The history of the Presentation Sisters in Australia reveals the merging of two spiritual and social paths. One is the emergence and growth of the Spirit-inspired life and work of Nano Nagle among a people deprived of culture, religion, education and livelihood because of harsh penal laws in 18th century Ireland. The other is the action of the Spirit in developing the Catholic Church of Australia which struggled to provide its people with an education while at the same time nurturing their faith in a secular society. To follow these paths, we need to review the Irish foundations of the Presentation Sisters, the establishment and growth of the Presentation foundations in Australia and the contemporary expressions of Nano Nagle’s mission and ministry.
The story, like all spiritual quests, springs from a response to the Spirit, a transformation, a dream for justice, a perception of how this could be achieved and a life of prayer and action to make the dream a reality. The story begins with Nano Nagle (1718-1784), born in Ballygriffin, Ireland, during the persecution of Irish Catholics under the English penal laws. Having received her education on the Continent, and lived for a number of years in Paris, she returned to Cork, Ireland, only to be confronted by the squalor, ignorance and accompanying social ills which surrounded her.
Nano Nagle’s life of prayer, her concern for her people, her courage and perseverance inspired and enabled her to establish schools and support other works of charity for those who were poor and oppressed by unjust social structures. To give stability to her works, she sought the services of a religious community and arranged for the Ursuline Sisters to come to Ireland. When Nano realised that the Ursuline rule did not allow the sisters to leave the cloister and thus to seek out and serve those who were poor in their own environment, she established, in 1775 at the age of 57, a religious community, the Sisters of Charitable Instruction of the Sacred Heart of Jesus. This community was ultimately to become the Sisters of the Presentation of the Blessed Virgin Mary.
By 1800 five more foundations had been made. Nano Nagle’s vision of an uncloistered religious life met with much opposition within an Irish Church struggling to renew its life as the penal laws were being eased. Dr Moylan, the Bishop of Cork, sought canonical approval for the new congregation believing this would increase its prestige and its membership. He hoped to have solemn vows without the accompanying obligation of enclosure. In 1805, twenty-one years after the death of Nano Nagle, Pope Pius VII named the congregation as an Institute of Pontifical Right with solemn vows.
Instead of seeking the freedom of movement among those who were poor, as Nano had wanted, the sisters themselves chose enclosure and solemn vows believing they needed this security for their small, newly-founded group to continue. Enclosure and solemn vows were deemed essential by many authorities at the time for “real” religious life; Nano’s part in a fresh movement of the Spirit towards a new form of apostolic religious life was not yet recognised.
Growth of the congregation was slow but steady. The number of foundations in Ireland grew and foundations were also made in Newfoundland, England, India, the United States, Australia and New Zealand.
As the small community of Presentation Sisters was establishing itself in Ireland, the Catholic Church was emerging in the penal colony of Australia as a faith community of lay believers. By the 1840s education was recognised widely in the colony as a means of social reform which would help to change the moral and social life of the people, reduce crime and disorder, and develop culture and unity in the colonies. By the 1860s the provision of Catholic schools had become a concern of the Church at an official level, especially in countries of mixed religious adherence such as Australia.
Gradually in every colony in Australia education became the right and preserve of the State Government. Schooling became free, secular and compulsory.
Catholic schools provided a cause particularly for Irish sectarianism, and the Irish clergy and hierarchy led the battle for a separate Catholic school system in Australia. Irish Catholics were largely poor immigrants who did not have the capacity to pay for their schools. They had to be financed through fees and parental and church support. To make such a Catholic education system possible, the Australian bishops looked to Ireland for religious to teach in the schools they were establishing. Their calls for help from the ends of the earth met a generous response from many religious groups.
On Friday 20 July 1866 the first Presentation Sisters left their homeland, family and friends, and set out from Fermoy to make the long perilous journey to Tasmania. A group of four professed sisters and five postulants boarded The Empress at Queenstown, Ireland, and arrived at Hobart three months later to open, at Richmond, the first Presentation convent and school in the Southern Hemisphere. From Limerick six sisters and a postulant arrived in Melbourne on 21 December 1873 to found a convent and school at St Kilda, the summer resort for the growing capital of the newly established colony of Victoria.
