Thousands of Central West students might have had a different education had seven Irish women not agreed to move to the other side of the world 150 years ago.
They took a big risk travelling to the other side of the world.Sister Patricia Powell
The seven Sisters of Mercy travelled from Charleville in County Cork to Bathurst in 1866.
Their journey lasted three months, including a Cobb and Co coach trip from Penrith.
On Thursday at 11am a mass will be held at St Josephs in Orange to acknowledge the end of the sisters’ work after 150 years in the district.
With teaching now done by lay staff the sisters’ work has changed to different ministries.
Sister Patricia Powell said it was a major effort for the pioneer sisters to agree to come to Australia.
“They took a big risk travelling to the other side of the world,” she said.
However, their work spread, and as new schools were built across the region, so did the reach of Catholic education.
There are six of the sisters, Carmel Quade, Moira Sullivan, Jo Cook, Margaret Commins, Mary Trainor and Kaye Cole, still living in Orange.
The last Sister of Mercy, Sister Carmel, said she did not feel strange to be at the end of a long line.
“I just felt it was the right time to move on,” she said.
“I have confidence in Michael Croke [principal of Catherine McAuley Catholic Primary School] and the dedicated and competent staff to carry on the work.”
Sister Mary Trainor said lay teachers began taking over education in the 1960s.
“For the last 50 years the sisters have been free to undertake other ministries,” she said. “The Catholic education system is now run by the laity.”
The six sisters still in Orange have taught all over the diocese.
“I have taught in Bathurst, Orange, Dubbo, Narromine, Trangie, Forbes and Mudgee,” she said.
Several of the sisters have gone to Ireland to where the original sisters descended and said it was remarkable that the original women did not go back for many years.
“That was the way it was done in those days.
“It would have taken months to get there,” she said.
The first Australian woman joined the order in 1874.
A book on the history of the Sisters of Mercy, Through Catherine’s Eyes, records that the time of their centenary, 1966, was significant with Pope John overseeing major reforms at the same time education was changing in Australia.
“The traditional religious life that novices were being trained to live at the beginning of the 1960s had by the end of the 1960s begun to change irrevocably,” it said.
One to feel the change in Orange was Sister Paula Smith, deputy principal of the [girls’ school] Santa Maria College when the boys from de La Salle College were integrated with the girls for years 11 and 12.
“When she became principal the next year, almost the entire staff comprised Sisters of Mercy,” it said.
“At the end of her term as principal in 1972 half the staff were lay people.”
Sister Jo Cook spent a significant part of her working life with the Sisters of Mercy at the Croagh Patrick Children’s Home in Orange.
“I was at Bathurst, Mudgee, Narromine and in Orange I was at Croagh Patrick for 19 years,” she said.
She joined as director of the home in 1969 when there were 48 boys under 10 years including one child who was just two years old.
At the same time she was principal of St Mary’s Primary School in East Orange and decided to relinquish that role to be with the boys.
In the book on the order’s history she said it had been a special time in her life.
“My years at Croagh Patrick were a gift from God,” she said.
“I still have contact with many of the children who have a very special place in my heart.”
The home changed in 1975 when girls from St Joseph’s Home in Bathurst joined the boys at Croagh Patrick and its name was changed to Croagh Patrick Family Care.
She moved away but returned to Orange in 2004.