If I Could Be of Service in Saving Souls - 150th Anniversary of St Mary's College, Hobart

Decrease font size
Increase font size
Print this page
Home > Archbishop > Homilies > If I Could Be of Service in Saving Souls - 150th Anniversary of St Mary's College, Hobart

The nineteenth century was an extraordinary one for the Catholic Church. In Europe, the seat of Catholicism, the Church was reeling from the effects of the French Revolution, in Ireland Catholics were harassed and persecuted by their English Protestant overlords, Italy was in political chaos, Germany was dismembering the structures of the Church. The notion of liberalism was sweeping across Europe challenging not only the monarchies, but also the Church. There was little to indicate that the Church had the capacity or the spiritual resources to launch a major missionary endeavour, but that is what happened. The Church – weakened and under all sorts of threat – experienced a missionary renaissance of remarkable proportions.

From France and Ireland and other European countries missionaries in their thousands spread across the world, to Africa, to Asia, to the Pacific and to far-flung places like the emerging British colonies in Australia. There was an extraordinary spirit of mission alive in the Church.

In Ireland, despite harsh penal laws aimed at crushing the Catholic faith, the Church there witnessed the emergence of a whole range of new apostolic orders of clerics, and new religious communities of women and men. The Presentation Order of religious women founded by Nano Nagle in 1775 was one of the first expressions of these new apostolic communities. The Brigidine Sisters, founded by Bishop Daniel Delany, were formed in 1807, the Sisters of Charity were founded by Mary Aikenhead in 1815, the Sisters of Mercy were founded by Catherine McAuley in 1831. Among men, the Christian Brothers were founded by Edmund Rice in 1802, the Marist Brothers were founded by St Marcellin Champagnat in France in 1817, while the Patrician Brothers were founded by the previously mentioned Bishop Daniel Delaney in Ireland in 1808. All these orders well known among Catholics in Australia emerged from around the same period. These orders had as their founding charism the education of the young at a time when universal education was unheard of. 

For the next century and a half these orders would experience extraordinary growth and geographical expansion. It was a missionary age and the Church in Tasmania benefited greatly from this spiritual movement, and from the faith and sacrificial generosity that it engendered.  The calling, the vocation, that these young women and men experienced was to devote themselves to the instruction of the young in the Catholic faith.

At the heart of this missionary impulse that graced the Church was the desire, as they would say, “to save souls”. This is how Nano Nagle understood her calling and the mission of the community of Sisters that gathered around her. She said, “If I could be of service in saving souls in any part of the globe, I would gladly do all in my power.” Nano Nagle saw what we would now call “evangelisation” as the central goal for her apostolic endeavours.
                                                                                        The young women who joined the Presentation Sisters, or the Mercy Sisters, or the Sisters of Charity, saw the sacrifice of their lives in terms of helping those they served to know the living God and embrace a faith that would take them to salvation. It was nothing less that could inspire these women to such generous self-giving. They deeply loved their Catholic faith and passionately desired that all would embrace this faith and its expression in the teaching and sacramental life of the Church.

Those who gave their lives to the mission of education had this one central purpose. It was to create an environment of palpable faith in their schools. Yes, they wanted to educate their students to ensure that they had better prospects in life, but they knew that what mattered most in life was to know God and live according to the tenets of the Catholic faith. The passion in the hearts of the women who embraced the evangelical virtues of poverty, chastity and obedience was that their pupils would come to know and live a full Catholic life.

This was the missionary drive that led them to extraordinary levels of personal sacrifice. They were prepared to leave their native country and face the challenge of new and different cultural environments. They were willing to surrender their personal independence in holy obedience and go where they were sent. They were ready to give their all to the cause of the mission to which they were assigned. They endured high levels of deprivation of comfort, of food, of harsh climate, of sickness and not in a few cases an early death. They would go where they were sent. They would work long hours and endure difficulties without complaint. Their personal love of Christ inspired them. Their personal love of the faith sustained their spirits.

And so the Catholic faith found a home among a disparate and impoverished Catholic community here in Hobart Town. For a century and a half the Sisters of the Presentation Order have inspired the lives of thousands of young women in this college. Some 150 consecrated women have served in Tasmania over this period. Their numbers grew as local girls joined them and they expanded their ministry. They were able to assume responsibility for more and more schools, though St Mary’s was always the flagship college.

However, by the second half of the twentieth century their numbers began to flag, and their capacity to staff their schools became difficult. The time had come for them to pass over their work to other hands. Thus, St Mary’s College today is in lay hands. Today, however, we cannot celebrate this significant milestone without acknowledging that St Mary’s College is what it is because it has received a remarkable heritage from the Presentation Sisters.

Today St Mary’s College commemorates in this significant anniversary of one hundred and fifty years, and acknowledges its profound debt to the Presentation Sisters. They have been given it an extraordinary legacy. In recalling this legacy the College, as it looks to the future, must ask itself the question: How can we ensure that this College will continue to be a place where young women will come to know the beauty of the Catholic faith and find a path for the salvation of their souls?

In the Gospel reading today, we listened to the Lord offering an extraordinary assurance: “Ask and you will receive”; “I tell you most solemnly anything you ask for from the Father he will grant in my name”. So let us ask the Lord to grant to St Mary’s College the grace of being a place where the Catholic faith is lived and witnessed to in such a way that it will inspire the students to embrace Christ as their way, their truth and their life.

Archbishop Julian Porteous
Saturday, May 12, 2018