Celebrating 140 Years of FCJ Mission in Australia

Stained glass window of FCJ Sisters arrival at Sandridge in 1820.

FCJ Sisters in Australia have been celebrating 140 years of presence and mission. In this piece, first appeared in FCJ News, Area of Australia Leader Sr Barbara Brown-Graham fcJ gives thanks for this wonderful mission.

Catholic education in Australia has been much in our consciousness over the past two years as we have taken part in the bicentenary celebrations of the first Catholic school established at Parramatta in October 1820. Our own FCJ story forms part of this rich tapestry of education: for this wonderful mission and our part in it, we give thanks to God.

The 1872 Education Act (free, compulsory and secular education) put great pressure on the bishops to set up Catholic schools where the children could be educated in the faith. In fact, in 1865 there had been an invitation to Mother Josephine Petit (Superior General of the time) to send sisters to Australia and in 1868 Bishop Sheil of Adelaide asked for ‘seven FCJs for a first class boarding school and day school’ [1].

It was in God’s providence that a later invitation of Fr Dalton SJ, the noted Jesuit provincial, was considered anew by Mother Josephine who was assured that Fr Dalton would make available money for the journey, would have a house ready for twelve sisters and could find resources to set up a school for girls who were attending state schools. Mother Josephine writes to her assistant, Mother Stanislaus:

You know how many times we have been asked to send missionaries. We have so far answered negatively and dismissed the idea…but the persistence of these good Fathers makes me afraid to refuse, in case the good Lord really wishes it…If God wants it, we will find the means.

And when it was clear that God did want it, Mother Josephine writes:

We should set out with great confidence and without anxiety for the most distant lands…We have always believed that the good Lord would ask this of us; and all our Sisters without exception are ready to set out when it is required, and that with no hope of ever returning. [2]

The first twelve FCJ Sisters began their journey from Gravesend (Thames River, London) on 21 April 1820 aboard The Liguria, sailing into Hobson’s Bay the morning of 1 June. Passengers moved to smaller boats which took them to Sandridge (Port Melbourne) where they disembarked on to the bank. There the Sisters were met by five Jesuit Fathers and taken by (horse) cabs via St Francis’ church and St Patrick’s cathedral to their new home on Richmond Hill. Crowds of people were waiting for them at the presbytery – a good number of those gathered had been taught by the FCJs in Europe and some even knew our foundress, Marie Madeleine d’Houët. After Benediction and lunch, the Sisters were taken to meet the children (over 600) and their teachers who had assembled to greet the newly arrived Faithful Companions of Jesus. [3] Within twelve days of their arrival, on 12 June 1882, the Melbourne Catholic newspaper reports that the Sisters had opened their high school and free school as well as teaching in the parish school of 400 children. Seven more FCJ Sisters arrived in Melbourne on 27 June 1884; a third group of six arrived on 30 October 1885 and a fourth group of nine arrived on 29 September 1888 – within six years, 34 FCJ Sisters had been missioned to Australia.

Our FCJ history in Australia has been intricately connected with the mission of education – especially in the first 90 years or so. Following the first foundation in Richmond, FCJ schools were established in: Hawthorn (1886); Kew (Genazzano 1889); Benalla (1900); Frankston (Stella Maris 1968 – 1979 when it merged with Marianist College to become John Paul College). FCJ Sisters travelled out from their convents to teach in numerous parish primary schools – Richmond, Hawthorn, Kew, Williamstown, Camberwell, Deepdene, Benalla, East Frankston, Seaford and Langwarrin. In 1987 FCJs were missioned to Broome for ministry in education in the Diocese and local Catholic School. Other individual ministries took Sisters to Sydney and Adelaide where they responded to community needs. Back in Victoria, our FCJ ministries extended beyond schools to respond, also, to all kinds of new opportunities in the fields of spiritual accompaniment, healthcare, social and pastoral work amongst others. New FCJ foundations were made in Africa, South America, Asia and Eastern Europe. Our charism is now greatly enriched by our Companions in Mission whose lives influence and witness to this call to ‘widen our circle of love’. [5]

We experience our FCJ life as a blessing and a joy and we want to share it. [6] We give thanks for all that has been and trust in God’s loving providence for all that lies ahead!

[1] Twelve Came First: The FCJ Mission to Australia; Sr Aileen Ryan fcJ; FCJ Society 2010; Page vi
[2] Ibid; Page vii
[3] Ibid; Pages 38 – 43
[4] Ibid; Page v
[5] FCJ General Chapter 2019 Calls
[6] Ibid