Cheeky children called the Cluny Sisters “the Loony Sisters”. They didn’t mean it; they regarded their teachers highly. Pupils called the legendary Sister Benignus “Biggles”, but only when they were out of earshot.
The Sisters of St Joseph of Cluny were esteemed by all who knew them. Many expressed emotional memories of the Sisters, extolling the range of good works they did in schools, parishes, hospitals and public life.
The first small groups of Cluny Sisters arrived in Christchurch in 1948 and Dunedin in 1949. Their initial task was to care for the domestic needs of young men studying for the priesthood at Holy Name Seminary (Christchurch) and Holy Cross Seminary (Mosgiel). As one priest said half a century later, the Sisters “provided splendid nourishing of the inner man”.
Soon they were doing much more, with teaching becoming their main thrust. They staffed St Teresa’s School in the Parish of Riccarton from 1957 to 1979.
The priest quoted above, who is unnamed in the Catholic Diocese of Christchurch Archives, added: “There are many strings in the Cluny bow. They are women of prayer, example, service, encouragement, education and enlightenment.”
Life was perilous in France, especially for Catholics, when Anne-Marie Javouhey was born in a small French village in 1799. The fiery French Revolution was raging. Churches and schools were closed, priests and religious sisters and brothers were persecuted. Refusal to swear an oath of allegiance to the new republic led some Catholics to execution. Anne-Marie’s parents took great risks to help fugitive priests escape from the terrors of arrest and possibly death. The ancient Benedictine Abbey at Cluny, in France, was sacked by anti-Christian factions during the Revolution. Perhaps this was Anne-Marie’s reason for the naming of her order.
Growing up in this atmosphere of rebellion, Anne-Marie wanted to join a religious order. She tried some orders but then decided to establish a new one. Rather than specialising its focus, it would be a missionary vocation. It would work to help children, orphans, lepers, slaves, the poor and mentally ill. Anne-Marie wanted to work to make all people equal. She was still only in her early 20s but encouragement from Pope Pius VII boosted her ambition. In 1807 she and eight others founded the Sisters of St Joseph of Cluny.
Anne-Marie died in 1851. She was beatified nearly a century later, in 1950. By then the number of Sisters had grown to 3000, working in 50 countries. One of these was New Zealand.
The Catholic Church in New Zealand needed staff for household duties in the national minor and major seminaries. The Cluny Sisters answered the call. In 1948 a group of sisters arrived from Ireland to work in the new Holy Name Minor Seminary in Riccarton, Christchurch. A year later a second group of Irish sisters took up household duties at Holy Cross College – the Major Seminary at Mosgiel, Dunedin.
Numbers of pupils in Catholic schools were booming at this time. Religious orders could barely keep up with the demand for teachers. Schools required more land, more buildings, more educational items. Many schools could not afford to pay lay-teachers.
St Teresa’s Primary School, Riccarton, had been established in 1936. It was staffed by the Mercy Sisters who also ran the intermediate-secondary girls’ school, Villa Maria College. The schools were about 2km apart but shared some classes and teachers. The situation was difficult and, in 1957, the Mercy Sisters left St Teresa’s. They were replaced by a newly arrived group of Cluny sisters.
An old house beside the school was offered to the sisters, to be their convent. A large, two-storey convent was built on the same site in 1965. Cluny sisters lived there until the last three left in 2003. While teaching was the main mission, the sisters were active in pastoral care for parishioners. One used her medical training to work in various hospitals as a chaplain.
They sisters became an essential and much-loved band of women. So, when the announcement of their pending departure was made, many people were shocked. Allegations were uttered that the Bishop had “turned them out”. However, archived correspondence shows that Bishop Meeking had encouraged them to stay, while his successor, Bishop Cunneen, stated: “It is entirely a decision they have made…..it was their decision (to leave)”.
The sisters explained they would love to stay as this was their home, but they were ageing, and they felt it was only fair that the convent building be handed back to the parish.
Many of the Cluny Sisters had had little or no training in teaching. However, even faced with large classes and poor resources, they quickly adapted to the tasks of educating children. Perhaps the most notable figure among the teachers was Sr Benignus. Ex-pupils in droves have remarked what a great teacher she was – and what a stern disciplinarian. Sr Benignus taught at St Teresa’s for 22 years. In 15 of those years she was also Principal.
The seminaries at Christchurch and Dunedin have long been closed. Huge boosts in Government funding of schools in the last 40 years have meant increased numbers of lay-teachers in Catholic schools. Thus, numbers of Cluny Sisters in the South Island fell rapidly.
Most of the Sisters who served in Christchurch were Irish. This may explain why many people thought the Order of the Sisters of Cluny was an Irish institution, a view that could have been strengthened by the name of Cluny sounding Irish.
The Sisters of St Joseph of Cluny remains a Religious Order, based in France. It is headed by the Superior-General, with headquarters in Paris.
With thanks to the author: Michael Crean