Gloucester Street, The Rocks NSW 1904 [1]

Sisters of Saint Joseph arrive in The Rocks area of Sydney, New South Wales

On the evening of 6 March 1880, two Sisters of Saint Joseph arrived in Gloucester St, Sydney to take up residence in a small rented cottage to which they invited the needy of the Rocks area – women and children who were homeless, aged or orphaned – who had nowhere else to go. Sr Josephine Carolan, in her Memoirs held in the Congregational Archives and used with permission, tells of their first night and morning there:

Sr M. Ignatius (Griffin) and I were the first two Srs in this Providence. Some others came soon.

We opened on the 6th March and we had a canvas stretcher and a mattress and we were laughing and asking each other who would take the floor and who the stretcher. It ended by me taking the floor and she to take the other.

We had plenty of house linen and blankets but I don’t know what we did for pillows. We had arranged with a Catholic woman next door who came to ask us if we had anything for our tea and we had not as we had not thought of it. She sent us our tea and said she would come and take us to the church in the morning – St Michael’s.

We were up and dressed waiting when the daughter of the old woman next door brought in breakfast. I asked how she had got in and she said ‘The front door was not locked and it is too late for Mass’ so we just looked at each other and had to laugh. We were out all day collecting and getting things.

So began the ministry of the Sisters of Saint Joseph in Sydney. They had arrived there after leaving Queensland in difficult circumstances. Bishop James Quinn, who had initially welcomed the Sisters and appreciated their ministry of teaching, had very different ideas as to how they should live their religious lives. While the vision of both Mary MacKillop and Julian Tenison Woods had been that of a Congregation centrally governed by the Sisters and therefore able to move freely across dioceses as the need arose, James Quinn wanted them to be a Diocesan Congregation governed by himself. It became impossible for the Sisters to stay and after ascertaining that Archbishop Vaughan of Sydney would accept their rule of life, the Sisters came to Sydney.

Rather than set up schools as other religious orders were already doing, the Sisters devoted themselves to looking after the poor and needy in The Rocks area. They opened houses called ‘Providences’ so called because they relied on God’s providence through the generosity of good and generous people – both Protestants and Catholics – who supplied what was needed over the years.

Srs Ignatius and Josephine – these two resilient and dedicated Sisters were quickly joined by seven women and children. It was not long before the little house in Gloucester St became overcrowded and the move was made to find bigger premises as other Sisters and needy people joined them, finally ending up in a three-storey house in Cumberland St near the corner of Lower Fort St where they stayed until the bubonic plague forced them out of The Rocks area at the beginning of the new century.

Monica Barlow rsj


[1] Gloucester Street (01/01/1904 – 31/12/1904), [A-00012538]. City of Sydney Archives, accessed 03 Mar 2021,