Mother Paul Fielding
A biography written by Ellen Yates
Eliza Fielding was born in the village of Rochfort Bridge in county Westmeath on 21 November 1834, the third child of God-fearing, strict Protestant parents. Eliza described her father as a quiet, genial man who faced life and its worries in a philosophical fashion, taking the good of each day without troubling too much about the morrow. Her mother appears to have been quite the opposite - active, industrious and with a sound business sense.
Eliza seems to have inherited her qualities, evidenced in her management of her father’s home and business and in the government of Religious Communities. She always spoke of her mother with deepest affection. “My darling Mother,” she would say: “she was the friend of all the poor of the village” (Life Story of A Valiant Woman p12)
When Eliza was fourteen her beloved mother died. Eliza seems to have turned to the Mother of God for consolation. At sixteen she had a strange dream in which she believed that Mary smiled graciously on her. After this dream, about which she was reluctant to speak, she made up her mind to join the Catholic Church. After many frustrations, she was received into the church. Her father, hearing what she had done, and angry at what he saw was a betrayal, ordered her to leave his house for good. So at the age of eighteen she was obliged to seek shelter and employment with strangers. She supported herself by working as a shop assistant. Her brother Henry, bitter about her “defection” determined to protect their younger brother and sister from Eliza’s influence by taking them into his own home. He forbad his Catholic wife to interfere in any way with their religious upbringing. Meanwhile her aged father asked Eliza to come home promising her freedom to practise her religion. She gladly agreed and assumed full responsibility for his house and business. He also allowed her to bring home her younger brother and sister. Willie and Maria subsequently became Catholics, married well and both had large Catholic families. Maria’s only daughter became a Sister of Mercy in Navan.
After the marriage of her brother and sister, Eliza and her father were alone. Before he died Eliza had the joy of seeing him received into the Church, and then she decided to enter religious life. The family home became the property of the Parish and on 21 August 1861 three Professed Sisters and one Postulant arrived from Tullamore to found the Convent of Mercy Rochfort Bridge. Tullamore had been founded by Catherine McAuley herself, with Mary Ann Doyle as the first Superior. When Eliza entered the novitiate in Tullamore, on 24 September 1861 she would undoubtedly have felt the influence of these two great women. After her Profession on 21 November 1864 Eliza returned to Rochfort Bridge as Sister Mary Paul.
In 1875 Dr McAlroy, Vicar General of the Goulburn Diocese, was sent by his Bishop, Dr Lanigan, to Ireland to procure a community of Sisters for the town of Yass in New South Wales. He turned to his uncle, the Vicar General of Tullamore for help. The Tullamore Sisters of Mercy received him well and he promised to return, after a visit to Kinnegad, to ask for volunteers. A violent storm caused his plans to change. He sought shelter in the Convent at Rochfort Bridge, and through this simple act of God, Rochfort Bridge and not Tullamore provided the founding community for the Convent of Mercy, Yass. When Dr McAlroy told the Sisters of the purpose of his visit three Sisters, Sister Mary Alacoque McLoughlin, Sister Bernard Grennan and Sister Paul Fielding, offered themselves for the distant mission. Four choir postulants entered for the mission. Kate Leahy of Kinnegad, Ellen O’Neill of Tullamore, Anastasia Mullaley of Tipperary and Margaret Nally of West Meath. Sister Mary Paul was appointed Superior and Sister Mary Alacoque Mistress of Novices.
