Teaching and nursing nuns

Scholarly essay written by Roxanne Missingham, Director of Scholarly Information Services Division, ANU

Folder 1: 42 folios including 9 biographical notes

Encompassing field drawings of nine teaching nuns together with each nun's own short, hand-written, biography; studio portraits on transparent paper of nursing nuns as well as dyelines, with hand-finished variations, of most of the above individuals.

While missionaries from Germany and France came to Papua New Guinea throughout the latter part of the 1800s, Nuns followed from a wide range of religious communities and countries.

Marie Louise Hartzer partnered Fr. Chevalier, Missionaries of the Sacred Heart founder, to establish the Filles de Sacre Coeur de Notre Dame (Daughters of Our Lady of the Sacred Heart) in 1882 in preparation to send nuns to Papua New Guinea.

A Sisters' convent was added and the first three French Sisters arrived in January 1886, opened a school 1887 (which also taught the children of government resident John Douglas), established the first hospital in Torres Strait and a charitable children's asylum serving New Guinea and New Britain. The Sisters therefore entrenched the MSC in the leadership of an emerging community. During this period (1884-1889) Thursday Island served as the point of departure for all Catholic missionaries to British New Guinea and New Britain. Setting up a base on Thursday Island mirrored the London Missionary Society (LMS) strategy since 1871 of establishing stepping stones across the Torres Strait and New Guinea. (1)

The Sisters of the Holy Spirit arrived in 1899, bringing a teaching tradition that continues to this day. (2)

Through the twenty first century nuns continue to arrive – including the Carmelites in 1934 (3) on Yule Island (CARM) and the Sisters of Mercy in 1956. (4)

The Nuns were committed to supporting local communities through social welfare, education and religious activities. They did, however, displayed a variety of prejudices and behaviours in addition to their general goodwill. Quartermaine (5) reports that:

An Australian Methodist sister writing about Dobu Island duties in the late 1890s said: (The new teacher) found her days fully occupied with school teaching, village visits, study of the language and sewing and every three weeks was responsible for the housekeeping at the sisters' home, looking after the fourteen girls and their work and play, conducting prayers with them morning and evening and occasionally acting as head nurse to the five (orphan) babies. (Sr Julia 1907:11)

She notes that Sister Julia’s descriptions on indigenous people include terms 'savages', 'heathen', 'primitive' and 'child-like'.

One of the more unusual visiting nuns, Marie Thérèse Augustine Noblet sought to use her position to “save” the Papuans:

In early 1921 near Marseilles, Archbishop Alain de Boismenu, called in as an exorcist, witnessed her recovery from immobilization and blindness; on Holy Thursday she received a further stigma, a purple host below her throat. Believing her mystical powers might help 'to end Papua's long pagan lethargy', Boismenu risked derision by embarking with her for Papua in September; it was no environment for a semi-invalid. At Florival, Kubuna (Mekeo), she was almost immediately professed, contrary to canonical regulations, as mother superior of the recently founded (1918) Congregation of the Handmaids of our Lord. Living alone with and sleeping on a corn-cob mattress like her indigenous Sisters, she is said to have 'trampled on the barrier of race'. (6)

From “healing hands and mobile feet”, Nuns progressed to become educated teachers through the mid to late twentieth century. The transition through to the 1960s saw not only changes in the activities of the nuns, but also a strength of commitment. Papua New Guinea was seen as an environment with particular challenges and an important national context given the clear need for independence:

In their early experiences, the pioneer sisters faced the ‘cutting edge’ from their Australian perspectives and the prevailing mentality. Following the western system of education and teaching the Australian curriculum of the colonial government, the sisters saw Christian education, literacy and numeracy as essential for the foundation of a free, democratic country. (7)

The role of nuns and other missionaries in seeking to convert, education and instil economic reform in villagers has been viewed through a lens of seeking to change society and culture, imposing encoded western values and philosophies. In addition, women missionaries were often in inferior situations to male missionaries, with less resources, status and support, to a large degree not unlike the Nuns in Australia (8) “Missionary maternalism” in Papua New Guinea has been explored as a theme by Huber. (9) She suggests that the complexity of gender identity was affected by the stereotypical view of women’s roles from the nuns. The alignment of “helping professions” and focus on assisting with the birth of independence reflects an explicit mother myth or mother role passed on through the nuns.

Interestingly, Dickson-Waiko places the role of the Nuns and churches in creating roles and awareness of Papua New Guinea women in a different context:

The Church was the first national institution in PNG to recognize women as individuals by providing the opportunity for them to organize as women and as citizens. The role of the churches as agents for change has been acknowledged by many observers but how they paved the way for women to become more active in their communities has been largely overlooked. Yet it was churches which provided the opportunities and space for women to move out of their homes and into the public sphere. This represented a major change within the churches themselves since they had always been bastions of the cult of domesticity and mission stations were the base for the so-called 'civilizing mission'. (Grimshaw 1989; Jolly 1991b) (10)

Such an approach of empowering women to be part of what Habermas defines as the public sphere takes indigenous women away from the early church and its “cult of domesticity” i.e. contribution to local village life. Situating it within the 1950s and 60s gives the particular role of nuns as role models and as participants in political culture through advocacy for independent greater significant.

