Professors of theology, spiritual directors and bishops all played their part to form last century’s priests, but without decades of cooking, cleaning and sewing by the Sisters of Our Lady Help of Christians many young men may never have made it to ordination.
The last of “God’s Housekeepers,” as they were affectionally known, came to an end with the passing of Sr Mary Paul on 16 August 2020 aged 99.
Now the sisters will be commemorated with a special Mass and blessing of a commemorative plaque on Wednesday 31 May at the Seminary of the Good Shepherd, Homebush—where in keeping with the times, the seminarians are responsible for a greater share of their own chores.
The congregation was founded in 1931 by Sydney Archbishop Michael Kelly to work for the domestic care of seminarians, first at St Columba’s College in Springwood and then St Patrick’s College at Manly.
Some of the founding members had been missionary St John of God sisters who came from Ireland and ministered in mining communities in Kalgoorlie and Coolgardie, and to Indigenous peoples in the Kimberley region in Western Australia.
Archbishop Kelly arranged for some sisters to continue working with First Nations peoples in the Townsville diocese at Palm Island and at a leprosarium on Fantome Island.
Members engaged in other apostolates in Sydney as well, and looked after bishops’ residences in Sydney and Maitland.
But the sisters are most known and loved for leaving the missions behind to roll up their sleeves to feed and look after the laundry needs of student priests for nearly 80 years.
Senior clergy have recalled their cheerfulness, kindness, prayerfulness and incredible work ethic with affection and gratitude.
Rector of the Seminary of the Good Shepherd Fr Michael de Stoop said innumerable students including himself benefitted from their care.
“The Vatican’s Congregation for Clergy has affirmed the contributions of consecrated women to be ‘beneficial and essential to the human and spiritual formation of the seminarian … Their presence also helps to instil a recognition of how men and women complement one another,’” Fr de Stoop said, quoting the 2016 document Ratio Fundamentalis Institutionis Sacerdotalis (The Gift of the Priestly Vocation).
The sisters conducted their ministry of care with “faith, hope, love, humility, strength in hardship, self-respect in poverty, patience in adversity, and kind-heartedness at all times,” he added.
Sister Xavier was the last member to actively support priestly formation. She assisted with the transition from St Patrick’s College to the Seminary of the Good Shepherd in Homebush and coordinated the cooking and cleaning staff during the first few years after it opened in 1996.
“I remember her as being a contemplative woman who was a generous yet quiet achiever, very competent, and cheerful in conversation,” Fr de Stoop said.
“Sr Mary Paul was a humorous woman who brought much energy to the room by sharing many memories of the sisters in her religious community and significant events in seminary life.”
Fr Paul McCabe, the last St Patrick’s College rector, praised the “just wonderful women, who were so humble.”
“They were willing to do whatever they could. There seemed to be no ambition among them to achieve anything other than service, and that would be unimaginable I think today in these days of self-fulfilment and so on,” he said.
“They epitomised a time when those sorts of things were valued, and the college would never have got on without them in the early days.
“We tried to introduce women into the seminary staff when I was there at Manly and it was opposed by some of the bishops, because they didn’t want women involved in the formation of students at that sort of level.
“But they didn’t realise, I don’t think, what influence the sisters had already had on generations of students, just in their caring and their example.”
Reverend Professor Gerard Kelly, a former lecturer at Manly, said that in earlier decades the sisters were a steady background presence as they were not permitted to speak with seminarians, but that evolved over the years and members also became involved in parish and community work.
“Their work at the seminary was really a work of care and it was very hard physical work, especially before my time when they had scant resources,” he said.
“During the war years they managed to make do with whatever they had to made sure they nourished large numbers of people. It was quite a remarkable feat when you think of it.
“Though we didn’t see much of them as students they always worked with great cheerfulness and joy and I know we were always in their prayers, which was consoling to me.
“Some of them joined the choir, and one sister, her name was Sr John, sewed a number of vestments for the ordinations, which was always very nice.
“Later even as they declined in number they were pervaded with a sense of mission.”
Born Elizabeth Brigid Killian in Ireland and one of 10 children, Sr Paul entered the congregation in 1954 after reading their brochure at St Mary’s Cathedral and being attracted to the idea of serving God and the church through hard work and prayer for seminarians and clergy.
Sr Xavier (born Dorothea Campbell) grew up in Albury in New South Wales along with two siblings and joined the sisters in 1961 aged 20.
“It was quite a surprise to my family because she had a group of friends and they used to go out to balls and other activities and things like that, and we hadn’t had any contact with religious orders,” said her sister Rosanne Hill.
“She was fun-loving and had a quirky sense of humour which I think came from my father’s side of the family.
“But she could be a bit shy too, and I think it was challenging for her at first to enter that very strange environment and adjusting to living in a big city as well.”
Mrs Hill remembers in later years the remaining sisters regularly hosting a New Year’s Day dinner for about 20 clergy as a treat after the busyness of the Christmas season.
“The clergy in return were very loyal to those sisters,” she said.
“Above all I think Dorothea always really believed in what she was doing.”
Retired nurse Margaret Coffey, a long-time friend of the sisters, often visited them in their convent to help them in their final years.
“Sr Agnes was the only one I did stay with until she died and that was a great privilege,” she said.
“They never had large numbers of admissions and you can’t help thinking that in that day and age that sort of work wasn’t so attractive to many young Australians.
“It was very demanding heavy domestic work, and that wasn’t only my observation. The late Sydney Bishop Geoffrey Robinson, a nephew of Sr Joseph, also made that point when he launched their book An Eloquent Witness: The Sisters of Our Lady Help of Christians.
“He said he was astonished at how hard they worked. And after the sisters eventually had to pull out because of age and health, he was shocked—and he said the rectors of the seminary were shocked—when they found out how many people they had to replace the sisters with.
“They were all very competent sisters and some were capable of doing a lot more than domestic labour.
“Mother Mary Paul and Sr Xavier were incredibly competent women, and one sister had been a fully qualified accountant with her own business before joining.
“In the later years it was obvious that they weren’t getting recruits, but mind you, the other orders weren’t getting them either.”
Anyone connected with the Sisters of Our Lady Help of Christians are invited to a special Mass and blessing of a commemorative plaque followed by a light lunch at the Seminary of the Good Shepherd, Homebush, at 11am on Wednesday 31 May.
RVSP by phone 02 9752 9600 or email [email protected]