Sister M. Agnes Graham

A biography written by Lesley Dickinson rsm

On January 10, 1881, five Sisters of Mercy came to Ballarat East. Until then they had been members of the community at Warrnambool, having been there since their arrival from Ireland in May 1872. The Sisters of this community were Mother M. Agnes Graham, her sister Sister M. Philomene Graham, Sister M. Joseph Howard, Sister M. Xavier Flood and Sister M. Brigid Cousins.

They took up residence in a cottage on the corner of King and Victoria Streets. Thus was the beginning of what would become Sacred Heart Convent of Mercy and the birth of the Congregation of Sisters of Mercy Ballarat East.

Ballarat East convent circa 1884-1886

Who was Mother M. Agnes Graham? We have few details of this lady. Born in 1839 in Belfast, County Antrim, Charlotte was the daughter of Hugh Graham and Charlotte Selina Savage. The date of her birth is not known, but she was baptised in Belfast on April 29, 1839.

Charlotte’s parents were wealthy and sent their daughter to the Sacre Coeur Convent in London. According to her younger sister, Josephine (Sister M. Philomene), their father, very proud of his beautiful and accomplished daughter, planned a marriage of elevated social standing for Charlotte. Charlotte, however, had other plans and after the celebrations for her twenty-first birthday were over, she quietly left for Baggot Street, leaving a letter for her parents. Her father vowed never to see her again, but her mother visited her whenever it was permissible. Fortunately her father eventually relented and in 1868 both parents consented to Josephine’s also becoming a Sister of Mercy.

Australia Calling

Charlotte had entered at Baggot Street in 1860, and in 1862 was a member of the foundation community, led by Mother M. Philomene Maguire, which went to Worcester, England. While in Worcester, Sister M. Agnes travelled to Liverpool to gain her teaching qualifications. Although the Worcester foundation was not a success, the Sisters struggled there for ten years before returning to Ireland and Ballyjamesduff. This foundation also did not prosper. As a result, when Bishop James Alipius Goold came to Baggot Street seeking Sisters of Mercy for the Western District in Victoria, Australia, there were Sisters ready to offer their services. The fact that Mother M. Philomene Maguire’s sister, Mother M. Xavier was superior of the community founded in Geelong, Victoria, may have been an added incentive.

Arrival In Australia

On February 7, 1872 Mother M. Philomene Maguire, her assistant Sister M. Agnes Graham, and six companions left London on the ‘Windsor Castle’ for Melbourne. Three months later, on May 6, the ‘Windsor Castle’ arrived in Melbourne. The Argus, A Melbourne daily newspaper, carried the following announcement:

WINDSOR CASTLE, ship (Messrs Green’s Blackwall line) 1,074 tons, Chas. Dinsdale, from London February 7. Start Point February 11. Passengers – cabin: Misses Graham, J. Graham, O’Mara, Wingfield, Howard, Flood, and Cousins (Sisters of Mercy), Mrs. Elizabeth Stodart, Mrs. Louisa Stodart, Mrs. Maguire, Mr. And Mrs. Pritchard and family (8), Miss Stodart, Miss Reidy, Miss Steggles, Dr. Thomas Somerville, Messrs Robt Stodart, Burton; and 27 in the second and third cabins. J. H. White and Co., agents.

A further announcement in The Argus the same day, and repeated in The Geelong Advertiser the following day, advised that: 

“the seven Sisters of Mercy, who arrived on Monday in the Blackwall liner Windsor Castle, from London, were landed at Queenscliffe, and then proceeded overland to Geelong to the Convent there”.

The Advocate, a Melbourne Catholic weekly newspaper, also let its readers know that seven Sisters of Mercy had arrived from Ireland:

Seven Sisters of Mercy – Mesdames Graham, J. Graham, O’Meara, Wingfield, Howard, Flood and Cousins – arrived at Queenscliffe, from Ireland by the ship Windsor Castle on Monday last. The Windsor Castle left London on the 7th of February, and on the whole made a pleasant passage. The Sisters proceeded overland from Queenscliffe to the Convent of the Order at Geelong. Their lot will ultimately be cast in a distant mission of the colony. May 11, 1872.