Meanwhile, across the border in New South Wales in the flourishing but sparsely populated Riverina, the recently established town and district of Wagga Wagga was appealing for religious. Again the Presentation Sisters answered the call. Consequently, in May 1874, five sisters arrived from Kildare. In 1886 from the little village of Lucan, just out of Dublin, three sisters and seven postulants left for the Lismore mission. Coming through England, they were joined by another postulant and arrived in Lismore in August 1886. The party of four sisters and five postulants who arrived in Geraldton, Western Australia in July 1891 was made up of three sisters and and one postulant from Sneem, one sister from Mitchelstown, one postulant from Tipperary and three from Cork.
On their arrival in the Australian colonies the Presentation Sisters continued to answer the call of the needy throughout the continent. This sometimes involved making long, hazardous journeys to scattered outposts. Sisters from Wagga Wagga established new foundations in Elsternwick (1882), Hay (1883) and Longreach (1900). From Hay a group travelled in 1900 to the goldfields of Western Australia. This group formed a union with the Geraldton Congregation in 1969. Vast outback distances and intense heat were no barrier to these indomitable women. Foundations, both rural and urban, flourished in spite of extreme poverty and great hardship, largely because of the close collaboration between the sisters and the people they served. The sisters remained committed to the relief of suffering and injustice within an educational context.
In 1946 the major superiors of the seven Presentation Congregations in Australia agreed on common Constitutions during a conference of only five days. The record of the decisions stated:
Met [sic] together from foundations that date back over eighty years and that have developed apart from one another, it has been to us at this conference a source of joy to recognise Nano Nagle’s spirit so vigorous and unchanged, that we find ourselves met together in unity of spirit and the bond of peace. (as quoted in R Consedine pbvm, Listening Journey, 328)
In 1958 Pope Pius XII approved the formation of the Society of the Australian Congregations of the Presentation of the Blessed Virgin Mary. One of the early concerns of the Society was to establish an overseas mission. This was realised in 1966, the centenary of the first Australian foundation, when five sisters arrived in the Aitape region of Papua New Guinea where there is now a group of Australian and Melanesian Presentation Sisters, with Wagga Wagga as the receiving congregation.
The Second Vatican Council (1962-1965) challenged the Presentation Sisters, along with members of all religious congregations, to renew their constitutions in the light of Sacred Scripture and the founding charism.
Intense study and experimentation followed. Presentation communities around Australia realised that just as Nano Nagle was impelled to act in response to the plight of the poor and powerless people of her time, so sisters today are called to respond to the needs of those who are poor and oppressed by unjust structures of this time. Thus changes took place: many sisters moved from school-based ministries; emphasis was placed on both direct service to those in need to alleviate their suffering and on working to change the social conditions that cause their impoverishment. A constant throughout this history has been the recognition of the human dignity of each person and a determination to address the wrongs which oppress and deny the human spirit. Nano Nagle’s work in Ireland established a vision that education, in its myriad forms, is a means of empowering people for life. Her vision continues in the choice of Presentation Sisters to work with and on behalf of the many individuals, families and groups on the margins of society.
Our contemporary experience of being Presentation in Australia is shaped by an ongoing commitment to the Presentation tradition as well as by new understandings of how that tradition finds expression in social, religious, cultural and ecological contexts. In recent years we have become aware of the injustices perpetrated against the traditional owners of the land. We have begun to be involved in the Aboriginal Reconciliation process and to appreciate and learn from indigenous spirituality, culture and history.
At this time also we are experiencing a new cosmic consciousness, drawing us into deeper awareness of the elegance, complexity and mystery of our communion with the whole of life on our planet, within an ever evolving and expanding universe. Our response is one of gratitude, wonder and awe for we believe that at the heart of this mystery is a personal loving God revealed most clearly in Christ, “the first born of all creation … in whom the fullness of God was pleased to dwell” (Col 1:15-20). The urgency of this reality compels us to develop a new expression of being in relationship with God, with one another and with the sacredness of the whole of creation within the one earth community.