The Golding Centre for Women's History, Theology and Spirituality

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The Golding Centre for Women's History, Theology and Spirituality


Vol.5 No.1 April 2005


From its beginnings as an Australian Catholic University (ACU) Project in October 2000 the Golding Centre has made it clear that it is concerned with women’s history in general within the context of so-called mainstream histories. These histories necessarily include theologies and spiritualities, usually assumed or not recognised by many historians rather than explicitly identified and used in analysis.

Within women’s history the Golding Centre has wanted to make it clear that, while it has a special interest in the history of Christian women in the Catholic tradition, it is necessarily interested in women’s history in general and, when dealing with Catholic women’s history this is inevitably done in the wider context of women’s history.

Within the history of women in the Catholic tradition the Golding Centre has been emphatic that it is not focusing exclusively on women religious, popularly called nuns, but on all women in that tradition especially lay women. The fact that the Centre has been named to honour three lay women in the Catholic tradition highlights this position. It is a fact of history, however, that generally the lives of women religious have been much better documented than those of lay women because the women religious are part of established religious institutes, which are incorporated into the bigger institution of the Church. This institution because of its nature as an historical religion (as distinct from one based on mythology) requires recognised religious congregations to keep official statistical records and historical chronicles. (This could help to explain the burgeoning international interest in the history of women religious among lay women historians.)

It is not surprising then that in this Newsletter there is featured Mary Ryan’s history of the Willcannia-Forbes Congregation of the Sisters of Mercy, 1884 – 1959. This is a long awaited and important contribution to the history of the Australian outback, it is ‘frontier history’ with all its hardships, challenges, endurance, tragedies, and bravery. While lay women are usually overlooked in the writing of mainstream history, women religious are often patronized as the ‘good sisters’ and /or treated as a disembodied third sex set at odds with lay women. It is often forgotten that women religious were born into and grew up in families of lay people as lay people and their vocation to the religious life was often nourished by the strong religious faith of their lay parents, and they entered religious communities often founded by lay people and supported by lay people. This is strongly exemplified in the Wilcannia-Forbes Congregational history.

Other religious orders which contributed significantly to the development of the Australian outback were the Sisters of St Joseph (Centralised and Federation groups) , the Presentation Sisters, the Good Samaritan Sisters and the Brigidine Sisters. These women, like the Sisters of Mercy, supported and were supported by the lay women of the outback (and many men of good will!). They were the purveyors of literacy and high culture as well as social welfare services. May we never forget them nor subject them to unrealistic hagiographical presentations but, through the promotion of fine scholarly research, may we get to know them better in their rich humanity, which will challenge us and provide worthy role models for subsequent generations of Australians.

Report on KADOC Conference, Rome, 27 -29 May, 2004

This Conference was held at the Belgium Academy in Rome. KADOC is a Documentation and Research Centre for Religion, Culture and Society within the Catholic University of Louvain (Leuven in Flemish), Belgium. It has been conducting a project on ‘Religious Institutes and the Roman Factor in Western Europe, 1802-1917’, of which this conference with the same title was the culmination. These dates are highly significant. 1802 marks the historic concordat between the Holy See and Napoleon which paved the way for the re-recognition of religious institutes in France after their abolition during the extreme phase of the Revolution; 1917 saw the completion of the codification of Canon Law, in which simple-vow institutes were given recognition as genuinely religious institutes. Quite clearly, before 1802, only solemn-vow institutes were canonically recognized as religious – solemn vows from medieval times defined the religious state and, as such were upheld in civil law. It took the course of the 19th century for simple-vow institutes to achieve Roman recognition and clarification of their nature and modes of operating, and at the same time to experience the development of a higher profile both socially and canonically.

My paper, titled ‘Partition and Amalgamation among Women Religious Institutes in Australia, 1838-1917’, necessarily incorporated these evolving 19th century canonical issues. It was received with interest and was, in fact the only paper which centrally dealt with them. The only other English speaking presenter at the Conference was Dr Susan O’Brien, Chairperson of the Board of Directors of the Margaret Beaufort Institute at Cambridge, founded in 1993 for Catholic women to deepen their knowledge of Theology and Spirituality. Her paper was entitled: ‘Reverend Mothers and Bishops in 19th century Britain and Ireland: the Predominance of National Factors or Particular Personalities in the Shaping of Relationship.’

Other papers dealt chiefly with case studies of European religious congregations highlighting relationships with authority, both local diocesan and papal , with a special focus on missionary congregations. The Conference papers will be published in 2005 by KADOC.

Rosa MacGinley
Report on Australasian Welfare Conference, Melbourne, February 2005
The first Australasian Welfare History Workshop was held at ACU St Patrick Campus, Melbourne from 16 -18 February. It was an excellent conference, jointly organized by ACU, La Trobe University and the Brotherhood of St Laurence, with about 20 papers being presented, including a number from New Zealand.

