Mary Aikenhead’s Story

aged care residents sitting together having coffee in a garden courtyard

How Mary Aikenhead and the Sisters of Charity came to Australia

Rickety floorboards. Blinding salt water. Sunburn. 

The year is 1838. The Francis Spaight sails on a brave four-month journey from Ireland to Australia. There is only one goal for those aboard; to help the poor and vulnerable where the need was greatest. And right now, the need was greatest in Australia.

A group of ladies, known as the Sisters of Charity, had just volunteered (yes volunteered) to help the female convict population amid the horrors of the Australian penal colony. 

On the final day of the year 1838, the Sisters arrived at Sydney’s port. And guided by their leader Mary Aikenhead, their patron saint, Mary of the Angels, and the Holy Spirit, they began their work in helping those who needed it most, beginning the legacy of what we know today as St Vincent’s hospitals, aged care and more.

an aged care resident reading a book with a staff member smiling at him

The story continues

Upon cessation of convict transportation and the closure of the Female Factory in 1848, the Sisters left Parramatta. They continued their ministry to the sick and poor by opening St Vincent’s Hospital Sydney in 1857 at Potts Point.

In 1857, the Sisters of Charity established the first St Vincent’s hospital in Sydney.

The facilities they established in Australia are now in the care of the Mary Aikenhead Ministries, with St Vincent’s Health Australia growing to become one of the nation’s largest Catholic health and aged care provider. We are a leader in clinical care, research and education, and we operate an expanding number of private hospitals, public hospitals, aged care services and co-located research institutes along the east coast of Australia.

 It is the legacy entrusted to us by the Sisters of Charity that inspires us to continually strengthen and grow our mission and serve with dignity those who entrust us with their care.

an aged care staff member talking with a resident over some documents

The first Sisters of Charity first aged care home

The first dedicated facility for the elderly established by the Sisters of Charity in Australia was at Kangaroo Point, in Brisbane, Queensland.

Land at Kangaroo Point was donated in the 1950s to the Sisters of Charity to build Mt Olivet Hospital, the first modern hospice in Queensland. Soon afterwards, the Sisters’ thoughts turned to how best to address the on-going need for dignified facilities for the frail, aged and infirm.

Building on the generous support of their local community, the Sisters purchased neighbouring plots of land as they became available. They and their Board researched the evolving discipline of gerontology and sought ideas from Australia and overseas.

aged care residents gathered around a performer playing the piano

By 1967, just 10 years after the opening of the hospice, they had approval from the Congregation to proceed with construction of a residence for aged persons and a unit of nursing home accommodation. The new facility was named Marycrest, after a Sisters of Charity aged care facility in California, USA.

Due to the evolving discipline of aged care services, it would be another 10 years before the aged care facility finally opened on 11 December 1977.

The architect for both St Vincent’s facilities on the site was Frank Cullen, who gave the buildings a unique “hot-modernism” architectural continuity.

In the years that followed, the Sisters of Charity expanded their aged care services at other locations in Brisbane, Sydney and Melbourne, paving the way for what is now one of Australia’s leading Catholic aged care providers – St Vincent’s Care.

Why the legacy matters

 The legacy of the Sisters of Charity and Mary Aikenhead matters because it reminds St Vincent’s’ people of the importance of the work we do today and the sacrifices that have been made to get to this point.

Every day, St Vincent’s’ people are reminded that their work means something and that it has meant something for over 170 years.

If you’re interested in being a part of that legacy, you can look at some of our current vacancies here.