How many of us are aware that we are foundresses of at least five Dominicansdaughter congregations, three in Australia, one in New Zealand in addition to the one founded in New Orleans which is now incorporated into the Dominican Sisters of Peace?  As it is 150 years since the foundation of the New Zealand Dominicans, let us unite with them in their celebration by recalling something of their early beginnings.

The New Zealand Dominican congregation has its roots in Sion Hill in the second half of the nineteenth century.  At that time, emigration was well and truly integrated into Irish experience.  Bishops in Ireland found themselves answering the call of the Irish abroad to establish churches and schools in their new homes usually located in areas colonised by the British Government, places including Australia and New Zealand.

Bishop Patrick Moran, incidental in founding the New Zealand mission knew the Dominican sisters in Sion Hill well from his time as curate in the parish of nearby Booterstown.   Shortly after his appointment as Vicar Apostolic to Port Elizabeth, South Africa in 1869, he invited the Sion Hill sisters to come and set up schools there.  Being well pleased with the progress of their work in that part of the world, he was more than anxious to have sisters from that community accompanying him to his new diocese in New Zealand. In 1870, he approached the prioress, Mother Clare Elliott who was not long in finding ten volunteers in her community willing to take on the long hazardous journey to this faraway destination and to establish schools there.  The Archbishop of Dublin, Cardinal Cullen, knowing that the new foundation would be more demanding than the previous one in South Africa, stressed that the mission was to be voluntary and outlined a procedure to be followed for the security and wellbeing of each sister. In principle he consented, but he did ask some searching questions of the community.

  1. Is it the opinion of the chapter that the Foundation should be undertaken?
  2. How many sisters can be spared for it?
  3. 3. What amount of money shall be allocated for the undertaking?

In addition, each sister had personally to write a declaration in a bound volume stating that she was leaving the community of her own free will and would relinquish all claim on Sion Hill. They might be leaving Sion Hill, but it would be very difficult to return.

Mother Gabriel Gill, thirty-three years of age was appointed prioress of the mission.  The Cardinal’s questions and formal procedures did not lessen the zeal and enthusiasm of the ten sisters.   They were heading into the unknown and doing it with a great spirit of adventure.   The oldest sister to travel was Sister Agnes Rooney, aged fifty-nine who had been a novice in Cabra and the youngest, Sister Bertrand McLaughlin, aged nineteen.   This last sister was a relative of Sisters Maureen and Jeanne McLoughlin, whom most of us would remember and who died some years ago.  For his part, Bishop Moran was to provide a house and schoolrooms with furniture and the services of a chaplain until such time as the sisters could afford a chaplain’s salary.  He also undertook as in South Africa, not to interfere with the internal affairs of the community.          


Transcript of Mother Gabriel Gill’s Declaration

I, Sister Mary Gabriel known previous to my entrance into religion by the name of Victoria Margaretta Gill make for the satisfaction and legal protection of all whom it may concern the following declaration:                                                    

That I have of my own free will and choice and with full knowledge that I was not in any way obliged thereto by religious rule or obedience elected to be removed from the religious house of the nuns of St Dominic known as St Catherine’s Sion Hill, Diocese of Dublin in order to become a member of a new community or foundation of the same religious Order in the diocese of Dunedin, New Zealand under the jurisdiction of the Right Rev. Dr Moran and his successors canonically appointed, to which the Community of Sion Hill has contributed the sum of  900  – and I further renounce all claims or pretended claims other than those sanctioned by the Canons and Discipline of the Roman Catholic Church and the Rules of the Order which the civil law may give me over the present property of the Community which I am leaving, which may have been assigned to it as my dower or acquired by my personal exertions or which may otherwise through me or in virtue of my civil rights devolve to it according to the laws of the Catholic Church.

Dated this 30th day of September 1870   Sr M Gabriel  Witnessed on the 3 of October 1870 Father Fagan?

According to the Sion Hill annals, great preparations were made for the journey.

Trunks, in dimension rivalling lesser Arks, appeared, and were filled to the brim with every domestic, ecclesiastical and conventual requirement, that the idea of a new country suggested.

Bishop Moran was to travel with them all the way, a new experience for him as well as for the sisters. Catholic missions had begun in New Zealand only some years earlier, in 1833, mainly by the Marists whose option was to the MaoriThe bishop’s aim was to set up church structures in his new diocese to facilitate the worship of Catholics.  Many of these latter were Irish who had crowded into the area on account of the gold rushes. The Sion Hill sisters establishing schools there were to help him carry out this project.

