Mary McKillop Catholic Church

Josephite Nun's Habit

The Story

Title(s) of Object:

Nun’s habit.

Brief Description of Object:

Brown nun’s habit (displayed on mannequin in case).

Location of Object:

Mary MacKillop Hall and Museum, Calle Calle Street, Eden.

Accessibility of Object:

The habit forms part of the collection of the Mary MacKillop Hall and Museum Management Committee, the organisation responsible for overseeing the operation of Mary MacKillop Hall and Museum.

Mary MacKillop Hall and Museum is open every day except Christmas Day between the hours of 9.00 am and 4.00 pm.

History and Provenance of Object:

Mannequin dressed in the brown habit of the Order of the Sisters of St. Joseph of the Sacred Heart, displayed in a glass case with a Mary MacKillop Toile.

The establishment of the Order of the Sisters of St. Joseph of the Sacred Heart in Eden was as the result of the tragedy and heartbreak of the wreck of the Ly-ee-moon off nearby Green Cape in 1886.

Operating on the Melbourne to Brisbane run, the fast and luxurious steamer Ly-ee-moon left Melbourne’s Queen’s Wharf on 29 May, 1886 on route to Sydney. At about 9 pm the following evening she struck the treacherous Green Cape Point. Within ten minutes the forepart had broken away, drifting towards shore with many of those who had sought refuge in the rigging being hurled into the sea. The waves were so strong that by morning nothing but the masts of the after part were visible.

At least 71 lives were lost in the tragedy, although due to the incomplete nature of the passenger list, exact numbers remain uncertain. None of the steerage passengers survived, and, after a six hour rescue operation, only five passengers, nine crew and the steward were saved. Among those who perished in the wreck was Flora MacKillop, “…mother of the Mother Superior of St. Joseph’s Provident Institution…” on her way to Sydney with goods to help raise money for her daughter’s charity. She had been one of the saloon passengers.

Mother Mary’s emotional state at the news of Flora’s death is evident in her letters. She wrote to her sister Annie: “Poor, dear, long-suffering Mamma, I am sure she has gone to a well-deserved rest… She has had no end of Masses today, and more will be continued during the week…God grant our darling Mother’s body may be recovered…”

Finally found by the crew of the steamer Captain Cook on 4 June along with a number of others, Flora’s body was reportedly unmarked by sharks or the waves pounding against the rocks. She was completely naked except for her Scapular. Despite the tragic circumstances of her mother’s loss, Mary’s faith never wavered, and she even saw the hand of God in her recovery, as is evident in a letter to her brother Donald. She wrote: “Hers was the only body picked up by the pilot boat, and the only body found anywhere without being injured by either the rocks or the sharks. The scapular she had so loved was on her neck. How it remained on seems miraculous, and is, I believe.”

It was this scapular that identified her as being of the Catholic faith. Once her mortal remains were brought back to Eden, local residents treated her with the greatest respect they could offer the dead. She was laid out in the best room of the Pier Hotel and cared for by a group of women with flowers, their presence and their prayers until she could be taken back to Sydney for burial.

Flora’s funeral was held at St Michael's Church, Lower Fort Street, The Rocks (Sydney) in June 1886, the Reverend Father Murphy SM, conducting the mass. The church was reportedly filled to overflowing with Mother Mary and many of her nuns attending. She was buried at St Charles Cemetery at Ryde but her body was later moved to the North Ryde Cemetery where it still rests.

Mary was so touched and appreciative of the kindness shown by the Eden community that she promised to establish a Convent and school in the town. This came to fruition in August 1891 when three Josephite nuns, Sisters Joseph Mary, Mary de Sales and Mary Beatrice, landed at Eden wharf beginning what would be more than a century of Catholic education in the small township.

From their arrival until construction of a purpose built school in 1912, the Sisters taught the students of St. Joseph’s at either end of the little weatherboard Our Lady Star of the Sea Church. It was there that Mother Mary MacKillop taught and inspected students during her visits to the area in 1899 and 1901.

In 1891, a bazaar was held to aid with the St. Mary’s Convent Building Fund, and in September a large gathering witnessed Bishop Dr. Higgins officially open and bless the “…new convent…” For around 65 years, the Eden Convent provided boarding facilities for those students living in outlying areas, catering for between twelve and thirty boarders a year. School fees were kept to a minimum, the average collected in Eden during 1899 being just eight shillings and six pence (or about 85 cents).

