An impending crisis

Source: Archives of Propaganda Fide, Rome: SOCG 1873 vol. 1000, ff. 1387-1394.]

At the beginning of September 1871, while I was in the Convent of St Joseph at Kadina, I was informed by letters from Adelaide that the Reverend Bishop no longer held that Convent in good regard, nor the Sisters generally.

I returned without delay, and on the 7th of September went with Sister Teresa to the Bishop. He said that he had sent a letter to me at Kadina in which I was directed to bring Sister Ursula from Kadina, since Fr. Kennedy had complained to the Bishop that the Sister seemed unfit for the Institute. Since on the previous day I had returned from Kadina, where I had heard Fr. Kennedy praising this same sister, I suspected that some mistake had been made. I made this known to the Bishop. But he would not listen. He said that Fr. Kennedy had complained through Fr. Corcoran, and that I was to return immediately to Kadina and remove Sister Ursula.

Then he complained about the number of Sisters in the Mother House: how useless they were; what could he think of the frequent singing in our Schools?; that many other things were to be changed; there were too many ignorant Sisters, so that this was a cause of shame to him, as had happened when he visited his friends in Victoria. He thought all should be examined and those incompetent to teach dismissed, so that they could save their souls in the world and earn a proper livelihood. He added that higher subjects should be taught, particularly music; he himself knew well that many Sisters could teach this, so it could be done. He did not wish to have so many Sisters in the City itself: 4 for one and 2 for another school would suffice.

I inquired what would become of the schools for the poor: ‘These will have the Dominican Religious’. And what of the Convent?: ‘They will also have that. A small house will be sufficient for you’. He wished that we should procure something of this kind for ourselves. Since he permitted only a certain number of Sisters to live in the Mother House, I asked him what was to be done with the sick (we were accustomed to send them to the Mother House, where they were cared for by Dr Gunson in his charity). The Bishop replied: ‘Each Convent can care for its own sick’. He would send this instruction to the priests who supervised the Schools: the Sisters were to make their annual retreat in their own house; all the houses were to be separate, having nothing to do with the house in Adelaide; he himself would care for the latter, nor would there be a Superior there. I said that I hoped it was not his intention to dismiss any professed Sisters, ill-educated or no. He made no reply to this question but seemed disturbed in mind, complaining of a certain Sister who, a few days before, had written a letter giving her opinion concerning the prayers of the children, a matter which His Lordship and the Sister had discussed together.


On the evening of the day on which I went to Kadina His Lordship directed that no Sister should go to the Schools on the following day, since they were to be examined. On September 8th. Fathers Horan and Murphy went to the Convent a second time, firstly that they might examine the Sisters, secondly that an inventory might be made of the things the Sisters had brought to the Convent.

The Sisters who had taken the place of others in teaching were not examined at all. Those who were called were from the Orphanage and the Providence, also a few of the juniors who taught under the direction of the Seniors, the Sisters engaged in domestic duties, and the sick who had the strength to leave the dormitory. The priests went themselves to the dormitory, refusing to take the Superior’s word that those who remained were too ill to leave it.

When the priests returned a second time their manner of questioning very seriously afflicted all the Sisters, to the point where the Superior was unable to bear it and objected to their way of acting as one which a well-disposed layman, not to mention a priest, would not have used and accused them of taking advantage of both the condition of the Sisters who were unable to help themselves, and the absence of the General Superior.


From that time until the day before the inquiry I neither saw the Bishop nor heard from him. On the day before the inquiry he told me to go to Bagot’s Gap. Since I had heard so much about changing the Rule but nothing certain, and since at the same time news came from Bathurst from Fr. Woods asking that I send Sisters there, I very much wanted to see the Bishop concerning these matters so that I might have a clear idea of his thinking. But before I could see him I was told that, while I was at the school, the Bishop had come to the Convent and had ordered me to go to Bagot’s Gap. He dismissed Sister Ursula for recalcitrance. Then he went to the Orphanage, where he proposed the new Rule to some of the Sisters there. One of the Sisters, having said she preferred to live under the old Rule, was dismissed from the Convent etc. Since I did not have the necessary money I was unable to start my journey. Therefore I stayed with the Sisters. I felt I could not leave them without help, and I thought I should at least see the Bishop before I left. I went to my Director, who advised me to see the Bishop.

Returning home, I heard that Fr Horan was there questioning some of the Sisters. He said that the change of the Rule was of no account, and that he wished to be a true father and friend. I was not able to reconcile this with what I had recently heard elsewhere.

When Fr. Horan had finished his inquiry I spoke with him. Fr. Horan said I was not to go to Bagot’s Gap but to St John’s, early the following morning. When I said that I greatly desired to speak to the Bishop he said he did not think the Bishop wished to see me, but that he was prepared to tell the Bishop anything I wished to say to him. Since there were so many rumours about changing the Rule, I said I wished to hear from the Bishop’s mouth what these changes might be. Fr. Horan replied: There will be choir Sisters and lay Sisters; each Convent will be subject to the local priest; there will be no bond between the houses, nor with the house in the City; no appeal can be made to anyone except the Bishop. Since this was so opposed to our Rule, I said I could not in conscience remain in the Institute. Then he brought up my letter to the Bishop and condemned it vehemently. There was much talk between us, which it would take too long to recount.

However, I remember that I said, “Why not call a Chapter of the Sisters to which this matter could be proposed?.” He said the Bishop was the Chapter and the wishes of the Bishop should be sufficient. I asked him whether the matter could be postponed until Fr. Woods, the founder of the Institute, should return. Fr. Horan replied with indignation that His Lordship would hear neither Fr. Woods nor others.

Among other things, he added that the Sisters considered Fr. Woods as the Bishop, but that Fr. Woods was not the Bishop. I dared to observe in the wake of this that there was no necessity for Fr. Woods to be the Director, but that changing the Rule was a matter of cardinal importance. Finally Fr. Horan asked me “As I understand it, you are not going to St John’s tomorrow?.” “Father”, I said, “how can I, under that Rule?” I spoke with deliberation because I feared to refuse, nor was I willing to give the Sisters any reason to think that I accepted the new Rule. At this point Fr. Horan left, saying that the Bishop would see me on the following morning.


The Sisters asked me what they should do about the new Rule. My constant reply was always: Each one should do what would most please God; they should not try to please Man, but rather choose what they would want to do at the moment of death; nor were they to follow my example. I left them in the hands of God with fullest confidence, since I am persuaded that if they seek the will of God alone in this matter, He will not permit them to take a wrong path. To one in particular who urged me with – as I feared – a wrong intention I said, “Read the formula of your profession and then decide.”


1 Atmosphere of hostility

2 Trouble with Bishop Sheil