On 31 October, 1866, seven Sisters of Mercy arrived in Bathurst. New South Wales, from Charleville, Ireland. They had left their homeland to bring the Gospel of Christ and the spirit of Mercy to the newly-established Diocese of Bathurst, which then covered about half the area of the State. Their Superior was Mother Mary Ignatius Croke, a woman whose evident leadership qualities led her Sisters to elect her to the position of Superior or Assistant for a total of twenty-five years - as often as the Constitutions and her health allowed.
Mother Ignatius not only saw the needs of the people of Bathurst, but of those scattered across the vast Diocese. She immediately established Primary and High Schools in Bathurst, catering not only for the children of the town, but for boarders from far-flung villages and farms. She took into the Sisters' care orphaned or abandoned girls, and gave them love, education and training to help them make their way in the world. She and her Sisters visited the poor and the sick, attending to their needs and instructing them in their faith. Within a few short years Mother Ignatius began sending Sisters to other towns requesting them, so that by the time of her death in 1905, the Sisters were carrying on the works of Mercy in Carcoar, Mudgee, Orange, Dubbo, Forbes, Wellington, Cobar, Bourke and Narromine.
Those who knew Mother Ignatius Croke described her as a strong woman - strong in faith, in devotion to duty, in discipline, in straight-forwardness - yet simple in her piety, kind, most just, gracious, and having a cheerful disposition that often bubbled into sallies of wit and humour. These qualities, and those of leadership and vision, were already clear when she was appointed the Charleville Mistress of Novices in 1865 after only eight years of profession, and later the same year was asked to lead the Bathurst Mission. The influence of her family background is worth examination.
Mother Ignatius - Margaret Croke - was born in Tralee in 1819, eldest of the eight children of William Croke and Isabella Plummer. William was a Catholic, and the son of a successful businesswoman, two features which made him quite unacceptable to Isabella's family. They were Protestants, and Isabella's mother was an aristocrat. Isabella was disowned by her family on her marriage, but kept her attachment and fidelity to the Church of Ireland. Isabella and William decided that their girls would be raised as Protestants and their boys as Catholics. William worked as an estate manager until his sudden death in 1834, when Margaret was fifteen and the youngest child was only two years old. Still estranged from her own family, Isabella was grateful to accept help from William's brother, Fr Thomas Croke of Charleville, who took the family into his Presbytery until Isabella could find a home in the town. The family would have become aware of Fr Croke's great concern for the poor of the town, and his desire to bring Sisters of Mercy to relieve the poor and sick and to teach the children. Fr Croke had financial support from another brother, James Croke, a lawyer who migrated to Australia, and eventually became Solicitor General of Victoria. Fr Croke oversaw the education of his nephews, no doubt with a view to safeguarding their Catholic faith. The three older boys lived with him until they were old enough to continue their education at the Irish College in Paris, where all three decided to become priests. The eldest, William, died young while Curate of Charleville; the second, Thomas William, became Bishop of Auckland and eventually Archbishop of Cashel, devoting much of his energy to the cause of Irish nationalism: the third, James, went as a missionary to America and became Vicar General of the Diocese of San Francisco. The three younger boys also studied in Paris. David later migrated to Victoria, where he worked as a miner. He was joined for a time by John, who later went to America. The youngest boy, Daniel, became a journalist in London.
The details of the education of the Croke girls, Margaret and Isabella, are not so clear. No doubt their mother's own education in a well-to-do home gave her much to pass on to her daughters. It is also possible that they received some education, or training in the accomplishments, from the Sisters of Mercy after their arrival in Charleville in 1836. Bishop Quinn claimed to the pupils of the Bathurst Convent in 1867 that they were taught by ladies who had themselves received the highest education. Nevertheless, Margaret, as the eldest of the family, would have shared with her widowed mother the household responsibilities and the upbringing of the younger children. No doubt, mother and daughters also helped care for the sick and the hungry in the terrible famine years of the 1840s, when the population of Charleville was halved.
It is not known exactly when Mrs Croke and her daughters decided to become Catholics, but it was probably not until Margaret was in her mid-twenties or later. Her sister, Isabella, entered the Charleville Convent in 1847, and became Sister M Joseph. Margaret remained as companion to her mother after the younger boys left home. After her mother's death, Margaret presented herself at the Charleville Convent to become a Sister of Mercy. At the time, her sister, Isabella, was away with other Mercy Sisters at the Crimea, nursing the sick and wounded. At thirty-six years of age, Margaret brought to her religious life not only the rich background of both Protestant and Catholic spirituality, but her experience in running a household, caring for children, nursing her ailing mother and the sick poor of the town, and mixing easily with people of differing religion and politics.
Margaret Croke was received as Sister M Ignatius in 1855, and was professed in 1857. Her sister, Sister M Joseph, was elected Superior in 1862, and still held that position in 1865 when Matthew Quinn, bishop-elect of Bathurst, appealed for helpers for his new Australian mission. Most of the Community volunteered, but five were chosen, and two young Charleville women immediately asked to join them. Mother Ignatius, by then Mistress of Novices, began their training for the mission. At the end of July, 1866, Mother Ignatius and her six Sisters were ready to leave their homeland and loved ones to devote their lives to the service of God and his people in far-off Australia.
It is unfortunate that Mother Ignatius Croke left no diary, and that very few of her letters were preserved. Those that do exist show her kindly concern for the Sisters, and her deep attachment to her sister, Mother Joseph of Charleville. One incident shows something of her spirited concern for the unfortunate. When the Colonial Secretary, Henry Parkes, and other Government officials were visiting Bathurst in 1867, they were taken on an inspection of the Catholic Schools and Convent. After visiting the boarders' quarters, they were shown into the orphans' dormitory, and Mr Parkes peeped beneath the white counterpane on one of the beds to see if it was there "just for show". Mother Ignatius immediately proceeded to strip all the bedclothes from the bed to show him that the orphans were just as well cared for as the most well-to-do young ladies of the boarding school. A visitor to the Bathurst Convent in 1873 was astonished to find the orphan children looking healthy and happy, attending the same school as the other children of the town, and on the whole, more neatly dressed. Such was evidently not the case in the Government-run orphanages in Sydney. Mother Ignatius saw that the girls were treated with tenderness and love and given a thorough education, training that fitted their talents, and the chance of work with people who could be trusted to treat them with care and respect.
In opening the High Schools and Music departments to children of all denominations, Mother Ignatius showed that respect for the beliefs of others which had characterised her own upbringing. This willingness to share the gifts of education, culture and compassion was present in each of the Bathurst Mercy foundations. (Even a daughter of Henry Parkes, the "Father of secular education" in New South Wales, had part of her schooling at the Bathurst Convent!)
Mother Ignatius Croke worked with three of Bathurst's Bishops. While holding them and the priests in the highest esteem, she nevertheless insisted that they attend to the needs of the Sisters for adequate accommodation for themselves, their Novices, the Orphans they cared for, their boarders, and the hundreds of children they taught in Bathurst. By 1869 she had the Convent she needed in Bathurst, and eventually such complexes of Convent, boarding quarters and schools at all levels were provided in the other towns as the Sisters spread westwards. The early Sisters' generosity of service was matched everywhere by the co-operation of the clergy and the generous donations of the laity. Mother Ignatius died in Bathurst at the age of eighty-six. Sadly, no photograph of her was taken, that privilege being reserved for the Sisters who attained their Golden Jubilee of Profession.