The Convent also became a focal point for the needy, people seldom being turned away empty handed. This was particularly true during the harsh years of the Great Depression when there was little in the way of government welfare support. The nuns themselves also lived lives of penury, although the local community took them into their hearts, providing what they could in the way of fresh farm produce, fish, eggs and meat.

The Convent and school quickly became part of the social fabric of the town. As well as providing religious and secular education, the nuns also played a vital role in the provision of cultural activities such as music lessons. Fundraising balls and concerts were a highlight of the Catholic social calendar with events being held to assist with operating costs. In 1910, the “…great success…” of the concert was reported in local media: “Quite the largest crowd that has been seen in the Eden School of Arts for a long time, was that which attended the Concert given by the children attending the Eden Convent School on Thursday night last…” The 1912 Eden Convent Ball was likewise a success, “…and was, as usual, largely attended. There were visitors from all the surrounding districts…150 sat down to supper.”

Ultimately all the convents in the Bega Valley Shire were Josephite, with nuns from the Order also establishing a number of schools during the 19th and 20th centuries and providing education to thousands of local citizens. They had Catholic schools in Bega (1884 – first staffed by the Sisters of Charity and then by the Josephites from 1926), Eden (1891 to 2010), Cobargo (1918 – 1968), Candelo (1900 – 1968) and Bemboka (1941 – 1954). There is still a Catholic Primary school in Bega staffed by lay teachers and a K – 12 Catholic School at Pambula Beach also staffed by lay teachers. Although the Josephites no longer staff any of the local Catholic schools their spirit and that of their foundress, Saint Mary MacKillop, still lives on the ethos of these institutions. Two Josephite nuns, Sisters Marie and Benedetta, also still reside in the Eden Convent.

After the 1880-built Our Lady Star of the Sea Catholic Church in Eden was decommissioned in 1992, a restoration project was launched by local parishioners. Named in honour of Mother Mary, it is now known as Mary MacKillop Hall and Museum and features exhibitions on the history and significance of Mother Mary and her order of Sisters. It attracts well over a thousand visitors a year, many of whom fondly remember their association with the Josephite nuns. The building is included on Schedule 5 (heritage) of the Bega Valley Shire Council’s Local Environment Plan and is perhaps the most photographed building in town.


Founded by Mary MacKillop in 1866, the Sisters of St. Joseph of the Sacred Heart was the first religious Order to be established by an Australian.

Born in Fitzroy, Melbourne, in January 1842, Mary Helen MacKillop was the eldest of eight children to Scottish immigrants Alexander MacKillop and his wife Flora. It was from them that her strong Catholic faith stemmed.

As well as being educated at private schools, Mary was also taught by her father who had studied for the Priesthood in Rome. With Alexander unable to support the family, Mary became the principal breadwinner, working variously as a shop girl, governess, teacher and boarding house proprietoress.

While working at Penola in South Australia in 1861-62, Mary met local priest Father Julian Tenison Woods who, like other Catholic priests in that colony, had been directed by the Bishop of Adelaide Patrick Geoghegen to establish Catholic Schools. Unable to find any teachers for Penola, Father Woods fixed on the establishment of a new religious order, the Sisters of St. Joseph, to run the school. Mary felt a calling to join and after teaching in Portland, Victoria, she returned to Penola in 1866 to found the Order, becoming the first member and Superior with the approval of Bishop Laurence Sheil. Mary established the Order’s first school in a stable in Penola.

Father Woods drew up the rule of life for the Order, which stated that its members be ordinary women living in small groups amongst the people, with no visible means of support, teaching poor children and managing charitable institutions for destitute and socially disadvantaged women and children.

With a major purpose being the provision of education and religious succour to the children of the isolated, the poor and the disadvantaged, part of the Sisters of St. Joseph’s mission was to “…go to any teaching environment no matter in what circumstances or isolation…” The Order spread first to Adelaide, other parts of South Australia and then throughout Australia and New Zealand.

After moving to a new convent in Grote Street, Adelaide, Mary took charge of the principal Catholic School there and adopted the religious name of “Sister Mary of the Cross”. Membership of the Order increased rapidly and by 1871, there were 127 sisters teaching in 41 schools, managing an orphanage, a house of refuge for “fallen” women and a home for destitute women of all ages.

