The Correspondence of Mother Vincent Whitty 1839 to 1892 is a treasure revealed to the Brisbane Sisters of the Mercy and the wider Church community during the order’s celebration of the 150th anniversary of its arrival in Queensland. Reporter PAUL DOBBYN spoke with the historians responsible for the work, Sr Anne Hetherington and Sr Pauline Smoothy
BRISBANE Sisters of Mercy historians Sr Anne Hetherington and Sr Pauline Smoothy travelled to the other side of the world in search of letters for publication in their new book which presents the most complete picture yet of the remarkable Mother Vincent Whitty.
One letter continues to elude them, however – a letter referred to in various pieces of correspondence but which they’re not sure still exists.
“It would be great if an account of Mother Vincent’s death were to be found,” Sr Pauline said.
“Indeed it’s one of my most cherished hopes such a letter will turn up.”
Sr Pauline makes the comment as the three of us sit at a table in a small dining room, its polished timber floor connecting to the much vaster section of the community room at historic All Hallows’ Convent.
Spread before us on the table are copies of some of the letters Sisters Anne and Pauline have viewed in their quest.
Deciphered, often with incredible difficulty, and now reproduced in The Correspondence of Mother Vincent Whitty 1839 to 1892, the letters comprise a rich and enduringly valuable historical source.
Sr Anne, shortly before, had narrated an extract from then Sr Vincent Whitty’s account of Sisters of Mercy foundress the Venerable Catherine McAuley’s final hours.
Dated November 12, 1841, the entry reads:
“The Sisters were all with her from 6 until 7 when we went to supper after which we said Matins and someone sent for me and I had the consolation, for it is the pleasing though melancholy consolation, to read the last prayers for her, close her eyes and that mouth from which I have received such instructions – May God grant us all grace to remember and practise it.”
The letter was written when Mother Vincent was still a 22-year-old sister in the order’s mother house in Baggot Street, Dublin, about 20 years before she arrived in Brisbane to found the order’s congregation in Queensland.
Also contained in The Correspondence of Mother Vincent Whitty 1839 to 1892 are many other evocative glimpses and insights into the manners and mores of a bygone era.
These include Mother Vincent’s offer to the British Government of the services of sisters from Baggot Street and other convents situated in Ireland and England to tend to soldiers wounded in the Crimean War.
“We were really lucky with that one,” Sr Pauline said with a sleuth’s enthusiasm.
“An original autograph only came to light in the Baggot Street archives a matter of days before the book went to the publishers.”
The letters also contain words of spiritual encouragement and devotion and often carry an inevitable homesickness for Ireland.
Tales come to life of batterings in wild seas in the Atlantic Ocean off the Cape of Good Hope … and there are other challenges mentioned such as those faced by the fledgling Mercy presence in Western Australia in 1846 where writers become alternately delighted with and confronted by the fauna of an alien land.
Letter writers include Mercy Sisters from all over the United Kingdom and Australia, Mother Whitty’s own brother Jesuit Father Robert Whitty and early Brisbane Bishops Robert Dunne and James Quinn.
The latter’s correspondence is highly intriguing, “a real treasure” as Sr Anne puts it, because it casts light on Bishop Quinn’s ritual removal of Mother Vincent from the office of Reverend Mother of the Brisbane congregation in 1865.
Sisters Pauline and Anne’s book of letters was launched in September, appropriately as part of sesquicentenary celebrations for the Mercy Sisters Brisbane congregation.
Shortly after the launch, I learnt the impressive hard-cover book was the fruit of extensive research not only in the Brisbane Mercy Archives but also in the order’s archives in Dublin, Rome’s Irish Collegiate and in diocesan archives in Dublin, Belfast, Perth and Brisbane.
During my visit to All Hallows’ Convent and meeting with Sisters Pauline and Anne I was to learn just what this research entailed.
What emerged was a tale of dogged persistence – of attempting to read letters damaged by candle flame, of untangling writing criss-crossed to save space and of mirrored words coming through amidst other words on the other side of too-thin paper.
Sometimes too the effacement was deliberate. Sections were encountered crossed out, perhaps censored by Mother Superiors before the letters were read aloud to communities belonging to the still young 19th Century religious order.
Most likely these sections were deemed too demoralising to their youthful charges.
“A letter dated 1846 from Perth is one such example,” Sr Anne said.
“It was sent to Mother Vincent when she was superior at Baggot Street, Dublin.
“In it three young women training as novices speak of their difficulties and struggles to adapt to their new home.”
Teamwork lies at the heart of Sr Pauline and Sr Anne’s successful production of The Correspondence of Mother Vincent Whitty 1839 to 1892.
“The greatest challenge was keeping faithful to what was written,” Sr Anne said.
“I’d send it to Pauline and see if she agreed.”
Both authors speak of “Eureka moments” – of awakening in the night when an unknown word suddenly becomes clear and yet another dotted space is ready to be filled in.
The latest book is the sisters’ second publication of Mother Vincent’s letters.
The first, Mercy Women Making History: from the Pen of Mother Whitty also known as the “Purple Book”, came out for the Brisbane congregation’s 140th anniversary celebrations in 2001.
So it’s taken 10 years of sustained effort to get the latest book to publication.
Both women also pay tribute to the work of the late Sr Mary Xaverius O’Donoghue whose thesis on Mother Vincent “cited a vast number of primary sources that alerted us to the treasures we hold”.
This time there’s a sense of assurance the women have compiled a book of great worth to many, both within the Mercy Sisters congregation and far beyond.
As Sr Anne said: “We knew a lot about Mother Vincent in Brisbane.
“But now we have been able to access a lot more from Baggot Street in particular and so have a more well-rounded picture of her life there – for example her significant role in the establishment of Dublin’s Mater Hospital.”
Both women feel immensely privileged to have been able to do this research linking them so closely to the foundress of Queensland’s congregation.
“I felt a definite personal link to Mother Vincent … the fact of holding, reading and deciphering someone’s personal writing does establish this connection,” Sr Pauline said.
Sr Anne agreed, adding: “It was a great privilege to be holding an actual letter written 150 years ago … only a very few researchers are able to get into archives and handle original scripts.”
“So,” Sr Pauline said, “the letters reproduced in the book can’t and won’t give the experience we had reading them first hand.
“But the published letters can open up the world of that era and make it available to a far wider readership.”
The Correspondence of Mother Vincent Whitty 1839 to 1892 is published through University of Queensland Press and is available through the Mercy Heritage Centre by contacting (07) 3831 2252, at firstname.lastname@example.org or at the centre c/- 547 Ann Street, Brisbane Qld 4000.