Finally, the day of departure dawned.  The ten, accompanied by Bishop Moran travelled to Kingstown, now called Dún Laoghaire, and from there sailed to Gravesend on the Thames.  They then changed to the sailing ship the Glendower which was to travel straight on to Australia. The journey would in all take roughly four months using the sailing route down through the mid-Atlantic and then sharp east all the way past the Cape of Good Hope, finally reaching Sydney and making wise use of the strong westerly winds of the ‘Roaring Forties’. This sailing boat did not use the Suez Canal which was opened only in 1869 and was not yet availed of much by the British.

The sisters began their journey 5 October 1870 and reached Sydney, Australia 2 February 1871.  Sion Hill has no diary of this voyage, but some paragraphs from a letter from Mother Gabriel Gill in the archives there give a flavour of her character and of life aboard.

On board the Glendower, Feast of St Lewis Bertrand –  1870 

My own dear children,

…We started from Gravesend this morning at about six o’clock an hour or more before any Sr. rose – After dinner this afternoon (about 3.30 o’clock) our good father the Bishop (Bishop Moran) placed me in a little corner of the vessel frequented only by the priests, but sheltered from the severe blasts, to take a view of the coast of France.  Of course only the outline could be discerned in the distance. At that moment Sr. M. Vincent came near and was placed at my left, His Lordship still on my right.  Then he entertained us on some interesting subjects – One piece of information he gave us was that we are not ‘Clippers’ at all!  We are on a sailing vessel and he shewed us a ‘Clipper’ over towards the coast of France. It was a vessel called Clipper-rigged (sic) and not so large as ours…

I regret very much not having time to write separately to each novice, especially to my poor little ‘Capers’ who wrote me such nice letters and who took so much pains on my account to make me comfortable.  I would have preferred less fuss and attention, but in the last moment I could not bear to send any of my children away from me if it gratified them to be busy about me.

Wishing you all the best gifts and blessings that our divine Spouse can bestow on His own.

I remain my own beloved children, Your unworthy but devoted Mother in Jesus, Mary & Dominic,                                                  Sr M. Gabriel Pray much for us all.

Living the journey to the full was part of the experience of going on mission. In addition to a carefully observed prayer timetable, Mass on Sundays and often on weekdays, life was busy. Study of Italian and the reading of Dante by the more advanced, passed many happy hours away.  The sisters, hitherto enclosed, enjoyed a very interesting social life on the boat, mixing well with both Captain and passengers besides enjoying the friendship and concern of the bishop and his two companions, Father Coleman, and Father Walter McDonald of Panmure, Auckland who was returning to New Zealand after a holiday in Ireland.

Besides the pleasurable pursuits of a long leisurely voyage, the sisters twice endured the fright and threat of fearsome storms.  They experienced the first one very early on in the English Channel where the ship lost two anchors and had to return to Plymouth for repairs.  The second terrifying storm rose suddenly just as they had rounded the Cape of Good Hope on the evening of Christmas Day when the sailors were somewhat merrier than normal.  These latter were in a more unready state than usual to clamber up rigging and ropes to their posts while danger was just on the verge of threatening their very lives and hurling them into the deep. Thankfully, the howling winds and towering waves soon died down and the ship continued steadily on its course to Sydney.  From Sydney the group travelled to Melbourne to take the steamship SS Gothenburg, crossing the Tasman Sea and finally reaching their destination, Dunedin a little over a fortnight later.

When sisters and bishop arrived in Dunedin, they discovered that few if any arrangements had been made for them.  Father Moreau of the Marists, expected only one sister, instead there were ten.  They were put up in the presbytery while the bishop found himself accommodation elsewhere.  The sisters began school three days later.  Gradually it emerged that a collection had been made for their upkeep, but no one knew where the money was.  One of Mother Gabriel’s first acts was to check all the bills for their groceries and pay from the money which Sion Hill had given them.  Fortunately, this dilemma was promptly solved to everyone’s satisfaction.

Bishop Moran immediately set about fundraising for churches and schools. The people responded generously. Two more sisters joined the community in 1874, travelling out on the Janet Cowan with Father Coleman who had been with the sisters on the earlier voyageAs before, this was a journey not without its hazards.  The Captain and men on board were mostly Freemasons, with whom there was little ecumenism in those days and besides being inexperienced this Captain was also very fond of the drink.  On reaching New Zealand, it was Father Coleman who informed the Captain of his whereabouts.  The boat had quite some difficulty in getting to land but finally with timely help from on shore, all passengers and crew arrived safely to port.

The earnest and well-organised manner of working which the sisters had acquired in Sion Hill bore much fruit as in very few years, they had opened further schools and were looking for more sisters to work in them.  Six more arrived from Sion Hill in 1881, but more were needed.  In pursuit of this objective, Mother Gabriel Gill sought permission from Archbishop Kirby, thenRector of the Irish College in Rome to travel home and establish a novitiate in Dublin to recruit novices for the New Zealand mission. Bishop Moran was in full agreement, but Archbishop Cardinal McCabe of Dublin (and his successor Archbishop Willie Walsh) did not really want anyone from abroad recruiting novices out of the diocese.  According to Mother Clare Elliott, the Cardinal “feared a too great missionary spirit would get into the home community”.

