THIS month marks the birthday anniversary of Ellen Vincent Whitty, an Irish migrant whose energy and vision shaped education in Australia.
If you haven’t heard of this woman, you’re not alone. Despite founding more than 20 convents throughout Queensland, many with associated schools such as All Hallows’ in Brisbane and St Mary’s in Ipswich, Mother Vincent Whitty has not been claimed as one of Australia’s migration success stories.
A street has been named after her in Canberra in recognition of her contribution to Australian education but her name eludes most.
The lucky might happen upon Mary Xaverius O’Donoghue’s scholarly chronicle of Mother Whitty’s impact on the Queensland education system. O’Donoghue has published what little is known of Mother Whitty’s life.
Mother Whitty’s birthday makes timely reconsideration of the gifts she brought with her as fear of difference sees our community in need again of learning about the contributions migrants share.
Ellen Whitty was born in 1819 near Wexford in Ireland into a devout Catholic family of rural gentility. It was decided she would complete her education in the city of Dublin.
Whitty arrived accordingly as a teenager to be confronted by a harsh disparity between rich and poor made more evident in the larger urban population.
With dismay Whitty moved through a world where poverty could not be ignored or resolved easily. To her interest she noticed other women moving through the same environment, but moving purposefully and to considerable effect.
These women were with the Institute of the Mercy Sisters and from their Baggot St convent they walked daily around the slums of Dublin serving the community.
On January 6, 1839, at the age of 20, Whitty presented herself to the institute’s founder, Catherine McAuley, and requested acceptance into the novitiate. On taking her vows Whitty took the religious name of Sr Vincent.
Catherine McAuley had founded the institute eight years before Whitty presented herself at the Baggot St convent. Her sisters led lives in which strong relationships across all parts of the community could be developed, and as well as hard labour and sorrow, the early annals of the Mercy Institute include references to jokes, laughter and merriment.
While in Dublin, Whitty proved her worth as a canny woman of initiative. Holding several positions of influence in the institute, her life in Ireland delivers several examples of her standing true to her personal ideals regardless of strong external pressure.
In 1854 Whitty withstood opposition from the highest civil and ecclesiastical levels regarding her intention to send her sibling Mary Agnes and other sisters from the institute to the Crimean War with the Protestant Florence Nightingale.
Other examples include St Vincent opening a home for unmarried mothers in 1855 against resistance from other religious women who considered this unseemly.
To considerable contemporary interest Whitty also founded a scheme for the instruction of neglected children in criminal institutions leading her to establish the Refuge of the Golden Bridge for women prisoners.
Throughout her time at Baggott St, Whitty requested the opportunity to serve as a missionary, and each time her request was denied as she was considered too valuable to the Mercy Institute in Ireland.
When James Quinn was offered the position of first bishop of Queensland, given the small size of the outpost at that time the offer was hardly flattering. For Whitty however it was an overseas mission, something to which she had felt called for years.
Contributing to the romantic allure of the project for Whitty was the exotic power she attributed to the indigenous peoples of Australia. That this diverse group could be reduced to a monolithic entity inspiring curiosity and concern reflects the subtleties and violence of a pervasive racism justifying colonialism.
Not that there is glory in citing the humanity of dead heroes. There may be some irony in the daughter of an oppressed people not recognising her collusion with the same oppressors elsewhere but the reality is Whitty fought all her life for justice and for the betterment of others.
At any rate, as with all of her previous requests, when Whitty asked to join Bishop Quinn’s mission, the rest of the sisters refused to allow her to go.
Bishop Quinn, perhaps realising that the conscription of this palpably popular woman of energy and vision could contribute to the success of his difficult task, requested of Dublin’s Archbishop Cullen that he overturn the community chapter’s decision.
This was an adroit tactical move as the women had all taken a vow of obedience, and the Catholic Church’s hierarchy of power made a judgment by Archbishop Cullen effectively binding on the order.
As Bishop Quinn expected, the startled community acceded with reluctance and respect to Archbishop Cullen’s wishes, and Whitty’s own desire.
The difficulties Bishop Quinn had experienced convincing other sisters to join with him dissipated as Whitty herself inspired other women to join the enterprise. In her enthusiasm, what Whitty may not have appreciated fully was Bishop Quinn’s resistance to her desire for activity and autonomy.
Bishop Quinn took his responsibilities as leader of the Church in the new venture seriously. He considered the Mercy Sisters should be under his control entirely, leading to tension and struggle between these two authoritative figures.
This problem was not Whitty’s alone. Others to face similar challenges included Mother Mary MacKillop and her bishop. Although there is evidence, if the death of Catherine McAuley had not arrived prematurely she may have altered her constitution in line with that of the Christian Brothers.
Whitty found herself in a position where the Mercy Institute was not answerable to its own hierarchy. Because there was no central governance in Queensland of the Mercy convents the parish priest was able to stand in authority over each entity, and Bishop Quinn stood in authority over the priests.
Bishop Quinn attempted to control the institute in this way, while Whitty resisted determinedly. She chose to place concord above all else and respect Bishop Quinn’s wishes, at what must have been significant personal cost. The legacy is the unbroken presence of the Mercy Institute in Australia.
This is not the only way that the death of the founder influenced her institute. When Catherine McAuley formed the Mercy Sisters, she based the documentation on those of contemporary orders. With experience it is probable she would have made some alterations.
The pressures of the mass migration that saw the institute take on a position of global strength caused women to leave Ireland without having undertaken a full novitiate.
Perhaps this breaking of the thread of influence by Catherine McAuley on her order across the generations led to a distortion among certain women of the founder’s care to sustain emotional health. In turn this may have played some part in the eventual failure of certain Sisters of Mercy to care for children.
Australia is blessed in that Whitty’s novitiate was under the instruction of the institute’s founder, so she could bring undiluted the vision of Catherine McAuley to our country.
In March 1892 Whitty died and is buried in the grounds of Nudgee College in Brisbane.
With the conversation about whom we allow into Australia so pertinent to us all, remembering the character and contribution of this great Irish migrant can only be to our benefit.
Rachel Williams is a freelance writer who lives in Sydney. She wrote her honours thesis on Mother Vincent Whitty’s care for the dying Catherine MacAuley. She pursued the Whitty connection with Florence Nightingale and turned it into a further thesis on Florence Nightingale’s mystic visions.