Unfortunately, however, the clergy were not all supportive of the radical new order. Pressure rose in certain quarters for Mary to be excommunicated from the church for alleged insubordination and this Bishop Sheil did in September 1871. Most of the Order’s schools were closed and the Sisterhood almost disbanded. Five months later and just nine days before he died however, the Bishop rescinded her sentence in February 1872 and reinstated the Order.

The following year, Mary travelled to Rome to seek papal approval for the Sisters of St. Joseph, and after a new constitution, officials gave it tentative endorsement. Definitive approbation came in 1888. Unfortunately though, Father Woods found the changes unacceptable and a permanent rift developed between the pair.

Upon her return from Rome, Mary became the Josephite’s first elected Superior-General and travelled widely, establishing convents, schools and charitable institutions throughout Australia and New Zealand. Despite consent from the Vatican, however, some bishops continued to disagree with the Order’s central government and refused to allow the Sisters in their diocese, instead preferring to establish separate Josephite Orders under their own diocesan control.

Banished from Adelaide in 1883 for alleged drunkenness and financial mismanagement, Mary moved to Sydney. She was deposed as leader of the Order in 1885 but carried on bravely until her re-election in 1899.

Mary and her Josephites worked tirelessly, establishing several hundred schools throughout Australia and New Zealand; and at one time there were well over two thousands nuns staffing these – an incredible achievement in an era before fast, reliable transport or communication.

Despite suffering physical debility and being confined to a wheelchair following a paralytic stroke in 1901, Mary retained all of her mental faculties and remained active in the Order as Mother Mary of the Cross right up until her death in August 1909. She is buried in St. Joseph’s Memorial Chapel, North Sydney.

In 1972, Mother Mary was put forward as a candidate for beatification and canonisation, and the following year the Cause was formally introduced. She was beatified in January 1995 in a Mass celebrated by Pope John Paul II at Randwick Racecourse, Sydney; and was canonised as Saint Mary of the Cross at a Mass celebrated by Pope Benedict XVI in St. Peter’s Square in the Vatican City in October 2010. She was the first, and is currently still the only canonised Australian Roman Catholic saint.

The Order of the Sisters of St. Joseph currently consists of around 850 nuns living and working throughout Australia, New Zealand, Ireland and Peru.

Fabric, design, manufacture and condition:

Mannequin clothed in the full regalia of a Sister of the Order of the Sisters of St. Joseph of the Sacred Heart.

Mounted inside an enclosed glass case, a Mary MacKillop Toile is also displayed. Telling the story of St. Mary MacKillop in 31 line drawings, the toile is printed in a charcoal colour on white fabric. Commissioned in 1993 to commemorate the beatification of Mother Mary MacKillop, it was designed by renowned artist Pamela Griffiths who was also responsible for the Bi-Centennial Toile in 1988.

The religious habit consists of four parts – the dress, veil, headdress and belt with beads and crucifix.

The dress is brown in colour, long sleeved, pleated front and back on a yoke. It is gathered onto a waistband and features the Sisters of St. Joseph of the Sacred Heart emblem or monogram in blue across the front.

The veil is a rectangular piece of brown fabric folded into a pleat with a piece of stiffened board inserted to keep it back from the face.

The headdress consists of three pieces of white fabric - a pique dimity pinned in place to cover the throat and sides of the face; a rectangular coif tied just above and behind the ears and covering the forehead; a guimp which covers the upper breast and shoulders and is tied at the back of the neck and fastened at the back of the habits.

The black leather belt is wrapped around the waist, with rosary beads threaded through and a crucifix inserted through.


A Sister of the Order of the Sisters of Saint Joseph of the Sacred Heart.

Used by:

A Sister of the Order of the Sisters of Saint Joseph of the Sacred Heart.




Production date:

Comparative examples:

Works depicting/highlighting this object:

Historic photographs of this object:

Historic photographs associated with this object:

The Ly-ee-moon as she appeared when lost at Green Cape in 1886.

Courtesy of Mary MacKillop Hall and Museum. All rights reserved.