Mother Gabriel travelled to Ireland in April 1886 and in June was warmly welcomed by Sion Hill.  She also made contact with her father, her mother having died four years before.  The noviciate was established on a property they secured rent free in Beaumont in Drumcondra.   Mother Gabriel recruited about eight young women who were enthusiastically prepared for their future work.  Unfortunately,the postulants were subject to many disappointments as their official reception ceremony was being continually postponed.  The difficulty seems to have been that the Archbishop of Dublin did not really trust Bishop Moran’s assurance that the novices were the responsibility of the diocese of Dunedin and that in consequence, he (Archbishop Walsh) would incur no expense whatsoever on their account.  After many letters between Mother Gabriel and the Archbishop, the long-awaited clothing ceremony did eventually take place.  Nonetheless the difficulties had been such, that in less than two years, Mother Gabriel decided to return to New Zealand with the eight new members she had secured for the mission.   Before leaving Ireland however, she sold what she could of the furniture and brought the rest back to New Zealand.  The journey to Dunedin on the SS. Orizaba took something over two months, from October 1887 to January 1888 as the steamship was much faster than a sailing vessel.   We know nothing of the route they took, but on arrival at their destination, Mother Gabriel and her eight novices were delightedly welcomed.

The Dominican sisters were nearly twenty years in New Zealand when they held their first chapter. By this time they were responsible for at least six or more foundations. All were administered from Dunedin, a centralised form of government the sisters had inherited from Sion Hill.  Their great friend, Bishop Patrick Moran died on 22 May 1895 and was very greatly missed.  His successor, Bishop Michael Verdon though a kindly man, could not fill the place in their hearts occupied by his predecessor.

The arrival of the Mercy sisters to Dunedin and the change of bishop were two reasons that caused Mother Gabriel Gill and the New Zealand Dominicans to look further afield for future foundations.  Through meeting with Bishop William Kelly, they were invited to make a foundation in his diocese of Geraldton in West Australia.  He invited them saying:

There is work to be done.  Are you willing to do for God what miners will do for gold?”

This invitation marks the coming of age of the Dominican Sisters in New Zealand.  By 1899, they possessed sufficient  self-confidence to enable them to accept Bishop Kelly’s invitation and make a new beginning in the totally different environment  of West Australia. In the largest diocese of that new country, Mother Gabriel and five other sisters threw themselves fully into the challenges of ministry in this mining area.   Mother Gabriel died six years later in 1905 and is today greatly venerated in that part of the world while the ministry in West Australia still lives on.

By the beginning of the twentieth century, three decades after the first foundation, Sion Hill had sent out between twenty to thirty sisters to Dunedin.  In the archives in that community, is the transcript of a fascinating diary by Sister Mary Louis Keighron of the journey of a group of sisters travelling to New Zealand on the RMS Orontes.   


The sisters journeyed on this ship which was making its maiden voyage, beginning on 24 October 1902 and reaching Sydney via the Suez Canal and Melbourne.  The Canal route was now being used freely by most shipping lines.  Sister Louis writes colourful accounts of the companions on the voyage, of seascapes, visits to places like Naples, of which she gives a vivid description, a storm in the Indian Ocean and meeting the sisters from Cabra in Adelaide. She also tells of unexpected get-togethers with others whom she had known in Ireland, which by this time was over half a world away.  She describes sports and pastimes organised specially for the passengers, events such as a Fancy Dress Ball.  She writes …

They are getting up to all kinds of games now.  We expect a cricket match in a day or two.  Quoits is the favourite game at present.  As I write, the deck is being prepared for a dance:  this amusement takes place twice a week.  We spent the whole day writing letters and post-cards to be ready for Port Said tomorrow.  No one will be allowed to go on shore, as Captain fears there may be cholera there…

Sister Louis arrived safely in Dunedin and laboured in the ministry there until she died in 1920.

At the present time the Dominican sisters in New Zealand while living in a vastly different world to that which faced their spiritual mothers are inheriting the same pioneering spirit.  Over the past century and a half, the congregation has seen many changes, many challenges to the religious way of life.  Nonetheless every Dominican sister in her heart “may walk backwards into the future with her eyes fixed on the past” bearing the conviction that the same Holy Spirit is at the helm and steering us all steadily and safely through the confusion of the twenty-first century.  At the end the Lord God will still the storm and bewilderment around us and “cause righteousness and praise to spring up before all the nations” once more. (Is. 61, 11b)

Sr. Mary O’ Byrne  

Congregation Archivist

Assisted by Sisters Helen McGing and Noelle Jennings