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Sisters of Mercy and friends celebrate 170 years in Australia


The Sisters of Mercy board the boat at Fremantle which retraced the voyage of the first Sisters’ arrival in Western Australia on 9 January 2016. Photo: Supplied

By Sr Beverley Stott RSM and Sr Caroline Ryan RSM

On Friday, 9 January 1846, the first Sisters of Mercy came to Australia.

Ursula Frayne and her six companions sailed up the Swan River from Fremantle to the young, struggling township which, in time, would become the modern, vibrant, multicultural city of Perth.

Recounting this day in her letter to the sisters back in Dublin, Ursula wrote, “We had a most delightful sail. The weather was glorious; a strong breeze tempered the heat of the burning sun, and filling our sails, propelled us along so smoothly that we hardly felt the motion. The scenery was charming, the river broad and winding. Nature here had an undivided empire; human industry had literally done nothing”.

Exactly 170 years later, on Saturday, 9 January 2016, a large number of Sisters of Mercy, ‘descendants’ of the pioneer group, along with ‘Mercy’ colleagues and friends, remembered that significant event by retracing the river journey. As with Ursula’s historic trip, theirs, too, was delightful: glorious weather, a strong breeze tempering the heat, smooth sailing all the way. And, while the river banks declared that the days of nature’s “undivided empire” are long past and that “human industry” has indeed prevailed, the river itself remains as beautiful and dynamic as ever.

The commemoration was really a celebration of all that the arrival of Ursula and the other six has come to mean, not only for the Sisters of Mercy, but for everyone associated with them and their various Gospel Works of Mercy which have flourished throughout Australia since 1846.

In telling again the story of the pioneer sisters, we, who participated in the celebration on 9 January, thanked God for their faith, vision, courage and generosity. We also prayed with heartfelt gratitude for the generations of Sisters and lay women and men who have followed them.

Like Ursula, such people have been fired by the enduring inspiration of Catherine McAuley who founded the Order of Mercy in Dublin in 1831.They know both the call and the privilege of being agents of God’s mercy as they serve others, preferentially the most vulnerable, through education, health and aged care, pastoral support of diverse groups, prayer and worship, scholarship, and so on.

Sixty Years in Papua New Guinea
Many readers would know that one of the richest chapters in the Australian “Mercy” story concerns the foundation of the Sisters of Mercy in Papua New Guinea (PNG) in 1956. It could be said that, in its own way, the first mission of Australian Sisters of Mercy to PNG (Goroka) was as brave and risky an adventure of faith as was the first mission of the Irish sisters to Australia (Perth). Yet, it, too, has grown and continues to mature through the grace of our God and the collaboration of many “mercy-minded” women and men.

Sharing in the Jubilee Year of Mercy
These two anniversaries of mercy life and service, 170 years for Australia and 60 years for PNG, resonate with the Jubilee year of Mercy initiated by Pope Francis. As Francis tells us about the Year of Mercy in Misericordiae Vultus, “Mercy is the force that awakens us to new life and instils in us the courage to look to the future with hope” (paragraph 10). Elsewhere, the Pope says, “In mercy, we find proof of how God loves us” (paragraph 14).

Throughout this year, as the Sisters of Mercy and their colleagues and friends continue to celebrate two important milestones in the mission with which our God of Mercy has entrusted them, may they be awakened to new life and instilled with courage and hope. And may they experience God’s merciful love deep in their hearts.