The announcements were not quite correct, however, as there were actually eight, not seven, Sisters of Mercy. The reporters probably would have been forgiven for the error as Mother M. Philomene Maguire was entered on the Cabin Passengers list as ‘Ann Maguire, married, 45 years of age’.

According to the shipping report in The Argus, the ‘Windsor Castle’ was a ‘comfortable passenger ship’ and the ‘accommodation for passengers for all classes is ample, the ‘tween decks especially being very roomy and well ventilated, and the saloon is after the same style as the other well-known ships of her fleet’. For most of the voyage, they experienced pleasant weather. This voyage was the first this ship had made to Melbourne.

The ‘Windsor Castle’ carried a varied cargo: malt, hops, beer, liquors, oils, paints, drugs, chemicals, perfumery and fancy goods, stationery, pickles, kippered herrings, grindstones, linoleum, Bradford’s patent Vowel washing, wringing and mangling machines, macaroni, vermicelli, kerosene globes to mention just a few, all very welcome in the colony.

A New Foundation

After some time in Geelong, Mother M. Philomene and her community left for Warrnambool in the Western District, the place chosen for the new foundation. It would appear that the Sisters of Mercy, Geelong may have had the deciding vote for the establishment of this new foundation as it is reported in The Advocate, April 6, 1872 that the day after a Profession Ceremony at the convent, “the rev. mother and one of the nuns left for Warrnambool and Belfast, with the object of ascertaining which will be the most eligible place for the establishment of a new convent, nine sisters being expected out from the parent house in Dublin.”

In Warrnambool the Sisters worked hard, conducting both a day school and boarding school. Those who had left Ireland as novices made their Profession, Sister Brigid Cousins on May 11, 1872 and Srs. M. Xavier and Joseph on February 8, 1874, the ceremonies being held in St. Joseph’s Church. Other young women joined the community and were received into the Order. The Advocate of April 5, 1879, reported the reception of Mary Lambert of Goulburn, New South Wales; and on August 6, 1881 the reception of Katherine Campbell of Emerald Hill (Melbourne), Sarah Campbell of Colac, and Eugenie de Pazanan of Marseilles, but later, Ballarat. (With the exception of Sarah Campbell, the other three would eventually become members of the Ballarat East community.)

The Ballarat Foundation

It was then decided that it was time to make a foundation in Ballarat. Mother M. Agnes Graham was chosen as Superior of the community, her companions being her sister, Sister M Philomene Graham, Sister M. Joseph, Sister M. Xavier Flood and Sister Brigid Cousins, a lay Sister, all having come together to Australia on the ‘Windsor Castle.’

It appears that expectation for Sisters of Mercy to come to Ballarat had arisen some years previously. On February 10, 1872, The Advocate contained the following announcement:

Convent Of Mercy At Ballarat
We understand that the Very Rev. Dean Moore, with the approval of His Lordship the Bishop, proposes to invite the establishment of a branch of the Order of Mercy at Ballarat. But as plans for carrying out the design are not yet matured, we shall defer further notice of the subject till some future date. On questions of so much interest we are unwilling at all times to make premature announcements, or to indulge in hazardous conjecture. In our case there is no reason or necessity for doing so.

There seems to have been no further news of the Sisters of Mercy until December 4 1880, when The Advocate reported that Very Rev. Dr. Moore announced their expected arrival within the next few weeks. Then a few weeks later another announcement:

Diocese Of Ballarat

The Community of Sisters of Mercy referred to by me some time ago as coming to Ballarat will, I hear, arrive very shortly. The place selected for their residence is, it seems, in the Melbourne road. The locality is a very beautiful one, and, doubtless the Catholics of Ballarat East will be glad to have the good Sisters located among them. The refining influences of such exemplary and highly cultivated ladies cannot fail to have a most beneficial effect on society at large throughout the whole community. The Advocate January 8, 1881.  They arrived on Monday, January 10, 1881.