Eden wharf area, showing the Pier Hotel where the remains of Flora MacKillop, Mary’s mother, was laid out after the Ly-ee-moon wreck.

Courtesy of Mary MacKillop Hall and Museum. All rights reserved.

The Sisters picnicking in 1927.

Courtesy of Mary MacKillop Hall and Museum. All rights reserved.

Eden Catholic School girls, C. 1916.

Courtesy of Mary MacKillop Hall and Museum. All rights reserved.

A fancy dress bridal party ready for the 1922 Eden Convent Ball.

Courtesy of Mary MacKillop Hall and Museum. All rights reserved.

Sister Monica McMahon.

Courtesy of Mary MacKillop Hall and Museum. All rights reserved.

Maria and Jack McMahon of Kiah with their daughter Sister Brigid (Sarah).

Courtesy of Mary MacKillop Hall and Museum. All rights reserved.

Sister Rosemary Hart.

Courtesy of Mary MacKillop Hall and Museum. All rights reserved.

The particular significance of this Object:

[Currently under development]


Main theme:






Religious life in Bega Valley Shire

Other themes:












Domestic life

Social institutions

Birth and Death



Living in Bega Valley Shire

Challenging terrains: Getting about in Bega Valley Shire

Educating and learning institutions within Bega Valley Shire

Caring for the needs of others in Bega Valley Shire

Domestic life in Bega Valley Shire

Sociality in Bega Valley Shire

The phases of life in Bega Valley Shire

Remembering and honouring the people of Bega Valley Shire

Thematic storylines:

  • Developing the settlements, villages and towns
  • Tourism
  • Housing and accommodation
  • Churches and religion – Catholic
  • Education
  • Community organisations
  • Arts, culture and creative endeavours – Museums and heritage collections
  • Notable people and families

Geographically associated places / sites:

Associated / linked places / sites / items / people:

  • Mary Mackillop
  • Mary MacKillop Hall and Museum
  • Current Our Lady Star of the Sea Church
  • Ly-ee-moon wreck
  • Green Cape Lighthouse.

Heritage listings (statutory and non-statutory):

Further information:

Contributors to this ‘library’:

Angela George, Pat Raymond, Sister Benedetta and Mike Sheppard, April 2019.

Acknowledgements, Rights and Permissions:

Acknowledgement of Mary MacKillop Hall and Museum Management Committee Inc., Sister Benedetta, Angela George, Pat Raymond and Mike Sheppard.

© Angela George, Pat Raymond and Mike Sheppard. All rights reserved.

References and bibliography:

  • Balfe, R. R. comp. Shipping in Ports of the Bega Valley Shire Region 1803 – 1846, October 1995
  • Bega Gazette and Eden District or Southern Coast Advertiser
  • Bega Standard
  • Bega Times
  • Candelo and Eden Union
  • Cornell, John Bernard, (comp.) Local History Notes n.p., n.d.
  • Cornell, John Bernard. Most Obedient Servants on the Monaro and Far South Coast, John Bernard Cornell, 1994
  • Liston, John, School days by the sea : 100 years of education at St. Joseph's, Eden, St. Joseph’s School, Eden, C. 1991
  • Magnet
  • Magnet Voice
  • Martin, Sharyn M., The Dorl Family History
  • McKenzie, J. A. S., The Twofold Bay Story, Eden Killer Whale Museum, 1991.Monaghan, Gerard (ed.), Visions for a Valley: Catholic People in the Bega Valley 1829 – 1985, a history, St. Patrick’s Church, Bega, C. 1985.
  • Manaro Mercury and Cooma Advertiser
  • Pambula Voice
  • Perkins, J. A., Index to J. A. Perkins Papers, Monaro District Items 1823 – 1858 vols. 1, 2, Manly, NSW
  • Perkins Papers NLA MS 936
  • Sisters of St. Joseph of the Sacred Heart – History,
  • Swinbourne, Helen, and Winters, Judy, Pictorial History – Bega Valley Shire, Kingsclear Books, 2001
  • Sydney Morning Herald
  • Thorpe, Osmund, MacKillop, Mary Helen (1842 – 1909), in Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University
  • Town and Country Journal
  • Wikipedia, Sisters of St. Joseph of the Sacred Heart,
Photos courtesy of Double Take Photography


86 Calle Calle Street Eden NSW 2551