As well as the excellence of the scholarship, highlights included: the keynote and closing addresses by Professor Emeritus Jill Roe; the diversity of topics; a receptive and appreciative audience; the inclusion of research in progress, including from post-graduate students; and the scheduling which permitted 20 minutes discussion after each paper. Being a ‘single-strand’ conference also meant that all participants were at the same papers. This facilitated discussion of themes and issues across the conference as a whole.

Religion featured in about half the papers and at least four were on aspects of Catholic social welfare. The organisers are endeavouring to arrange for the papers to be published and there was great enthusiasm for holding another similar conference/workshop in two years’ time (possibly in New Zealand).
Lesley Hughes

School of Social Work, UNSW

Childbirth and the Sacred
Kim Power, a founding member of the Golding Centre, has spent much of her academic career researching and writing on woman as the image of God: something that many still grapple with in the Church since Augustine wrote so ambivalently on the subject.

As part of a larger project on the representation of women, which uses both texts and artworks to explore how women are perceived in literature and art, Kim has developed a most interesting and thought provoking presentation on childbirth and the sacred. This was very well received by both Catholic and secular, and men and women scholars last year at two gatherings, most notably at the Conference of the Australian Catholic Theological Association held at Newman College, Melbourne in July, 2004.

Methodologically and structurally, Kim Power’s work is informed by the writings of the French philosopher, Luce Irigaray. A special source of inspiration to Kim is Irigaray’s essay entitled ‘Divine Women’ in which she explores women’s need for a ‘Divine Horizon’ to reflect back to them the transcendent image of women as emblematic of the Holy One.

Kim’s presentation ‘Childbirth and the Sacred’ examines childbirth as it is represented in Art, but draws also on reflections from print media and research data. She argues that, although motherhood has been depicted from one sacred perspective in Marian doctrine, art and symbolism, and despite the fact that the Church Life surveys and both female and male experience indicate that childbirth is a privileged event in terms of spiritual experience, Christianity, including the Catholic tradition, has no adequate language or symbolism in which to express these experiences.

Kim points out that not only is there a paucity of theology of childbirth, but praxis has actively represented women as polluted by childbirth in several religious traditions. And, indeed, she reminds us that it is only a few decades ago, in the 1960s, that the Catholic church stopped ‘churching’ or purifying women after childbirth.

As a fruit of her endeavours to seek reasons for this in Catholic tradition, Kim argues that one significant cause for this theological poverty concerning the sacredness of childbirth is the doctrinal primacy of Mother Church as the ‘true mother’, who is the only mother who can claim ‘spiritual’ as an aspect of her motherhood. Another possible cause, she suggests, is the perception of childbirth as essentially a biological, not spiritual, experience because women are identified symbolically with nature, whilst men are identified with culture and spirit. Kim sees it as a paradox that Catholic anthropology, as expressed by John Paul II, defines women in terms of their potential for motherhood.

One thing that is clear is that there is a lot of interest in this area of study of childbirth and the sacred.

Other aspects of Kim’s Project are: Women and the Male Unconscious; Reclaiming Women’s Unconscious; Women and Embodiment; Women and Motherhood; Female Genealogies, especially Grandmother, Mother and Daughter relationships; Women and Age; and Women as Mediators of the Sacred.

Sophie McGrath
Women of the Australian Outback
For Whom We Go Forward or Stay Back: A History of the Sisters of Mercy, Wilcannia-Forbes Congregation 1884 – 1959, 2004, pp252 by Mary Ryan
Published in A4 format by the Sisters of Mercy Wilcannia-Forbes, this beautifully produced and securely bound volume presents an amply illustrated and carefully documented history of a unique Mercy congregation in Australia. It is unique in having stemmed from a number of independent Mercy foundations already established in Australia which, separately, responded to appeals for communities of Sisters in a spread of isolated towns, as they then were, in inland New South Wales. Sisters from Bathurst went to Cobar in 1884, from Albury to Deniliquin in 1887, from Singleton to Broken Hill in 1889, and from Yass to Wilcannia in 1890. (Of these houses, Bathurst, Singleton and Yass had been established directly from Ireland. Albury had been establishd from Goulburn.)

The diocese of Wilcannia – from 1918, with extended boundaries, titled Wilcannia-Forbes – was demarcated in 1887 to take in a vast sparsely settled area of western New South Wales. With this demarcation, the four Mercy houses already established there or subsequently founded became, in the historic Mercy pattern, independent of their founding houses. In the following years, each of these was to open branch houses, mostly small, or ephemeral, centres where they experienced varying fortunes. Everywhere, the Sisters formed communities of prayer and service, offering education, music and cultural arts, and also undertaking regular visitation of the

sick and needy.

