There are many links between Australia and our home town of Athy, not all of which have been identified to date. Prisoners from the town jail forged many of those earlier connections but it was the 1860’s which provided the most enduring link between this part of Ireland and Australia. In 1861 Fr. Andrew Quinn, then Parish Priest of Athy asked Mother Teresa Maher of the local Convent of Mercy for nuns willing to volunteer for missionary work in Australia. The Parish Priest, a native of west Wicklow was the brother of two Australian-based Bishops, Dr. James Quinn of the dioceses of Brisbane and Dr. Matthew Quinn of the dioceses of Bathurst and it was for Brisbane that the nuns were sought.
Mother Teresa was first cousin of Dr. Cullen, Archbishop of Dublin and daughter of Patrick Maher of Kilrush. Born in 1820 she arrived in Athy from the Mercy Convent in Carlow in 1855 with Sr. Xavier Downey to take charge of the local convent following the departure of Mother Vincent Whitty who was the first Superior of Athy’s Sisters of Mercy. Mother Teresa agreed to receive and train in the Athy Convent young ladies for the Australian mission and the first girl to enter the convent for that purpose was from Portarlington, County Laois. Catherine Flanagan, born on 1st September 1844, the daughter of Denis and Mary Flanagan entered Athy Convent on 10th August 1861, was received into the Mercy Order on 11th February of the following year and professed on 21st February 1864. Her name in religion was Sr. Rose and she left Athy for the Brisbane mission arriving there on 11th November 1865. She died in Brisbane on 1st July 1879.
On 2nd November 1866 five more young Irish women arrived in Brisbane, Australia having journeyed from the Convent of Mercy in Athy. Sr. Columba was born Honoria Griffin on 10th March 1840 in Ballintubbert, Co. Roscommon to John and Elizabeth Griffin. She entered the Athy Convent on 24th February 1865, receiving the habit of the Sisters of Mercy on 10th September of the same year and was professed in Brisbane in 1868. Margaret Bergan, daughter of Edward and Catherine Bergin of Portlaoise was born on 6th February 1842 and entered the Athy Convent on 2nd July 1865. She was received on 28th December of the same year and professed as Sr. Julianna in Brisbane on 31st March 1869. Julia Quirke, a native of Clashmore, Co. Waterford born on 5th October 1843 to Thomas and Julia Quirke, took the name Sr. Regis when she entered the Athy Convent on 31st August 1865. Another passenger on the long boat trip to Australia which ended in Brisbane on 2nd November 1866 was Sr. Borgia, otherwise Jane Byrne of Arron Quay, Dublin. Born on 16th September 1843 to Thomas and Mary Byrne, she entered the Convent at Athy on 8th September 1865 and her profession took place in Brisbane on 31st March 1869. She lived until 1928.
Within another two years five young postulants set out from the Convent of Mercy in Athy to travel to Brisbane. They journeyed on the Zealandia which left England on 24th April 1868. Mary-Ann Hartley, born to John and Katherine Hartley of Youghal, Cork on 24th July 1845 entered the Athy Convent on 21st November 1866 where she received the Mercy habit on 21st May the following year. She left the Mercy Order without being professed after her arrival in Australia, as did her companion Elizabeth Friary of Templemichael, Co. Longford. Elizabeth who was born on 25th July 1847 to Andrew and Mary Friary had joined the Mercy Order in Athy on 15th February 1867. She was to leave the Sisters of Mercy in January 1873 without apparently having been professed.
Two other postulants on that trip were Sr. Cecilia and Sr. Lignori, the former from Dysart, Co. Louth where she was born to Thomas and Bridget Carney on 26th June 1846. Sr. Lignori was a native of Nenagh, Co. Tipperary where she was born on 15th January 1848, the daughter of William and Mary-Ann Kealy. Like Sr. Cecilia she had joined the Athy Convent of Mercy during the Famine years. Sr. Cecilia died in Brisbane in 1889, while Sr. Lignori lived for another 33 years, dying on 13th May 1923.
The fifth postulant to travel on the ship which arrived in Australia on 4th July 1868 was Sr. Mary Patrick who had entered the Athy Convent on 8th June 1866. The daughter of James and Elizabeth Potter of Killashee, Co. Longford, Sr. Mary Patrick was professed in Brisbane on 6th July 1869. Sister Patrick joined the staff of All Hallows School in Brisbane after a few years in Australia and she was to be associated with that school for the next 50 years. In 1879 she was elected Superior of the Sisters of Mercy Congregation and was re-elected to that office on several occasions until her death in 1927. In all she was Superior for 30 years and assistant to the Superior for another 18 years. Under her guidance and leadership the Sisters of Mercy Congregation in Brisbane, Australia grew to over 500 and she was instrumental in establishing Mercy convents and schools in many outlying areas of Queensland. Another of her many achievements was the establishment of Mater Hospitals in Australia.
The five postulants who arrived in Australia in July 1868 were the last missionaries to leave the Convent of Mercy Athy for the dioceses of Brisbane. Difficulties arose between the Sisters of Mercy and Bishop James Quinn which may have affected the continuation of the Brisbane Mission Scheme initiated in 1861. Mother Vincent Whitty who was the first Superior of the Convent of Mercy when it opened in 1852 had been replaced by Mother Teresa Maher. Eight years later Mother Vincent left Ireland for the Australian missions and was accompanied on the sea trip to the Southern hemisphere by Dr. James Quinn. She was to share with Bishop Quinn responsibility for establishing the Catholic system of education in the then developing colony of Queensland. However difficulties soon arose between the Bishop and Mother Vincent. The Bishop who had been appointed to the Queensland Episcopacy in 1858 wished to bring the Catholic schools established by the Sisters of Mercy under the control of the Queensland Board of Education. Mother Vincent feared that such a move would lead to a dilution of the schools’ religious ethos. She resisted Bishop Quinn’s plans and this resulted in a disharmonious relationship between the Bishop and the Sisters of Mercy, news of which soon percolated back to the Convent in Athy.
Further conflict arose following Bishop Quinn’s attempt to extend his Episcopal authority over the Mercy Convents in his dioceses so as to supersede the Rule of the Foundress of the Order of Mercy. A number of diocesan priests also fell foul of Bishop James Quinn and six Irish priests left the Brisbane dioceses in 1867 following which news of the ongoing disharmony in the Brisbane diocese reached Ireland. The last Missionaries from the Convent of Mercy Athy left for Queensland the following year.
The story of the nuns and postulants who left Athy for the Australian Missions between 1865 and 1868 needs further research, particularly in the Brisbane archives of the Sisters of Mercy. For the moment their story can only be touched on to give us a glimpse of the extraordinary courage and determination of the young religious females of 140 years ago.