By Caroline Smith
Religious orders have played an undeniably significant role in the development of the Catholic faith in Australasia. Coming from far across the seas – from Ireland, Spain, Italy and elsewhere – they have helped grow established Catholic communities and have helped build new ones.
A recent book by Sister Clare Aherne – a member of the Sisters of St Joseph of the Sacred Heart – outlines a number of these stories, knitting together the historic contribution of the Josephites, including their connection to Saint Mary MacKillop and their emotional experience of emigration.
The Letter under the Pillow: 150 years, 2 continents and 840 heroic Irish women was released in 2016 by Carrowmore Publishing and presents easy-to-read snapshots of the lives of religious women including their sacrifices, and the challenges they faced in a variety of Australian communities.
Among these are tales of working alongside Saint Mary MacKillop in Adelaide, establishing schools in rural areas of both Australia and New Zealand, and of the opposition from local bishops, who wanted Josephites to work under their jurisdiction instead of following a centralised law for the order established by Saint Mary MacKillop herself.
The book is divided into three parts: the first traces the stories of 27 women who left Ireland for Australia to join the Josephites – or those already in Australia who joined – from 1867 to 1907.
The second part looks at specific groups of women who were recruited in Ireland to join the order in Australia, going to particular locations with a specific mission. This part of the story began in the 1870s, but stretches out to the 1970s. Each chapter includes a table listing those recruited for the mission, together with their ages and where in Ireland they were from.
The third part is dedicated to the stories of women who went back to Ireland – either for short visits or permanently – after spending many years in Australia. The stories include discussions about the women’s homesickness and feelings about Ireland, the struggle of returning, changes they faced in the old country and with family, and the experience of leaving again. The book also recounts the tale of Sr Mary Agnes Gormley, who died in 1943 in Australia, and whose body was taken back to Ireland in 2015 by her family.
The tradition of Irish emigration generally – and the sacrifice and sadness connected to this – is a thread running through the book. Sr Aherne uses an alternative narrative voice, the ‘Spirit of Erin’ to represent it. In the introduction, and at the end of each individual story, the ‘Spirit of Erin’ summarises the sacrifices made by women travelling to Australia, often never to see their families again, together with their contributions to the growing Josephite communities.
The author of the book herself left Ireland at the age of 16 to join the order, and later worked as a primary, secondary and tertiary educator, including 30 years living in remote Indigenous communities. After 47 years in Australia, Sr Aherne returned to her homeland, and is now part of the Josephite’s Irish Region.
The Letter under the Pillow offers a detailed outline of how a diverse group of women helped develop a religious order in countries far from their Irish home, contributing in a wider sense to the education and social support of local people.
As well as documenting history, the book also touches on the emotional lives of these women, and their experience of emigration in particular – in doing so, it underscores their sacrifice and humanity.
The Letter under the Pillow is available from the Mary MacKillop Gift shop at the Mary MacKillop Centre, 16 York Street, South Perth, or by emailing [email protected], telephoning (08) 9334 0999 or contacting Sister Maree Riddler rsj on [email protected].