Agnes Graham’s Ballarat
In her book They Came Uninvited - A Short History of Sacred Heart College, Ballarat East 1881-1994, Sister Anne Forbes RSM (Ballarat East) describes Ballarat as it was when the Sisters of Mercy arrived there.

Unlike many other gold towns which had known temporary prosperity at the time of the gold rushes, Ballarat was not to become a ghost town. Quite the contrary. Mechanical industries were forging ahead; pastoral interests were never more satisfactory; hopeful expectations prevailed amongst agriculturists; and Ballarat was to the forefront in the expansion of mining, which was promising excellent results. The Ballarat Courier newspaper painted a rosy picture of Victoria in its leading article on New Year’s Day.
“We have not even so much as the measles epidemic to upset the equanimity to our minds and worry our bodies, for that epidemic is rapidly disappearing. We are, in short, at peace with everybody, and at peace with ourselves – sound in body, sound in social circumstances, sound in all material advantages – so that everything with us when entering upon the new year, is clothed in the brightest of colours and aspects.”

The commercial life of the town was booming. Judging by the advertisements in the daily newspapers, the provision of fashionable clothing was very profitable. Recycling was quite an acceptable practice. Straw hats were cleaned, dyed and altered to all the newest styles and trimmed fashionably. Feathers, too, were offered for sale after being cleaned and dyed new colours. Even in the 1880s, baldness was a problem and a chemist and druggist in Bridge Street offered a hair restorer for 3/6 with the promise that it “promotes new growth, and a single bottle will positively restore hair to its natural colour in a few days.” Some goods were quite expensive. Artificial teeth, for example, cost five guineas a set. Cash was readily available because moneylenders were plentiful. Solicitors, tobacconists, and gold brokers were amongst those who were happy to add money lending to the services they offered to the public. All in all, Ballarat was a bustling hive of activity, where businessmen and mine managers dreamt dreams of continuing affluence.

Not all shared in the prosperity, however. Beggars, thieves, and drunkards kept the Justices of the Peace busy in the City Police Court. Women were frequently the offenders in these cases, and it often appears that there was a connection between mental illness and petty crime.

Children were going to feature prominently in the Sisters’ apostolic endeavours, and it is interesting to read the sort of misdemeanours they commonly committed:

“…breaking windows, stoning cats, stealing apples, letting off fireworks in the streets, cutting their names on doors, breaking shrubs and plants, and otherwise rendering themselves generally obnoxious.”  Ballarat Courier, January 3 1881.

The punishment for such “crimes” in the recent past had been to send children to prison for a limited period or give them a good sound flogging so as to inflict the maximum of physical pain but cause no permanent injury.

At first sight, it would seem that in Ballarat, the prevailing mood was also quite religious, for the Courier reminded its readers:

“We should also not fail to bear in mind that to a benign Providence we are indebted for all the advantages we enjoy …..The curse of atheism, or any other “ism” of an equally baneful kind, has happily not found a home here.”

A closer scrutiny of the newspapers of the day shows, however, that the sectarianism that characterised the 1870’s after the passing of the Education Act in 1872 was still very much alive. A long article was published on the expulsion of priests (notably Jesuits) from France and the first reason given for the action of the French Government was that the Jesuits had protested against public schools. The editor of the Ballarat Courier concludes his leader by applauding the French Republic which “has thus purged itself of what was proving itself a great pest; and the lesson thus conveyed to other races is both interesting and instructive.”

The Church here in Ballarat had critics from within its own ranks too. A letter to the Courier on February 14, 1881, signed “A Catholic” complained of the Irish priests: “If all the Catholic priests now being imported for foreign missions are of the same class as we get in this country, it is not to be wondered at if the old faith is fast crumbling to dust. The large number of rough youngsters we get out annually from All Hallows College turn their attention to politics and money-making.”