The move from focusing on creating skills with an economic implication contributed to a new ear. Fahey notes “Gender relations have been transformed as a result of wage employment. Married women remain – as they always have – in the vital and produce for the direct consumption of the reproductive unit”. (11) The Nuns stories in these folios record the active decisions of women to move beyond the village, sometimes not supported by their parents. The Nuns encouraged young women to take up their vocation and have careers, representing a singular challenge to the traditional gender relationship.

Shortly before Elizabeth’s visit in May 1968, women were, for the first time, accepted in teacher education at the Holy Trinity Teachers campus in Mount Hagan. (12)

This collection

The folios in the section provide not just visual insights into teaching and nursing Nuns, but also their words.

The themes of resilience and dedication shine through in both the images and texts.

Nuns speak of their home, family and lives. They reflect on very complex issues such as going against their parent’s wishes to become nuns (Sister Mary Bernadette), the importance of continuing to study (Sister Mary Marcella, Sister Mary Balbina) and their commitment to contributing to Papua New Guinea (Sister Andrew Mary, Sister M Zita.

Do their views reflect national maternalism, a commitment to a new democratic nation or a desire for a much greater good? I hope that you, the reader, will pause to reflect on the nature of the contribution being made by these young women.

Sister Mary Marcella wrote:

I find life at the convent very happy. Mother Provincial has given me a chance to go on with further study and I’m very glad to have the opportunity to learn as much as I can so that I can help my own people.

Sister M Zita:

We do all kinds of works, beside the education of girls, nursing, teaching, cooking etc. As for me, I am ready to do anything for my people.

Sister Mary Balbina:

I am happy in my religious life. I be always thank our Lord for guiding me (to) the vacation.

Sister Mary Rose:

My work in the community is nursing which I like very much.

Sister Andrew Mary:

I like it very much to be in a Convent because we don’t live here just for ourselves but for our own people too. At present we go to visit the sick in the hospital and instruct children in the state schools and to the villages around Port Moresby and we do our studies as well.


(1) Ganter, Regina. 2016. “Missionaries of the Sacred Heart”. German Missionaries in Australia - a web-directory of intercultural encounters. Nathan, Qld: Griffith University. http://missionaries.griffith.edu.au/mission/missionaries-sacred-heart-msc 

(2) Kueckmann, Mary Anthida. 2014. “Holy Spirit missionary sisters to celebrate 115 years in PNG.” Keith Jackson & Friends: PNG Attitude. http://asopa.typepad.com/asopa_people/2014/11/holy-spirit-missionary-sisters-to-celebrate-115-years-in-png.html

(3) Discalced Carmelites of the Australia-Oceanic Region. n.d.. “Papua New Guinea Carmel of the Precious Blood Bomana, Papua New Guinea.” Discalced Carmelites of the Australia-Oceanic Region. http://www.carmelite.com/nuns/default.cfm?loadref=48

(4) Institute of Sisters of Mercy of Australian & Papua New Guinea. n.d.. “Our history.” Institute of Sisters of Mercy of Australian & Papua New Guinea. Stanmore, NSW: The Institute.  http://institute.mercy.org.au/about-us/ismapng/our-history/

(4) Quartermaine, Pamela Anne. 2001. Teacher education in Papua New Guinea: policy and practice. 1946-1996. PhD Thesis. University of Tasmania http://eprints.utas.edu.au/21298/1/whole_QuartermainePamelaAnne2001_thesis.pdf

(5) Griffin, James. 1988. “Noblet, Marie Thérèse Augustine (1889–1930)” Australian Dictionary of Biography. Canberra, ACT: National Centre of Biography, Australian National University. http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/noblet-marie-therese-augustine-7855/text13645

(6) Flaherty, Teresa A. 2008. Crossings in mercy: the story of the Sisters of Mercy, Papua New Guinea,1956 – 2006. Lewisham: Sisters of Mercy - Papua New Guinea Region.

(7) Huber, Mary Taylor and Lutkehaus, Nancy C. (eds) 1999. Gendered missions: women and men in missionary discourse and practice. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press.

(8) Huber, Mary Taylor. 1999. “The dangers of immorality: dignity and disorder in gender relations in a northern New Guinea diocese.” In Mary Taylor Huber and Nacy C. Lutkehaus, (eds), Gendered missions: women and men in missionary discourse and practice. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press.

(9) Dickson-Waiko, Anne. 2003. “The missing rib: mobilizing church women for change in Papua New Guinea.” In Women's Groups and Everyday Modernity in Melanesia edited by Bronwen Douglas, special issue, Oceania 74(1–2): 98.

(10) F ahey, Stephanie. 1986. Development, Labour Relations and Gender in Papua New Guinea. Mankind 16(2): 118-131.

(11) Flaherty op cit. p 235.