Joy for Australia's Sisters of Charity as Mary Aikenhead Declared Venerable by Pope Francis

Catholic Communications, Sydney Archdiocese,
23 Mar 2015

Ireland's Mary Aikenhead founded the Sisters of Charity 200 years ago to care for the poor, vulnerable, sick and marginalised

Congregational Leader of the Sisters of Charity of Australia, Sister Clare Nolan, rsc says the Sisters are overjoyed Pope Francis has declared their founder, Ireland's Mary Aikenhead Venerable in what is the second of four steps to canonisation.

"We are very excited about it and our sisters have developed a special liturgy to mark this important stage together with Congregations of the Sisters of Charity worldwide," she says.

The next stage on the path to sainthood is Beatification, but before this can be declared there must be approval of a miracle, evidence of the intercessory power of the Venerable. Those who propose a miracle do so in the Diocese where the miracle is said to have occurred.

To be accepted as a miracle, it must be determined by accepted scientific criteria that there is no natural explanation, with this well documented by experts in the field. The investigators must then rule on whether it is a miracle in the strictest sense and by its nature can only be attributed to God.

Sister Clare predicts there will be no shortage of those coming forward with evidence of miracles as a result of the intercession of Mary Aikenhead.

"One of these instances that seems it can only be attributed to God is happening right now with one of our Sisters who is very ill in Melbourne," she says explaining that despite the serious nature of her illness, and for weeks no response to antibiotics, now seems on the road to recovery.

Anthony Schembri CEO of St Vincent's Health Network, Sister Clare Nolan rsc and leading Immunologist Andrew Carr

Representing the Sisters of Charity of Australia in the group selected to Promote the Cause of Mary Aikenhead is former Congregational Leader, Sr Elizabeth Dodds rsc. The group is chaired by members of the Irish Congregation with sisters from each of the different Sisters of Charity's worldwide communities also involved.

"We heard just before Christmas last year that the Cardinals at the Vatican would be meeting on 17 March to discuss Mary Aikenhead being declared venerable and immediately the group began developing a liturgy to coincide with the Pope's announcement," Sr Clare says.

Although Sisters of Charity across the world are celebrating the news, the elevation of Mary Aikenhead from Servant of God to Venerable, marking the next step on the path to sainthood, has added resonance as it was Australia's Sisters of Charity who made the first move to have their Irish founder canonised more than 100 years ago.

Sister Elizabeth Dodds rsc is the Sisters of Charity Australia's representative for the Cause of Mary Aikenhead

In 1908, Mother Mary Davis, Superior General of the Sisters of Charity at the time, took the initial important first steps when she wrote to Irish Sister of Charity, Sister Mary Morrogh-Bernard asking if the Superior General in Dublin, Sister M Canisius Cullen would consider applying to the Bishop to take preliminary steps to have their much loved founder sanctified.

A year later, the (then) Archbishop of Sydney Cardinal Patrick Moran wrote to the newly appointed Superior General in Dublin, Sister Mary Agnes Chamberlain saying he was willing to undertake what was required to have the Cause of Mary Aikenhead introduced in Rome.

By 1911 the Cause had begun to gather pace when Monsignor Carinci in Rome agreed to take on the duties of Postulator and Father Fergus Finlay SJ in Dublin was appointed Vice-Postulator. The formal informative process, when witnesses are required to give evidence, began the same year under the auspices of Bishop Morrisroe of Achonry in the West of Ireland.

Seven years later the writings of Mary Aikenhead were examined and approved in Rome. This was followed by the decree for the Introduction of the Cause of Mary Aikenhead being signed by Pope Benedict XV in Rome on 20 March 1921.

But then everything ground to a halt. Along with the chaos created by two world wars and ongoing political strife in Ireland, Rome also created  a major change with the establishment of Pope Pius XI's Historical Commission, which examined the Cause and decided it was deficient in evidence from first class witnesses.

World renowned Garvan Institute of Research, Darlinghurst is part of the Sydney's St Vincent's Hospital campus

For the Sisters of Charity and those in Australia in particular, this meant that although everything possible had been done, they were now up against a major setback and work on the Cause would have to go back to square one, starting all over again.

Finally though, Australia's Sisters of Charity who initiated the first move to set Mother Mary Aikenhead as she was known, on the path to sainthood can celebrate.

Although they are now a separate congregation from Ireland's Sisters of Charity founded by Mary Aikenhead 200 years ago, the Sisters of Charity of Australia retain close ties and strong links with the Irish congregation as well as with Sisters of Charity communities established in Scotland, England, Zambia, California and Malawi.

For the past 176 years, Australia's Sisters of Charity have been one of the nation's best known and much loved congregations. Disembarking at Botany Bay on New Year's Eve 1838, five young Irish women became the first religious sisters to arrive in the penal colony.

Sister Clare Nolan, rsc Congregational Leader of Sisters of Charity Australia

Sent half way around the world by their Mother Superior, Mary Aikenhead, the four professed religious and one young novice sailed for Australia at the request of Archbishop Polding, the first Archbishop of Sydney, who sought assistance in providing help and support  to the female convicts at Parramatta's notorious gaol.

The Sisters of Charity not only helped minister to the female convicts incarcerated in Parramatta but went on to found St Vincent's Hospital, Darlinghurst, St Vincent's Hospital, Melbourne as well as hospitals in Toowoomba, Lithgow and Cootamundra. They also established schools for the poor, visited prisons and continued Mary Aikenhead's legacy, devoting their lives to the care of the sick, hungry, penniless, oppressed or imprisoned.

For the past 176 years, the Sisters have continued to break new ground whether in palliative care or the treatment of HIV/AIDS. 

Today hospitals, in particular St Vincent's Hospital Darlinghurst, and St Vincent's in Melbourne, are highly regarded internationally with the Garvan Institute which was founded by the Sisters, an acknowledged world leader in cutting edge research. The Kinghorn Institute is another ground breaker and for the first time in Australia, links teams of researchers with clinicians to enable cancer treatments to be developed and tailored to suit individual patients.