One of the smallest religious communities in Australia but one of the largest worldwide, the Daughters came to Adelaide in 1954 and began serving meals to men sleeping in the parklands and nearby boarding houses. Today they are still the trustees of the Hutt St Centre which prides itself on retaining the their spirit and charism.
Perhaps lesser known is the Sisters’ connection to St Vincent de Paul who in 1633 co-founded the Daughters of Charity as a society of apostolic life. He did so with St Louise de Marillac, a remarkable French woman who came from an aristocratic family but dedicated her life to serving the poorest of the poor.
St Vincent and St Louise had a vision of Church which resonates with many Catholics today because it was grounded in lay men and women living the Gospel by serving the less advantaged. They inspired Frederic Ozanam to set up the St Vincent de Paul Society 200 years later, an organisation which touches so many lives today through its Vinnies shops, Fred’s Van, home visitations, shelters for the homeless and advocacy for a more just society.
The founders of the Daughters of Charity were radical for their time – breaking the tradition of Religious women living monastic, cloistered lives and having little contact with people suffering in the streets.
I was privileged this month to meet Sister Maeve O’Brien DC (story p16-17) who, like many Religious women and men, has been quietly doing God’s work in the poorest, most remote places of the world. The courage and faith of such missionaries is not talked about enough, especially at a time when the Church badly needs authentic heroes to champion the cause.
Sr Maeve’s vocation has been guided by Vincentian spirituality and the teachings of St Vincent and St Louise. She proudly told me about the charter written by St Vincent for the Daughters of Charity in the 17th century. Not only is it beautifully written, the charter also has an eerie similarity to Pope Francis’ constant calls for an outward-looking Church. It goes like this: ‘May their convent be the houses of the sick, their cell a hired room, their chapel the parish church, their cloister the streets of the city, their enclosure obedience, their grille the fear of God and for their holy veil, modesty.’
Four centuries later, 18,000 Sisters of the Daughters of Charity continue to live this charter in their ministry in 91 countries. If their story is anything like Sr Maeve’s, their impact on the most abandoned will be enormous.
Here in Adelaide there are two other Sisters besides Maeve;
Sr Carole, who ministers to the Hutt St Centre and Sr Cath, who works at the Vinnies Refugee and Migrant Service. Society has changed dramatically since these women answered the call of God but the need for people like them who have dedicated their lives to helping others is much the same.