In a wealthy country like Australia, an era without public schools seems unimaginable. But in the 1840s, when the Sisters of Mercy opened the first secondary school in Western Australia, there were only a few small private schools. Many children, especially girls, receive no formal education.
Nuns, or nuns, made education more accessible. Their way of life also provided one of the few leadership opportunities for women.
These women have demonstrated entrepreneurial and diplomatic skills while developing education in Australia. Their work required them to navigate hostile male hierarchies, religious discrimination, class struggles and complex relationships with Indigenous peoples.
Historians have documented some of this history, but there is a long way to go. In a country committed to egalitarianism, the lives of nuns testify to the larger historical reality of inequality.
Where did these women come from?
Religious orders are made up of people living apart from society but as a community under the spiritual rule of their founder. Catherine McAuley (1778-1841) founded the Sisters of Mercy in Dublin when she opened the first House of Mercy dedicated to serving the poor, sick and uneducated.
Catherine’s approach to helping the burgeoning poor in Ireland was radical. The community consisted of two classes of sisters. The choir sisters were educated, middle-class women and usually served as teachers. The lay sisters were poor and working class and managed the kitchen or the laundry.
Ursula Frayne (1816-1885), who opened the first secondary school in Western Australia as well as schools in Victoria in the mid-19th century, had trained with McAuley. In 1845, Bishop John Brady visited the Sisters’ Convent in Dublin and asked the Mother Superior to send six Sisters to Western Australia with Frayne as head.
While sailing to Western Australia aboard the Elizabeth, one member of the missionary party traveling with Bishop Brady was a young French monk, Léandre Fonteinne, who noted ominously:
“His Lordship is only concerned […] for the six nuns he brings with us. They are and will remain for many years a burden on the mission.
What did they do in Australia?
After arriving in Perth, in 1846, the sisters became the first female religious teaching order to establish a school in Australia. After navigating sectarianism in Ireland, they decided to offer a general education to all Christians. The sisters prioritized Aboriginals, Irish immigrant orphans, the poor, and the uneducated. The sisters established a fee-paying school, a voluntary institution and Western Australia’s first high school.
Coming from a prosperous Dublin family, Frayne was conscious of his class, but the distinction between choir and lay nuns was not viable in colonial Perth. Leaning on the bishop was not an option that would allow them to advance their business.
For these women to be self-sufficient, each had to perform domestic chores. Frayne herself became a baker.
Although Bishop Brady promised financial support, in 1850 Frayne traveled to Colombo, Malta, Rome, Florence, Paris, England and Ireland to raise funds. In March 1851 she returned to Perth with £450. She gave £157 to the Bishop, who was broke.
In 1853 the nuns could afford a new £800 school building. As the sisters’ workload increased, they applied to Dublin for “strong” lay sisters.
Two of the oldest lay sisters sent from Dublin were Catherine O’Reilly and Catherine Strahan. O’Reilly filled several roles, including that of a carpenter. She was eventually promoted to choir sister and helped establish schools in places such as Geraldton.
Strahan’s trajectory was different. Strahan was a lay sister at 30 and provided essential cooking and laundry services for the convent until her death at 67.
In 1857 Frayne moved to Melbourne to establish a new school replacing Brady as bishop, Joseph Serra, frequently interfering in the direction of the order. Frayne felt that much of his interference was unnecessary. Such interference culminated in Queensland, where the Sisters of Mercy had established the state’s first girls’ secondary school. The local bishop withheld part of their government salary and exposed them to starvation and premature death.
Undeniably important but curiously anonymous
The nuns ran important educational enterprises. Historian Stephanie Burley considers the Irish teaching orders to be an empire within the British Empire. Their classes bridged the political, religious and cultural norms of the Irish Catholic Church and the British Empire, acting as a pacifying force between the two spheres.
Unfortunately, as historian Colin Barr notes:
“Unfortunately, historians have too often seen these women as an undifferentiated mass, undeniably important but curiously anonymous. Still [they] were not merely passive transmitters of male ideas or initiatives.
As a leader, Frayne has been the subject of biographies. However, Catherine O’Reilly and Catherine Strahan remained cloistered.
Women who worked in domestic roles in religious communities deserve greater attention. Although historians are increasingly interested in the wider role of nuns in Australian society, some aspects of their influence remain opaque.