In the light of these prevailing attitudes, it is not surprising that when the Sisters of Mercy finally arrived in Ballarat, one of the first things they had to contend with was a leading article in the Courier of January 14 pointing out the welcome which was extended to newcomers in Victoria as long as they did not join “with their refractory brethren here of the Church of Rome, to agitate or intrigue against our Education Act, or do anything that would cause the least annoyance to France.” As this article specifically mentioned the Sisters of Mercy, the newly arrived community or someone championing their cause must have protested immediately because the following day, the Courier was quick to try to set the record straight. To reassure their readers that the newcomers were not French refugees, they reported (inaccurately) that “English, Scotch, and Irish Sisters of Mercy had lately arrived in Ballarat” and they added – “As we have no quarrel with the fair sex of any denomination we take the earliest opportunity to assure these ladies that our leader of yesterday did not in any way refer to them.”

On a more mundane level, the nuns would have had to cope with another unpleasant factor – the Ballarat weather. The summer of 1881 was a particularly hot one, and the temperature registered 102 degrees in the shade on several days in January. Lorries carrying large blocks of ice, each weighing 250 pounds, were a familiar sight as they travelled up Lydiard Street to the Ballarat Ice Company, ensuring local residents a constant supply during the summer months. Many cases of sunstroke were reported in the district resulting in all kinds of aberrant behaviour. In one bizarre incident, the victim of sunstroke had to be restrained after he had climbed up the pole of a dovecote and strangled several pigeons! Without the luxury of air conditioning, the Irish Sisters in their heavy black habits must have found the heat very oppressive.

Arrival in Ballarat

For the first year, the community rented a small place in Victoria Street, but before the end of the year, they acquired the home of a Mr. Thomas Wood for 800 pounds. This cottage, which stood on the corner of King and Victoria Streets, was the very picture of Victorian respectability. It looked little different from others along the street, with its small old-world garden, fish pond, and monkey-puzzle tree.”

The Advocate continued to supply its readers with information about the new Mercy community in Ballarat. On January 22, 1881 they reported:

The five members of the community of the Sisters of Mercy have arrived in Ballarat East, and taken up their residence there. Some of them have already commenced to superintend the tuition of the female classes in the local Catholic schools. This ought to give a still higher tone to morality amongst our peoples.

And on March 26:

On Monday afternoon I paid a visit to the residence of the Sisters of Mercy, in Melbourne-road, being desirous of knowing how these good nuns like to be located amongst us in Ballarat. I need scarcely say that I was received in a most polite and friendly manner, and I was very much pleased to hear that the community like Ballarat very well. As previously mentioned in the Advocate, there are five of the sisterhood here – the Mother Superior, Sister Mary Philomene, Sister Mary Joseph, Sister Mary Xavier, and Sister Mary Brigid. The good Sisters have had their hands full of work since they came, and, doubtless, an addition to the community would lighten their labours. Three of the Sisters have care of the female children in St. Alipius’ School – about three hundred – and the other two remain at home and teach a ladies’ school, giving instruction in music to pupils from other schools. The good Sisters engage in the visitation of the sick on Saturdays and Sundays, and as soon as arrangements are made they will also visit the sick in the hospital. I hope to have some pleasing notices of their labours to chronicle by-an’-by.

During the next few years, Mother M. Agnes and her community remained closely associated with Mother M. Philomene Maguire and the Warrnambool community. The Ballarat East community grew as novices and/or newly professed Sisters transferred from Warrnambool. As well, they acquired more property, for both the community and the secondary school commenced almost immediately after the Sisters’ arrival. Money was raised mostly as the result of the Sisters’ hard work, although there were some gifts: five hundred pounds left to them by Bishop O’Connor in April 1883, “for the establishment of a convent for the Sisters of Mercy”; occasional gifts of 50 or 100 pounds from a generous benefactor, Martin Loughlin, J.P.; and annually on Good Friday, an appeal was made at the Cathedral for the Sisters’ work for the poor.

During 1881, Sister Brigid Cousins (lay Sister) returned to Warrnambool, Sr Catherine Carroll replacing her. The following year Srs. M. Austin (Bridget Howley) and Sister M. Ignatius (Mary Lambert) joined the community. In 1883 Srs. M. Evangelist (Katherine Campbell) and M. de Sales (Eugenie de Pazanan) came to Ballarat East.

