LORETO IN AUSTRALIA
by Mary Ryllis Clark
(UNSW Press, 2009, 336pp, hardback, $49.95. ISBN 978-1-74223-031-3. Available through Freedom Publishing)
This is an engaging story of how the Loreto nuns came to Australia from Ireland in the 19th century. It also describes the life of Mary Ward, the courageous English woman who founded their order in 1609 during the reign of James I.
As an educated woman, Mary Ward believed that young girls needed a thorough Catholic education, similar to that of boys, and decided to dedicate her life to God and the education of young women with the watchword, 'women in time to come will do great things!'
For many years this was a difficult and dangerous path to traverse as in 17th century Protestant England Catholics still practised 'undercover'. As well, her then radical ideas for women were initially thought to be heretical by the Catholic hierarchy.
However, in spite of excommunication, the banning of the Order and the imprisonment of Mary Ward in Munich, following a Papal Bull of Suppression in 1631, there was gradual and eventual acceptance from Rome of the Loreto Order/Institute.
Even within the Institute itself, only a few nuns had remained loyal to Mary Ward as founder.
However, despite these setbacks, over the next two hundred years Loreto schools spread to Ireland, Europe and India.
It was from Ireland that Mother Gonzaga Barry set out in 1875 with eight sisters for Australia. They first established Mary's Mount in Ballarat and then proceeded to build schools throughout Australia, soon proving themselves to be at the forefront of Catholic education for girls.
At times they received advice from another pioneer of Catholic education in Australia, Mary Mackillop.
Their vision was to provide excellent Catholic education for all young women with fees not charged for education, only for those who could afford to board. Later the nuns were to assist in the training of teachers and to become involved in tertiary education.
New challenges came after Vatican II with religious communities called on to revisit the roots of their founders. This prompted the Loreto sisters to re-examine the original constitution of Mary Ward.
Some sisters would experience difficulties, as for example with the change and ultimate disappearance of the religious habit, although it should be recalled that Mary Ward and her 'English Ladies' of the 17th century were obliged to wear lay attire during the post-Reformation period when Catholics were persecuted.
As well, while following a life of prayer and austerity, they needed to be free from being cloistered in order to carry out their work in the community.
Today, many Loreto nuns work throughout the world in projects for social justice in line with their mission of education for all.
Over the centuries the Order has grown, changed and developed while keeping to the vision and spirituality of its founder. An early influence had been the Jesuit Order in England which sought 'to see God in all things and practise discernment while being contemplative in action'.
This book is a must read for former Loreto students, but also an inspiration for all to have faith and perseverance in carrying out their mission in life.
Mrs Katharine Munro attended Loreto colleges in Melbourne and St Albans (England) and is an active parishioner in Ringwood, Melbourne Archdiocese.