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Women in the Australian Church

Most of the early Catholic were convicts, which meant a sizable portion were men. However, women soon joined the Church, and by 1828, the census showed there were 2019 female and 6135 male Catholics. Today, there are more active Catholic women than men.

In 1838, five sisters of charity came to Sydney from the island to work with the sick, poor and convicts. Their relationship with the Archbishop at that time, Archbishop Polding was not always cordial. However, they made significant impacts, and one of such was St Vincent’s Hospital which is still one of the top hospitals in Australia. The Sisters of Charity also founded the first women’s religious order in Australia in 1857, the Sisters of the Good Samaritan.

Since then, the nursing, charitable, and educational works of the Church have been mostly handled by women, both lay and religious. There were more religious women than the brothers and priests, so they performed most of the tasks, most especially the nursing and teaching.



The early nun Catholics focused more on charity than educational work. This was necessary for a country without a welfare state. By 1900, Sisterhood ran up to five hospitals in New South Wales. This included a psychiatric hospital for women, a hospice, a foundling hospital, seven orphanages, deaf children’s residential school, training school and home for servants, two former prostitutes’ refuge homes, three industrial schools, night refuge for women and aged poor’s home. Beyond this, they also did significant work with Sydney Hospital’s patients, immigrant servant girls, the ill poor, Darlington Gaol’s prisoners, girls in the Reformatory and Industrial School and inmates of the aged asylums.

Later on, the nuns took over educational works too and made major impacts here as well. Since the state withdrew its aid for church schools back in 1880, catholic primary and infant schools have had mostly nun staff just as the secondary schools for girls.

One of the most famous women in Catholic is Caroline Chisholm. This laywoman played a fantastic role by helping young immigrant women who moved to Sydney 1840s. She started an employment agency to help these women find jobs in many rural and city areas. She also played a major role in helping many immigrant women move and find jobs in the country.

This woman who lived between 1842 to 1909 is one of the most influential figures in Australia’s catholic history. She is the only canonised saint in Australia so far. She was the co-founder of the Sisters of St Joseph of the Sacred Heart, a Sisterhood order that focused on educating the poor and was its mother superior. In 1871, she was excommunicated because of insubordination, but this decision was later reversed in the following year. She was able to obtain qualified approval from Rome for the rule of life of the sisterhood order. In 2010, she was canonised.

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