From the desk of Roland Rocchiccioli – 9 August
Each time I pass-by the original St John of God Hospital, and the former Loreto/Mary’s Mount Convent – now Loreto College – I break my stride and reflect, in awe, on the mettle of the women who wrought a lasting change.
ARMED with their implacable faith in God, and a religious calling to serve the community, they achieved miracles. They were formidable! It is impossible to imagine the power of their determination set against the ever-changing psychological hurdles they were forced to endure and overcome. These women lived and worked in an austerely patriarchal society where their every movement was monitored, and strictly controlled, by the bishop. As religious, they were deemed second rate citizens by a male dominated clergy. The system taught them to be devious and ingenious; they learned to flatter male egos to achieve their end. When all else failed they engaged in audacious daring, even intransigence, regardless of the consequences.
The deliberate slights, and the degree of petty resentment heaped on these women, is best illustrated by the action of the South Australian bishop Shiel, whose intellect and ability proved no match for the strong-minded Mary McKillop – and whom he excommunicated for insubordination. Today, Shiel is history’s forgotten man. He exists as a mere footnote, and only because of his reprehensible treatment of St Mary McKillop of the Cross.
As a consequence of an invitation from Ballarat’s first Roman Catholic bishop, Michael O’Connor, Mother Gonzaga Barry, together with her community of sisters, arrived in 1875 from Rathfarnham, a southside suburb of Dublin, Ireland.
Bishop O’Connor died in 1883. The second bishop, James Moore, proved more problematic. Bishop Moore was gracelessly conscious of the dignity and power of his office, more than any other bishop in Australia; he was quick-tempered, vigilant and ruthless, and much feared by his priests. Notwithstanding, the Loreto sisters, supported by Ballarat’s congregation of the faithful, set-about building, renovating, and converting existing buildings, to create the Loreto Abbey/Mary’s Mount Convent which was the first Loreto school – the Institute of The Blessed Virgin Mary – in Australia.
Loreto Ballarat is a truly magnificent edifice. An architectural inspiration, it stands, in all its Gloriam Deo, as a monument to these exceptional women whose legacy, inspired by their foundress, Mary Ward, will stand till the end of time. It is difficult to imagine replicating their herculean, selfless feats of endeavour in today’s avaricious, hedonistic environment.
In Western Australia, the Dominican sisters brought God and learning to the children of the north-eastern Goldfields. They lived in enclosed corrugated iron and hessian convents, where they sweltered in the desert summers and froze in the winter. In Leonora, one of the sisters, a former local girl, stood at the school gate and watched the funeral procession of her father pass-by on its way to the cemetery. She was not permitted to attend.
It is doubtful the religious life, as we have known it, will exist 100 years hence. Cloisters and chanting will be replaced by communal living and a commitment to service. Vocations might well be a thing of the past. Women will have taken their rightful place in the religious life and one of them might even sit on the throne of Saint Peter.
What will survive down through the ages is the dedication of those self-sacrificing women who paved the way; who willingly gave themselves in marriage to Christ and in the service of their fellow travellers. They took vows of poverty, chastity and obedience. Altruistically, they changed the colour of so many lives with never a moment of uncertainty. They had a faith, and they were called. They followed a voice of service, gladly dedicating themselves to the wants and needs of others. They made a difference which mattered and wanted nothing in return. They have left an enduring legacy which is impossible to equal, and might never be matched.
We owe them much!
Roland can be heard on RADIO 3BA, every Monday morning, 10.45 and contacted via [email protected].