SELF-confessed perfectionist Peter Connell is the ideal candidate to collect and present memorabilia of the 150-year history of the Sisters of Mercy in Brisbane.
Based at Mercy Heritage Centre within All Hallows’ Convent, Fortitude Valley, Peter’s offer of a guided tour of newly opened exhibition rooms allowed an introspective immersion in the formation and ministry of the estimated 1100 sisters who walked those same floorboards from 1861.
The firsthand glimpse explained why Peter “feels privileged to be working for an organisation such as the Sisters of Mercy” as director of the centre.
“Theirs is an incredible story and I have an extremely diverse job,” he said.
“One moment I’m researching 1870s ships, the next I’m four metres up a ladder adjusting lighting, (then I’m) looking at Papua New Guinean masks and engraved school bells from Bundaberg, (and then I’m) writing text panels and reading correspondence from the 1890s.”
All the while if Peter came across a smudge or piece out of place, even a partly raised floorboard, he seemed to take it personally.
“Yes I am very particular when it comes to our exhibitions,” Peter admitted sheepishly, adding, “Let’s call it ‘attention to detail’.
“I believe I have been entrusted to preserve a very significant and in many ways a very personal story.
“There are very few places like this in the world … (and) I can’t think of anywhere else that I could enjoy so many aspects of working in cultural heritage.”
Adding to his sense of attachment to his work, Peter attended Mercy-run school Sacred Heart, Sandgate, a primary reason he feels “connected” to the order.
Speaking of connects, he and wife Kellie were married in All Hallows’ Chapel and together they have three children – Jack, 5, Sienna, 3, and Madison, nine months.
While having to move away from some special interest historical groups because of such “expansion”, Peter began began working alongside the Sisters of Mercy about 10 years ago.
“We had a smaller space then … downstairs,” he said later from his second-floor office overlooking the Brisbane River.
“When the last twelve sisters living here moved out in 2007 the decision was made to open more space to record the Mercy story.”
This decision was prompted by a group of sisters collaborating for the 140th anniversary of the Sisters of Mercy in Brisbane – successful events prompting much interest and heightened awareness for “someone to do it as a job”.
It wasn’t a surprise Peter was drawn to the role following an arts degree majoring in anthropology, a graduate diploma in applied heritage studies and a masters in museum studies.
Plus, he’d volunteered within places like the Queensland Museum, Newstead House, the Commissariat Stores Museum, and the University of Queensland’s Anthropology Museum and archives in the Fryer Library Special Collections with “a critique of the first Brisbane Living Heritage Network Experience Guide … incorporated into future editions”.
“I have also given talks and written papers for the Brisbane Catholic Historical Society and Museums Australia,” Peter said.
“(And I) have published articles in the Brisbane Catholic Historical Society Journal and for the Brisbane History Group.
“We have had a number of exhibitions and public programs here at the Mercy Heritage Centre over the last ten years as well.”
Visitors to the centre on Mondays and Fridays can view newly-opened displays relating to the ministry of the Sisters of Mercy in Brisbane.
Previously the centre featured memorabilia from Sisters of Mercy founder Catherine McAuley, other general pieces from All Hallows’ School, relics, a “bishop’s parlour” and the exquisite chapel and newly-restored organ.
Now, on the second level, displays are complete in the former classroom for novitiate (or second “training period”) studies – with personal items and photographs coming to life within the desks used by the sisters.
One corner of this room houses a remarkable story. “We called for memorabilia of the sisters via The Catholic Leader,” Peter said.
“Dan Alexander from Nanango responded and said he had portraits of two sisters – Sisters Gabriel and Irenaeus Casey.”
These two Sisters of Mercy, also biological sisters, intertwined their hair once it was cut short “before receiving their veil” and this too is displayed alongside the “clippers” used and their intertwined “silk posy arrangements” carried during the Mass.
Other rooms feature the sisters’ “trunks” (or luggage) with personal affects also displayed therein, “changing habits” or attire, an accurate display of a former single and double bedroom within the convent and musical instruments used over the years, set up in the former “dormitory”, where the then Sr Mary MacKillop and other Josephites were temporarily accommodated.
Still a work in progress is a larger display featuring the 60 schools and seven hospitals begun by the Sisters of Mercy and other related ministries.
Peter said interest in the memorabilia was increasing with “a lot of requests from parishes and schools” to visit.
When students do they might not expect however, to be able to dress as a Sister of Mercy.
“There are very few ‘habits’ around now,” Peter said. “When they went out, many were recycled or destroyed. “We have made replicas for display and use as part of our education programs.”
Also fascinating during the tour was a deliberately “mistreated wall” with paint removed in part to reveal how it was coloured in 1863, 1892, 1930 and 1950.
Not surprisingly however, this was one display Peter didn’t attempt to amend.
More information about the centre can be sought via www.mercyheritage.com or by phoning (07) 3831 2252.
The Catholic Leader is an Australian award-winning Catholic newspaper that has been published by the Archdiocese of Brisbane since 1929. Our journalism seeks to provide a full, accurate and balanced Catholic perspective of local, national and international news while upholding the dignity of the human person.
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