On 21 August 1875 the Sisters left Rochfort Bridge for Dublin and a few days later embarked from Kingston Harbour for Holyhead and then to London. The trials of their journey now began in earnest as at first they were unable to find accommodation in London. After a day there the Sisters embarked on the ‘Gainsborough’. It had little to recommend it but its name! An agreement between Dr Nulty, Bishop of Meath and Dr Lanigan of Goulburn provided that the latter would pay the passage of the Sisters and for school furniture and other requisites, piano etc. M M Paul had reason to be grateful for this when, on their arrival on board the ‘Gainsborough,’ they were able to use the beds and mattresses she had bought for the new convent. The accommodation on the boat was pitiful in the extreme, with bare bunks so small that mattresses would not stay on them To make matters worse, Bishop Quinn of Bathurst had asked her to take charge of about a dozen young girls coming out to enter the novitiate in his diocese. She was dismayed to find, on their arrival at the boat, that he had made no arrangements for their accommodation. It was not an auspicious start for their journey! The food was very poor both in quantity and quality, but fortunately M M Paul had had the foresight to take in a goodly supply of nourishing provisions at Gravesend. However the party did have the consolation of Mass with five priests on board each of whom said Mass daily. The voyage lasted fourteen weeks and apart from a few storms was monotonous and uneventful. The Feast of Our Lady of Mercy was celebrated on board, the Captain giving a little feast in honour of the Sisters. On the morning of the 8 December, they were awakened by the cry “Get up and see Australia.”
On the following day they journeyed to Goulburn and must have been overwhelmed by the vastness and beauty of the land they had adopted. They stayed in Goulburn for three weeks as the guests of the Sisters of Mercy who led by Mother Ignatius Murphy had made this foundation in 1859. As she had already left in 1868 for the Albury Foundation, two hundred and seventy miles away, it is doubtful if the two foundresses ever met.
Yass was reached on the evening of 29 December and a great welcome awaited the Sisters. They first lived in the Presbytery, but the new convent was soon commenced, the foundation being laid on 16 July 1876 The building was blessed and opened by Bishop Lanigan on 5 February 1878. Meanwhile the Sisters had taken over the teaching of the girls and junior boys, in schools already established, and eventually they taught senior boys in St Augustine’s Boys’ School. As well as teaching in the schools the Sisters took a great interest in the instruction of the local aborigine community Somewhat later a boarding school for girls was opened.
M M Paul was devoted to the instruction of the adults of the town and to visitation of the sick and prisoners in the gaol.
Three foundations were made from Yass by Mother Paul. The first was in Murrumburrah in 1882. Like Mary Anne Doyle she was reluctant to open this foundation because of the youthfulness of the Sisters. However at the persistence of Dr Lanigan she agreed to send a community of six with Mother Xavier Leahy as Superior. Mother Xavier had come to Yass with Mother Paul as a postulant. Two novices accompanied the four professed Sisters In the spirit of Catherine McAuley, Mother Paul travelled to Murrumburrah with the Sisters and saw them settled into their new home.
In less than a year a request was made from Tumut for Sisters and the generosity of Mother Paul is evidenced in that Sisters Bernard Grennan, Augustine Mullaly, and Stanislaus O’Neill were chosen for the foundation, with a novice Clare O’Donnell.
While Murrumburrah was close to the Mother House Tumut was not. The journey to Tumut was hazardous and frequently loaded wagons and horses fell over the sides of the road. On one occasion when the Sisters were returning to Yass for retreat their coach nearly went over.
In 1888 the last foundation in the Goulburn Diocese for which M M Paul was responsible was made in Junee. Mother Stanislaus O’Neill was the first Superior and again Mother Paul accompanied the Sisters and returned to Yass only when they were well settled. Within the year she was being asked to bring Sisters to Wilcannia.
The Diocese of Wilcannia had been formed in 1887 with Rev J Dunne of the Goulburn Diocese as first Bishop. He appealed to his friend, M M Paul Fielding, to provide a Community of Sisters for the town of Wilcannia, where there was little practice of the Catholic faith, and no Catholic school. M M Paul, then fifty-five years of age, volunteered herself, feeling that the communities of the Yass foundation were well able to continue without her.
On July 2 1890, M M Paul Fielding left Yass with three Professed Sisters, a Novice and two Postulants, for a region which their friends assured them was a parched desert in the isolated Outback. In fact, the Sisters’ progress to Wilcannia was impeded by floods rather than drought! They waited eleven days with the Sisters of Mercy at Dubbo, before proceeding by train to Bourke. Finding that the river steamer they hoped to board had burst its boiler, they waited four days in the flood-surrounded Convent of the Bourke Sisters of St Joseph, before boarding another steamer to travel to travel to Wilcannia. One of the Wilcannia Community later described this steamer as an ‘old tub’, whose single tiny cabin had bunks with mattresses consisting of material, filled with stale onions and infested with rats! The Sisters spent most of the next few days on deck, and, when the steamer tied up at the river bank at night, they managed what sleep they could on the smelly bunks. They finally reached Wilcannia on 22 July, 1890.
