Last chapter for ‘sacred ladies’ of Yass
THEY arrived by horse and carriage and left in the digital age of smartphones, the internet and rovers exploring the planet Mars.
For 145 years the Sisters of Mercy have had an unbroken presence in Yass. Until now.
In May this year, Sr Aileen Wailes finished as the last Sister of Mercy to minister in Yass.
“It was a most difficult decision,” said Sr Mary Bennett, the Mercy’s community leader responsible for the local region.
“But it became necessary when it was time for Sr Aileen to leave and no-one else was available to continue the ministry.”
The decision was a very sad one for Sr Aileen, aged 91, but she saw it as inevitable.
“Most of us are getting on and COVID got in the way of everything,” she said.
COVID and the digital age would have been unimaginable to Mother M Paul Fielding and her pioneering band of Irish sisters who set foot in Yass in December 1875.
They began a much-heralded ministry in the town that saw their 21st century sisters presented with a Certificate of Community Service on Australia Day, 2010.
That legacy included over a century of teaching in Yass’s Catholic primary and secondary schools, ministering to inmates at the local jail, or visiting the poor and sick in homes and the Yass hospital.
The sisters were known to kick footballs wearing their long habits on the town’s dusty fields.
They were especially celebrated for their close connection to the area’s Wiradjuri and Ngunnawal people.
When the Irish sisters arrived that day in 1875 the town gave them a joyous reception that included an Aboriginal woman famously stepping forward to welcome the “sacred ladies”.
In the 1880s, the sisters taught in a school for the indigenous children of Yass, the first of its kind in Australia.
A Ngunnawal elder, schooled by the sisters, later wrote about them with affection, recalling how they even encouraged schoolboy boxing bouts – “strictly supervised of course!”
All will be remembered at a farewell Mass for the sisters at St Augustine’s in Yass on 18 July.
While it’s a short walk down the nearby lane named for Mother Fielding, it will be a longer walk down memory lane for the Sisters of Mercy.
A long walk, too, for the people of Yass for whom the echoes of the “sacred ladies”, and their footsteps, will always be heard.