The people of Condoblin saw the Sisters walking in pairs to the hospital or the homes of the poor, the sick, and the families of their pupils … At Deniliquin they immediately commenced preparing children for the Sydney Univeristy Entrance Examination and sent their first three candidates for the Junior Univeristy Examination in 1890 ….

The people of these isolated, pioneering settlements preserved many stories of the selfless devotion of loved Sisters who faced the same privations as themselves. In many centres. As happened generally across Australia’s vast

Outback, the Sisters provided the only local opportunity for post-primary education. Even where their schools were solely primary, they offered, besides music, commercial training for young post-school townspeople for many of whom only labouring or domestic jobs were otherwise available. Many of their students, whether their own school pupils or not, were non-Catholic, and non-Catholic support was readily offered to the Sisters’ various projects such as fetes and concerts.

Urged by successive bishops of the diocese, a process of amalgamations of independent mother houses, together with their branches, began in 1891 when Cobar and Bourke combined, with Bourke the head house. In 1922 Wilcannia joined this amalagamation with the formation of a new house at Parkes; it was followed by Deniliquin in

At White Cliffs (founded 1902) the Sisters took girls as boarders from the outback towns and stations … On occasions, the Sisters also looked after orphans. Small boys boarded at a later stage … In Brewarrina (founded 1920) … over the years the Sisters took into their care in the boarding school several children from families where a parent had died …
929 and the latter’s independent offshoot, Balranald, in 1930, The Parkes congregation, with several further branch houses, formed an amalgamation with Broken Hill and its five branch houses in 1932, Broken Hill now becoming the head house. In 1949, the head house and novitiate were transferred to Parkes and, in 1954, the congregations now under the diocesan name of Wilcannia-Forbes, joined eight other Mercy congregations to form a much larger, amalgamation, that of the Australian Union of the Sisters of Mercy. (This Union over a number of years carried on dialogue with the Australian Federation of the Sisters of Mercy consisting of nine Mercy congregations. These conversations finally resulted in 1981 in the formation of the Institute of the Sisters of Mercy of Australia consisting of the seventeen congregations, which, in the Mercy tradition, still maintain considerable local independence.)

At Parkes Sr M Antionia Mitchell is remembered as one of the earliest and most successful teachers of piano and violin … St M. Xavier Cahill taught typing and shorthand after school … taking all pupils who wishes to come … the Convent bcame a kind of ‘employment agency’ … In Deliniquin … during World WarI the young men home on leave (Catholics and Protestant alike) called to see the Sisters.

Author Mary Ryan (Bathurst Mercy congregation), a trained archivist with a MA in history and a meticulous researcher, has carried this complex history of the Wilcannia-Forbes Sisters up to 1859, the eve of the Second Vatican Council and the escalating changes which followed for religious institutes – the waiting subject of another, and major, story. Mary traveled extensively in the diocese, receptive to local history, checking local publications and carrying out many patient interviews with readily cooperative residents. The result is a massive study, enriched with detailed footnotes, a repository of pioneering memories which could otherwise be lost and a telling case study of the contribution of women religious in the great Australian inland.

Rosa MacGinley
Letter from London

Things are heating up here in London (and it is not just because it is finally springtime!) as the programme is being finalized for the fourth Consecrated Women’s History Conference to be held on 16-17 September. This year’s conference will be held in Cambridge in conjunction with the Margaret Beaufort Institute of Theology. Over thirty abstracts have been submitted so conference organizers Dr Susan O’Brien and Dr Caroline Bowden are considerably challenged! Proposals have come from Britain, Ireland, North America, Australia, and even Russia! The approach to the two-day conference focusing on women religious of Britain and Ireland will be again thematic. The themes include:

*Material culture in the convent – art and artifacts, buildings and gardens

*Consecrated women as missionaries

* Methodology session – oral history

*The authorial voice of women religious

For further information contact: Dr Caroline Bowden, Royal Holloway, University of London, Egham, Surrey, TW20 OEX;; or Dr Susan O’Brien, Margaret Beaufort Institute, Grange Road, Cambridge CB3 9DX,
Historians of Women Religious of Britain and Ireland (H-WRBI) are also presenting papers in other venues. So far this year, two papers on women religious were given at the London’s Institute of Historic Research. Last year’s conference organizer and former internet list moderator, Ruth Manning (Oxford) gave an excellent paper on the confessor-penitent relationship in early Modern Europe using examples from her doctoral research on Vincent de Paul and Louise de Marillac; and Jane de Chantal and Frances de Sales. Dr Andrea Knox presented a paper at the Women’s History Seminar (London) entitled ‘Power, Property, and Education: Irish Female Monastic Tradition in Spain, 1590-1689’ based on her ongoing research on some ‘wild geese’ of Ireland who happened to be women religious.