Sisters of Mercy, Ballarat East

In 1884 some changes occurred. First, the communities of Warrnambool and Ballarat East became independent of each other, the Ballarat East Chapter Acts recording that “Sister Mary Agnes Graham was appointed first Superioress, July 5, 1884.” Next, young women who had entered at Ballarat East were received into the Order and made Profession of Vows there.

The first two postulants to enter at Ballarat East were Honora Furey, from Warrenheip, a few miles east from Ballarat, and Winifred Drennan, from Crossley in Western Victoria. They were received on July 11, 1885, The Advocate of July 18 recording the event:

Recently two young ladies had the very great happiness of receiving the white veil. Their names were Miss Fury (in religion Sister Mary Baptist) and Miss Drennan (Margaret Mary), the latter was lay Sister. The interesting ceremony, which took place at the Convent of Mercy, Ballarat East was performed by the Bishop, who also celebrated Mass and officiated at the Benediction of the Blessed Sacrament. The Rev. Professor Delany, of All Hallows’ College, preached a most instructive sermon on the Religious life. The ceremony was quite private.

Thus Mother M. Agnes’s community grew, and, no doubt, their work also. They were now responsible for two schools, St. Alipius’, the local primary school and a secondary school, eventually to become known as Sacred Heart College, Ballarat East.

Another Foundation

By 1887, when the Ballarat East community numbered sixteen, it was considered possible to respond to Father Michael Nelan’s request for a Mercy foundation at Colac, Victoria. The Sisters chosen for this community were Mother M. Agnes Graham; Sisters M. Ignatius Lambert and M. Austin, both having entered at Warrnambool and coming to Ballarat East a few years later; Sister M. Magdalen Ryan, a novice; and Bedelia Moloney, a postulant who had entered on January 6, only a few days before the departure for Colac.

The story is told that the night before the Sisters left for Colac, Mother M. Agnes decreed that there was to be no noise or leave-taking before Mass the following morning. So farewells were said before the Sisters retired, those remaining in Ballarat having been told to have a “long” sleep. The travellers left at 6 a.m. and as their train left from the Ballarat East station and they went to the windows to take a last glimpse of the convent, they saw from each upper storey window of the convent a hand waving a flag. As decreed, no silence had been broken, there was no noisy farewell. It was January 10 1888.

In Colac, as in Warrnambool and Ballarat East, the Sisters were immediately involved in the primary and secondary schools, as well as giving religious instruction in neighbouring country districts.

As with Warrnambool and Ballarat East, close contact between the Ballarat East and Colac communities was maintained for some time. Decisions for reception and profession were made and recorded in the Ballarat East Chapter Acts.

Within two years of its foundation, Colac had become self-supporting and another decision faced Mother M. Agnes. She was given the choice of returning to Ballarat, where her sister, Sister M. Philomene was acting Superior, or remaining in Colac. She chose the latter. This must have been a very difficult decision for her as some of those in the Ballarat East community, including her sister, had been her companions since leaving Ireland in 1872.

End of the Beginning

It was now time for the Ballarat East community to elect a new Superior. On June 20, 1890 Sister M. Xavier Flood was appointed Superioress of Ballarat East. Mother M. Agnes continued to work and to train the postulants and novices in Colac until she became seriously ill in 1894. Then, at her request, the Bishop relieved her of the office of Superior, her place being taken by Sister M. Magdalen Ryan who had come to Colac with her.

Mother M. Agnes had a great devotion to Our Lady, especially to her in her Immaculate Conception. She died on December 7 1894, on the eve of the feast of the Immaculate Conception of the Blessed Virgin Mary. Her obituary, printed in The Advocate on December 15, told, among other things, of her humility, gentleness, patience, and of the lasting impression she made on her pupils with her practical instructions and encouragement. The Catholics of Ballarat East, no less than those in Colac, were grieved at the news of her death.