisters left their Adelaide Mother House with Mary for the first Josephite foundation in Queensland. Then, in June 1872, a small group went to Bathurst in New South Wales. In 1883, three set sail for Temuka in the South Island of New Zealand and finally, in October 1887, four set out from Kensington for a new foundation at Northampton in Western Australia.
Mary travelled to Rome from Adelaide in 1873 and, on her return, built the new Josephite Mother House at Kensington, near Adelaide. The Mother House was transferred to Sydney in 1888, after Bishop Reynolds of Adelaide had believed gossip about Mary and banished her from his diocese. Kensington was relegated to being the centre of the South Australian Province. A new novitiate was established in North Sydney but the South Australian novitiate remained open and many young Josephites were trained there.
The South Australian Sisters felt Mary's departure and the loss of the Mother House keenly but still persevered in fidelity to their call to serve the poor of this state. They suffered another blow in 1940 when Archbishop Matthew Beovich decreed that all young sisters should receive formal teacher training. For the Josephites, this meant the closure of the Adelaide novitiate and the transfer of all postulants to the novitiate in Sydney. For the older Sisters felt this closure deeply while, for those who came after 1940, it provided an opportunity to do their novitiate with novices from all parts of the Congregation.
In spite of all the hardships the sisters have endured over the years, the South Australian Province has maintained its spirit and its pride in being the place where the Congregation was founded.