Education: Sisters of Mercy

Sisters of Mercy at St Patrick's Church, Greymouth, 1982

Ten Sisters of Mercy established a convent and school in the West Coast town of Hokitika in 1878. The group of Irish Sisters had journeyed from Ennis, a town in central Ireland.

Landing at the goldrush town of Hokitika was difficult. Harsh weather kept the sailing ship bobbing vigorously off the coast until a more placid sea enabled entry to the port. The Sisters’ arrival was dramatic but their welcome was cheerful as many of the Coasters were Irish Catholic gold diggers.

Little did they know what further trials lay ahead – not with the weather but with the rugged terrain which separated small groups of Sisters in remote places. Isolation would lead to differences and irregularities in their teaching.

The Christchurch Diocese, including all of Canterbury and most of the West Coast, was formed nine years after the Sisters arrived at Hokitika. For the Sisters’ first nine years, Canterbury and the West Coast remained part of the Wellington Diocese.

When the Christchurch Diocese was formed, in 1887, the Hokitika Sisters were already growing in numbers and soon were able to spread their efforts to other West Coast towns, and then to Canterbury. Over the next century generations of Mercy Sisters would be a major force in Catholic education on the West Coast and in Canterbury.

Travel and communication in the diocese could be difficult in the early days. Raging rivers, dense bush and impenetrable mountain ranges meant many of the Mercy convents were remote and isolated. Sisters in some convents started to work independently from the others. Priests as well as Sisters began to recognise the need for an overseeing leadership of the Mercy Order in the Christchurch Diocese.

In the 1890s and onward, the growing numbers of novices joining the Order and becoming Sisters allowed expansion of Catholic education in more areas. Numbers of convents, schools and even novitiates increased. This began with Sisters from Hokitika establishing bases in Greymouth and the neighbouring West Coast towns of Ross and Kumara, and even in some Canterbury towns.

For the first 20 years such movements led to small convents in scattered regions. Degrees of independence produced difficulties with finance, standards of teaching, impact of leadership, and other differences. The idea of amalgamating convents and novitiates in the diocese became an issue in the late 19th-Century.

Travel, mostly by train, had become easier by then. As early as 1890 Mercy Sisters were moving to establish novitiates, convents and schools in Canterbury towns. These included Lyttelton, St Mary’s (Christchurch), Akaroa and Darfield, before the turn of the century. Rakaia and Methven followed closely. More locations were set in later years.

Without accessible leadership for all the Sisters, differences in management and practices in the far-flung establishments were showing. A document in the Diocesan Archives refers to a school inspector criticising the inept teaching by Mercy Sisters who had moved directly from their Novitiate to teaching – without any training.

Irregularities were becoming noticed and concerning by the early 20th– century. People were beginning to talk in favour of an “amalgamation” of all the Mercy Sisters’ congregations.

Another document in the Archives contains a telling bid for amalgamation. This was in a comment by Sister Mary Vincent, referring to a visit to the Diocese by The Apostolic Delegate, Archbishop Cerretti.  Sr M Vincent wrote that the archbishop had strongly urged a re-union of “the separated Houses”. He asked the Sisters to arrange a meeting to discuss this. Sr M Vincent says Christchurch’s Bishop Brodie, 1915-1943, followed Archbishop Cerretti’s recommendation by calling a conference of delegates to discuss amalgamation.

1917 & 1918 Reports from the Amalgamation Conferences of the Sisters of Mercy

Perhaps the conference was instrumental in achieving a form of amalgamation that was approved and ordered by The Holy See in 1918. This canonical branch of the Vatican (in Rome) directed that one Mother House and one Novitiate be established. This order was carried out and Villa Maria, in Christchurch, became the “headquarters”. This role was transferred to Timaru in 1936.

Complete amalgamation of all the Mercy congregations in the diocese was by then a major issue for debate. The possible “reshaping” of the Mercy Order was argued through two World Wars and the Great Depression. However, little progress was made, probably because of the difficult times.

Then Christchurch gained a new bishop. Near the end of World War II Bishop Lyons,1944-1950, became the leading figure in re-igniting and resolving the Mercy Sisters’ amalgamation issue. The Diocesan Archives contain a sheaf of papers written by Bishop Lyons and proclaiming the need for amalgamation of all the Mercy Sisters’ services. Less than two years after his arrival from Australia, amalgamation was adopted in 1946.

Much of the bishop’s communication was with Apostolic Delegate, Archbishop Panico. Bishop Lyons made hard-hitting statements to the archbishop. In an early letter he wrote, “I gathered from the priests and the Sisters of Mercy that all was not well with the Sisters.” He added, “Their very unsatisfactory position…. Is strange and unlike their position in the rest of New Zealand and other countries.”

In another letter he wrote, “I intend to see that the new Reverend Mother rectifies all the irregularities.” Such irregularities included teacher training and the gaps between rich and poor schools.

A conference was called for, to be followed with voting for all the Sisters on whether they wanted amalgamation. In the conference the Sisters were faced with five “propositions” to consider and to vote on in a secret ballot. The result of the final poll was strongly in favour of amalgamation with 98 of the 108 Sisters voting in favour. Bishop Lyons stated that the 10 who had voted against amalgamation were “very old”. A section of the ballot allowed any Sister opposed to amalgamation to choose either to join the laity (“secularisation”) or seek a transfer to another religious order.

“The Sisters now desire complete amalgamation and have expressed this desire,” Bishop Lyons wrote to the Apostolic Delegate. “I would be obliged if Your Excellency would submit the petition to the Holy See.” This was done and, in September, 1946, the Holy See decreed amalgamation of the Sisters of Mercy in the Christchurch Diocese.

Acknowledgements:

Mike Crean. Author

Catholic Diocese of Christchurch Archives reference 2020.4 Correspondence with Sisters of Mercy

Further information on Nga Whaea Atawhai o Aotearoa Sisters of Mercy can be found on their website: https://www.sistersofmercy.org.nz/ko-wai-matou-who-we-are/our-founding-stories/

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