In addition, this year’s Women, Religion, and education Seminar Series will include two papers on education and women religious: Dr Susan Mumm will present a paper entitled ‘Better than any Board School’:Anglican Sisters and their Schools’; and Carmen Mangion will discuss nineteenth-century Catholic women religious in her paper called, ‘Apostles of Christ: Catholic Women Religious, Education and Evangelisation.’

The H-WRBI list (formerly the Brides of Christ list) has a new moderator, Pascal Majerus (Belgium). Those interested in joining can contact him at
Carmel Mangion

Birkbeck College, London University.


Conference on Gender and Memory: documenting, recording, transmitting, Limerick University, 8-9 June, 2005

The Irish Women Research Network is holding its third major international conference in conjunction with the University of Limerick. This Research Network was founded in 1997 and has held major conferences in London (1998) and Liverpool (2002). Its members work in many areas including history, sociology, literature, law and geography.

Abstracts of no more than 300 words are invited for this conference from academic staff, graduate students and professionals working in related fields. Topics and themes could include: autobiography and biography; oral history; migration; nationalisms; media; biographical fiction; masculinities and femininities. These are only suggested themes and the organizers welcome all suggestions for papers in this wide field. Iterdisciplinary approaches are very welcome. Abstracts should be sent to Dr Yvonne McKenna at Limerick University:
Conference on Feminist Theory, University of Liverpool, 17 -19 June
The 2005 Conference of the British Institute for Feminist Theory and Research is being hosted by the University of Liverpool and Liverpool Hope University College on 17 -19 June. Confirmed speakers are Luce Irigaray, Pamela Sue Anderson, Morny Joy, Daphne Hampson, Melissa Raphael, and Regina Schwartz.

Concerned with the impact of sexual difference on religious and spiritual practices, this conference will offer a chance to explore, articulate and share the personal experiences of reflections of women practitioners from all faiths and denominations. It is anticipated that from this critical appraisal of the divine will emerge a creative approach to questions relating to body, desire, and subjectivity.

For general enquiries regarding the conference contact: Patrice Haynes:
Conference on History of Nursing, 25-27 August 2005, Melbourne University
Vale Genevieve Ryan, 1995-2005
In February this year Genevieve Ryan, the 20 year old daughter of Liz Ryan (Post-graduate Officer, Research Services ACU Patrick Campus) and her husband Peter, died after a fall on Mt Wellington in Tasmania, where she had gone on a scholarship to take her honours course in Post-colonisation at the University of Tasmania Genevieve was exactly the sort of scholar the Golding Centre would have been proud to have as a member, and we mourn her loss to the academy. The loss of a child on the cusp of adulthood is a tragedy, for which we have no words, only an ache in the heart for our friends. We offer this as our condolences to Liz and Peter and the Ryan family and pray for their consolation and the memory of Genevieve will always burn brightly on the hearts of all who knew her.
Kim Power
his conference is being organized by The Australian Nursing and Midwifery History Group with the theme ‘Beyond Professionalism: Towards a History of Practice Conference’. It is reported that there have already been received a number of abstracts of very high quality from all around the world. The venue for the conference will be the Melbourne Business School, The University of Melbourne, 200 Leicester Street, Carlton. The conference programme is posted on the conference website:

If you have any queries about the conference, contact either Debbie Fleming ( or Sioban Nelson ( Phone: +61 3 8344 0784; +61 3 8344 0800; Fax: 61 3 9347 4172.

Australian Catholic History Conference, 3 September, Sydney, 2005
This Australian Catholic History Conference is convened by the Australian Catholic Historical Society in association with the Broken Bay Institute. It will be held at Mount St Benedict Centre, Pennant Hills on Saturday, 3 September, from 9.30 am to 4.30 am. Accommodation available at the Centre (02 484 6208). The conference theme is ‘The Catholic Impact on Australia’. Papers are invited on Australian Catholic history, preferably linked to the theme. Abstracts (300 words) must be lodged by 30 April, 2005. For further information and booking forms consult: or contact the conference coordinator (John Luttrell) at the Broken Bay Institute, PO Box 125, Wahroonga, NSW 2075; email:
Sixteenth Century Studies Conference, Atlanta, Georgia, USA, October 20-23, 2005
There is a call for papers for this conference from the Society for Reformation Research (SRR), a North-American scholarly organization concerned with the Catholic and Protestant Reformations and all other aspects of religious life in the early modern era.

SRR website: Http://

(This Newsletter is produced by the Golding Centre Team. Please send all correspondence to Dr Sophie McGrath, Golding Centre, Australian Catholic University, Licked Bag 2002, Strathfield 2135. Email:

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