Presentation Sisters sesquicentenary in Tasmania

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The celebration of anniversaries inevitably take us back to beginnings. A sesquicentenary will take us back 150 years, to 1866. Beginnings by their nature are often small, and often somewhat precarious. What time brings can often be extraordinary, and it is certainly the case for the Presentation Sisters here in Tasmania. But beginnings are always interesting, so see the decisions, the responses, and how they fashion what follows.

Daniel Murphy was named the second bishop of Hobart Town in the year of our interest, 1866. As a young priest he actually volunteered some years before to go to Australia with Dr Ullathorne, who was appointed first vicar general to Australia. He was denied this opportunity so volunteered for missionary service in India subsequently becoming coadjutor to Dr John Fennelly, vicar-apostolic of Midras, and was consecrated bishop in 1846.

Bishop Murphy arrived in Hobart Town in April of 1866, along with a nephew, Fr Michael Beechinor. In October of that year another nephew, Fr Daniel Beechinor arrived, accompanied by his sister, Ellen. His sister was a Presentation Sister, Mother Xavier Murphy, and she brought four other Presentation sisters with her from Fermoy in Ireland. No doubt desperate for workers in his part of the vineyard the newly appointed bishop turned to family sources for pastoral assistance.

Bishop Murphy had a commitment to provide Catholic education for the children of his fledge wing diocese and would be engaged in a struggle to have aid from the government for Catholic schools. He organized petitions against the State Aid Commutation Bill which sought to withdraw public funding for Catholic Schools. When it received the royal assent in 1869 he faced the challenge of expanding Catholic education relying solely on the support of the Catholic community, most of whom were very poor.
After the withdrawal of state aid to denominational schools he built up a system of education across the State. In the early 1870s he strongly objected to the direct tax on Catholics for support of public schools.

One of his first duties on arrival was the blessing and opening of St. Mary’s Cathedral, and he lived to see it reconstructed and completed in its present form.

But back to the Sisters.

Bishop Murphy had in mind that the Sisters would be located on the Church property in Harrington St adjacent to the Cathedral. Work had commenced on a convent and school, but little more than foundations had been laid, so the Sisters accepted an invitation to stay at Richmond as the Parish Priest, Fr William Dunne, was able to rent a large two storey colonial house for them. There they opened their first school.

On the feast of the Epiphany 1868 the band of Sisters returned to Hobart to take possession of what was a very handsome three story convent which still stands out as a magnificent witness to bold vision and confidence in the future. No doubt the bishop was determined that this would be a statement about Catholic resolve. Above the main entrance was a beautiful stone image of the Virgin Mary, and his own coat of arms. The building was originally called Mount St Mary’s.

Thus was St Mary’s College, as we know it today, born and quickly flourished under the guidance and dedication of the Sisters.

The Church has a remarkable gift in its tradition. It is the gift of consecrated life. The history of the Church is not only about people of great faith and holiness, but about their willingness to give themselves totally to the service of Christ by embracing the three vows of poverty, chastity and obedience. Nano Nagle stands in this tradition. Seeing the grave situation that Ireland was in under the harsh laws of English overseers, she courageously began a mission of providing Catholic education.

To do this she embraced consecrated life and she invited other women to join her in this radical commitment to the Lord. Thus were the Presentation Sisters born in Ireland in 1775.

Consecrated life remains one of the great treasures of the Church. Though numbers of young Catholics embracing consecrated life has declined in recent decades, the charism will not die. It will be stirred again by the fire of the Holy Spirit. So today as we honour Nano Nagle and the formation of the Presentation Sisters, we pray that there will be a revival of consecrated life in the Church, and here in Tasmania.

One can only imagine the Lord looking upon what she was undertaking and responding with great joy. We heard in the Gospel today. Who are my sisters? Anyone who does the will of my Father in heaven. She is my sister. The Lord embraces women who devote all their being to the will of the Father in heaven. This is what Nano Nagle understood. This was what finally motivated her dedication to the education of children in the face of a ruthless foreign power that sought to crush the Catholic faith and break the spirit of the people.

Hers was a mission of mercy, of love, of self-sacrifice. It is this spirit that was in the hearts of those pioneer sisters who travelled half way across the world to a Church which was poor and under- resourced. These sisters had known great privation as the scourge of the Potato Famine ravished Ireland. They had known the struggle for very survival and for the preservation of the ancient Catholic faith.

Arriving in Van Diemen’s Land they brought courage, selfless dedication and strong faith. They contributed greatly to the advancement not only of education but of Catholic faith to the Church here on this island. We owe them and those women who joined them an immense debt of gratitude.

So for 150 years, one hundred and fifty Presentation Sisters have served here in Tasmania, and from the original sisters from Ireland soon local girls joined the great and noble enterprise of Catholic education.

Today we honour the pioneer Presentation Sisters who served the education of children and, over time, established a network of schools across this island. Past and present generations of Catholics owe them so much.

May the work which they began and the legacy they have left us be the foundation for the raising up of a current generation of young Catholics strong in faith, dedicated to virtue and willing to be witnesses to Christian truth.

Archbishop Julian Porteous
Saturday, 29 October 2016