Foundresses of the Sisters of Mercy Goulburn
A biography written by Ellen Yates
In accordance with a directive from Pope Pius X, Bishop Lanigan, Bishop of Goulburn in 1907 pressed for the amalgamation of the three Mercy groups in his diocese (Goulburn, Albury, Yass). Having ascertained that this plan was agreeable to the Sisters and their respective branch houses he summoned delegates from the three head houses to a conference in Goulburn, on 9th and 10th August 1907.
This conference resulted in the formation of the Goulburn Congregation of the Sisters of Mercy with a central novitiate in Goulburn and Mother Brigid Hartnett as the first Mother General. One of the original Yass foundresses, Sr Alacoque Mc Loughlin was one of the delegates.
The Goulburn foundation had been made in 1859 from Westport in Ireland under the leadership of Mother Ignatius Murphy (Frances Anne) who also led the foundation to Albury in 1868. The Yass foundation was made in 1875 from Rochfort Bridge, with Mother Paul Fielding (Eliza) appointed as Superior. Each of the three foundations was independent until the amalgamation in 1907.
Frances Anne Murphy (Mother Ignatius) was probably born in 1830. She was orphaned at an early age and like Catherine McAuley grew up in the care of relatives who were not Catholic. In Frances’ case there is no record of who these relatives were but it is reasonable to presume that they were members of her mother’s family as she was a convert. She also had great sorrow that her brothers did not share her faith. Because of her upbringing she had a fear and suspicion of nuns.
In her 25th year Frances overcame her dread of nuns and convents and joined the Sisters of Mercy at Westport. She came fearfully as many erroneous ideas had been implanted in her mind. She expected to lead an austere and penitential life of rigorous fasting and to experience a gloomy and disagreeable atmosphere. For some time Ignatius lived in fear that dark and hidden things would be revealed to her. She was astonished when this did not eventuate and instead she experienced a calm tranquil peace and a gentle playfulness accompanied by many temporal advantages.
Ignatius retained, throughout her life, a spirit of mortification and self–sacrifice and her early upbringing was reflected in her tendency to meditate on God’s judgments. Her favourite feasts were Good Friday, Feast of the Seven Dolours and All Souls’ Day and this bias was reflected in this maxim, which she often repeated: ‘Such as a religious is, in the discharge of her duties, such she is at God’s judgment seat. There is no death bed repentance for a nun.’ (Held in Our Hearts Sr Eileen Casey page 6)
When Archbishop Polding sent Father McEncroe to Ireland to find Sisters to come to Goulburn he called at Westport seeking volunteers for the first Mercy Convent in NSW Mother Ignatius had just completed her time as Superior and volunteered to go, as she had always felt drawn to the foreign missions. She was put in charge of the group of six who left Westport for Goulburn in 1859. After a few days of prayer in Baggot Street, they went to Liverpool where M. Liguori welcomed them.
The journey to Australia was tedious and difficult, with seasickness, lack of privacy and monotony. There were no laundry facilities on board the ‘Saldahana’ so their ingenuity was challenged with the effort to keep their coifs, guimpes etc clean. It took three months to round the Cape of Good Hope and reach Australia. When the ship reached Melbourne on 2 October 1859 the Sisters were met by Ursula Frayne who, in 1846, had lead the first group of Sisters to come to Australia to Perth and had subsequently moved to Melbourne in 1857. The journey to Sydney was by sea and after almost a week in Sydney they left for Goulburn on 24 October. The journey was made in stages first stop at Cambelltown and thence Berrima and Marulan. Finally they reached Goulburn to a warm greeting from the locals. It is probable that these pioneer sisters lived in the presbytery, two rooms of which had dirt floors, and in the stables. They had left Westport on 28 June. It was now 28 October. It was four more years before they were able to move into their convent on 12 December 1862, although it was not completed until 8 September the next year.
The Albury foundation was made at the request of Fr McAlroy one of the early pioneer priests who proved to be a loyal friend of the sisters in Goulburn, Albury and Yass.
On 17 July Ignatius and five volunteers, accompanied by Dr McAlroy, set off for Albury 275 miles away in two wagons The long and tedious journey was made even more unpleasant by heavy rains that made the roads no better than mud tracks. For five days and nights the Sisters and their drivers endured the hardships of a freezing July winter and a primitive mode of transport. To add to their troubles they were saddened by the sudden illness and death of one of the drivers. They reached Albury on 22 July 1868 to find that the presbytery in which they were to stay was in disorder. The ladies of the parish soon restored some semblance of order.
Sr Eileen Casey in Held in Our Hearts describes their early accommodation in the presbytery.
“One room used to store chaff for the priests’ (horses) made, after a thorough cleaning, a beautiful school room for the girls. They designated the front room for a boarders’ dormitory They set up two beds in another room for Ignatius and de Sales. The other four sisters slept on the side verandah. They prepared a narrow, closed-in verandah at the back of the building for a refectory. The rain often came in at meal times, so that the sisters often had to play musical chairs and, at times, ate under the protection of their umbrellas. The room opposite Ignatius’ room became the community room. The Sisters used the church as a chapel. The whole building and the church, due no doubt to the absence of the priests for long periods, had been taken over by native cats. Occasionally when the sisters arrived at the church, they would find a dead cat on the altar steps.”
Before her death, foundations were made from Albury in Corowa, Deniliquin and at St John’s Home for Girls at Thurgoona. Mother Ignatius died of cancer of the tongue .on 9th July, 1901 during an eight day retreat.
Ignatius was greatly loved by her Sisters. She had an attractive manner and spent herself for God and the poor. She united a strict observance of the rule to a deep love of the institute. Her Requiem Mass was presided over by the Bishop of Goulburn Right Rev Dr Gallagher who also preached the panegyric. The esteem in which she was held is evidenced by the presence of thirteen priests who came from as far as Melbourne and Crookwell. In concluding his tribute to Mother Ignatius the Bishop reminded the congregation to pray for her soul and then added:
“Our prayers are hardly needed The unceasing labours of a long and holy life, the painful suffering of her declining years so patiently borne, her strong faith, her devotion to duty , her love for the poor, her simple undoubting trust in God, all these her works make now more powerful intercession at the throne of God than all our prayers. Happy must she be whose grave is bedewed by the tears of the orphans whom in life she loved, for whom she laboured, and in the midst of whom she died.”
Mother Ignatius Murphy is buried in the Sisters Cemetery at St John’s Thurgoona, near Albury.