The people of Wilcannia welcomed the Sisters with great kindness and generosity. The Sisters quickly settled into the two adjoining cottages provided rent-free as their living quarters until a Convent could be built. They immediately opened a Primary School and High School and were able to take a few girls as boarders. By the beginning of 1891, they had sixty Primary and thirty-two High School pupils, from both Catholic and Protestant families. When the Convent building was completed in 1894, the Sisters were able to offer boarding facilities to many girls from outlying areas, who otherwise would have had little opportunities of schooling. M M Paul’s universal kindness and courtesy broke down any prejudice in the district, and Protestant squatters and businessmen sent their daughters to the Convent High School because of their respect for M M Paul and her Sisters. Many young people and adults in the town came to the Convent to learn music.
By 1894, the Wilcannia Community had grown to ten members, with seventeen Sisters by the end of 1901. The Sisters accepted the fact that they could have Mass only once every few weeks, as the Parish of Wilcannia in the 1890’s covered an area of 36,000 square miles. Fr Davern rode his horse many miles between the tiny settlements and isolated sheep stations to bring the consolation of Mass and the Sacraments to his scattered flock. The Sisters taught Sunday School classes each weekend, and visited the sick and the families of their pupils.
The summer conditions in Wilcannia were always trying, but the summer of 1896 was the worst in living memory. On January 17, the whole town was shocked to hear that Fr Davern had died of heat stroke. Bishop Dunne came to Wilcannia and spent over three weeks there while the temperature each day soared above 120 degrees Fahrenheit (55 degrees Centigrade).
In his Diary, the Bishop reported numbers of sudden deaths, and wrote with great concern that M M Paul Fielding collapsed from the heat on January 24, and remained close to death for several days The Bishop summarized the exhausting weeks with the statement:
Remained at Wilcannia until 13 Feb. and will never forget my experience and isolation.
Of the ten Sisters in the Wilcannia Community at the time, eight were to live on in the trying climate and vast isolation of the Australian Outback for another fifty years or more. Like the Wilcannia pioneers, many other Mercy Sisters eventually served in Wilcannia and other Outback towns enduring the difficulties for the love of God and his people.
M M Paul remained Superior of the Wilcannia community until 1902, when failing health forced her to relinquish that charge. She died on November 23 1905, aged 71 years, and is buried in the Wilcannia Cemetery.
In 1950, when the Wilcannia Sisters of Mercy celebrated the Diamond Jubilee of their arrival in the town, the Mayor of Wilcannia, Mr A H De Goumois, paid a tribute which could apply to M M Paul Fielding and to each of the Sisters who has served in Wilcannia:
The Sisters of Mercy brought much that the people longed for. Their deep spirituality, their charity and their gentleness made them the welcome friends of all who felt the isolation of the outback. Their Convent became, and still is, to everyone a refreshing haven of comfort and kindly interest. So that to-day there are few, if any, in the West, who have not through the past 60 years benefited from their contact with the Sisters; and with pride we can add that all, without exception, hold the Sisters in the highest possible esteem.
ACKNOWLEDGEMENTS / SOURCES
- M M Gertrude Grogan, “Life Story of a Valiant Woman”, (1925)
- “Catholic Directory of Australasia” –Copies from 1890’s to 1970’s (from Archives of Archdiocese of Sydney)
- “Notes and Annals of Bishop Dunne, 1892-1902 (from the Archives of Diocese of Wilcannia –Forbes)
- “Wilcannia Records” (from Archives of Sisters of Mercy, Wilcannia-Forbes Congregation)
- “Held in Our Hearts” The Story of the Sisters of Mercy of the Goulburn Congregation. Eileen M Casey rsm, 2000
- Sister M Ursula Gilbert Melbourne Congregation
- Sister Mary Ryan Bathurst Congregation
- Sister Shirley Garland Goulburn Congregation