Queensland, Australia 1936 Sister Claire McAuliffe has been called from Dungarvan, County Waterford, to do God’s work in Jumaaroo, Queensland. Along with four other sisters she is charged with setting up a Catholic school for the education of the gold rush families. But life between the tropical Australian rainforest and azure ocean is far from the spectacular paradise it seems. Sister Claire finds life challenging in more ways than she can count, the heat, the terrifying creatures that lurk in every nook and cranny, the crocodiles and snakes, but far more worrying is the constant presence of the much loved mayor of Jumaaroo, Joseph McGrath. Why does a person so respected give Claire such cause for concern? Is it the cruel way he speaks about the Aboriginal people who live on the mission? A closed community run by a peculiar religious leader who seems to deeply resent the arrival of the nuns? As Claire learns of the manner in which the Bundagulgi are treated, she is forced to act, but nobody wants to upset the status quo, and a meddlesome nun suddenly is a dangerous one.
Release date: May 22, 2020
Publisher: Independently published
Print pages: 285
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Sisters of the Southern Cross
October 1, 1933
I hope this letter finds you well, my dear niece, and that you are continuing to enjoy your work at St Catherine’s. I am hearing wonderful things about you and your fellow sisters and the progress you are making in the school there. I’m sure the children of Cork City are blossoming under your tender care.
I am very much looking forward to my visit home. I can hardly believe it has been five years since I was last there for your final vows. A wonderful day for the whole family. Such a pity your granny didn’t get to see it. She would have been bursting with pride to see her little granddaughter joining the Ursuline community.
Your father and I have a lot to catch up on since neither of us are great men for writing letters, even if it is to one’s only brother. Your mother writes every month. If not for her, I’d have no idea what was happening back in Macroom at all.
Life here in Queensland is busy and hot as always, so I dream of the lovely Irish breeze, especially as the summer is coming here. I’m arriving into Cobh – how strange to no longer call it Queenstown – on the fifteenth of December, God willing, and I was hoping to call on you at the convent if it would be convenient? I have a proposal that may interest you.
Of all of my nieces, you are by far the most audacious, and I have a role here that might whet your appetite for adventure, as well as be a unique opportunity to do God’s work.
You probably know that Queensland is an enormous state, and while I am based in Brisbane in southern Queensland, I am 1,500 miles away from the Cape York Peninsula in the tropical north of the country. The area I mention, Cape York, is badly in need of a Catholic school. The town I have in mind is called Jumaaroo, and it is a thriving town as a result of gold mining, which was then followed by logging, sugar cane production and food growing.
There are many Catholic families based there now, Irish primarily but Italian and Polish as well, and there is no school to accommodate them. The parents face the upset of sending their offspring hours away to be educated, and even then, the school is a Protestant one. So you can see, Claire, there is a need.
I propose that you lead a group of sisters to set up a Catholic school in this town. I know you are young and have never taken on such an onerous task before, but I have faith in your abilities.
This is a young country. It is a place where the societal constraints of age, experience, class and family do not hold such sway as they would at home, and you will be accepted and welcomed with open arms.
There is a local man – well, he’s originally one of our own as they say – a Corkonian called Joseph J McGrath, who has very generously offered to build a convent and a school, entirely at his own expense. The gesture is a very welcome one. He is himself a devout Catholic and is anxious that the many people in his employ have access to a quality Catholic education for their children. Thank God for such men.
He is also the mayor of the town, and so you would have his full support. He is married to the daughter of a prominent Catholic family – also of Irish extraction, settlers though, not convicts – here in Brisbane, so the family’s credentials could not be higher. And so it would be with complete confidence in your safety and happiness that I would place you in the care of Mr and Mrs McGrath.
Claire, on a personal note, I genuinely think you would love it here. This is an incredible place, with animals and birds and all manner of divine creation that you would never otherwise see. While I know you had a desire to go on the African missions and do God’s work there, and in this role it will be white Catholics who will receive the benefit of your skills and grace, I promise you this position would fulfil you in a way dealing with natives – regardless of where in the world you would be sent – could never do.
There are natives here too of course. The Aboriginals, as they are called, are managed by other denominations largely, though of course there are Catholic missions as well. But you need not concern yourself with them.
There is a mission, I believe, quite near the town, run by the Seventh-day Adventist Church. They have said terrible things about our faith and are essentially a cult of some description, and so are best avoided. I do not know what they do there, nor do I want to. Our sole concern is for the Catholic families that are at this point without the necessary spiritual guidance that I hope you and the sisters that would accompany you out here can bring.
I know it is a daunting prospect, but I hope I have appealed to your sense of adventure and your deep commitment and vocation to spread the word of our Lord throughout the world.
Fond regards and God bless you,
The Most Reverend William McAuliffe
Archbishop of Brisbane
Sister Claire McAuliffe watched as the brass band sweated through ‘Faith of Our Fathers’ in the blistering Queensland heat. She felt sorry for the poor musicians in their elaborate royal-blue and gold woollen costumes, colourful and regal but entirely impractical. They’d been bussed in from Cooktown for the occasion, God love them.
That said, the long black nuns’ habits she and her sisters wore weren’t much better. Their heads covered in tight veils, she and her four fellow sisters sweltered. The people of Jumaaroo had gathered for the spectacle – the arrival of the nuns off the Cooktown bus this morning – and so to wish the ceremony could be over quickly and they could all move to the shade and get something cold to drink seemed churlish. It felt like they’d left Cork years ago. The journey had been demanding and long, and she longed for a meal, bath and bed. Mrs McGrath, the mayor’s wife, had invited the nuns for afternoon tea once the speeches were over, and Claire couldn’t wait. She was so hungry. But people seemed to have gone to such trouble, so she would force a smile on her face and endure the ceremony.
She sat demurely on the podium erected for them, feeling rather like a specimen in a museum placed there for gawping purposes. To her right up the hill was the brand new school, and according to Mayor McGrath, who’d walked up from the bus stop with them, it was built with every convenience in mind. It was going to be a wonderful place to work. She couldn’t wait to see it for herself. There were apparently five large classrooms and four smaller ones. She was to have an office on the second floor overlooking the school playground on one side and facing down the hill to the town on the other. And there was a hall with a stage, a large playground and, beyond it, even a playing field.
Rev Bill, as she’d always called her uncle, now Bishop of Brisbane, had warned her that Jumaaroo was nothing like Cork, and he wasn’t wrong. It was vast, hot and dusty, and so far she’d seen so many things she’d never before encountered. She couldn’t wait to write home and tell them all about it. She could just imagine her father’s sardonic smile at her descriptions of her new world.
The town consisted of one street, about a quarter of a mile long. The shops and businesses traded under a canopy that stretched out over a raised wooden boardwalk footpath, which shielded shoppers from the relentless tropical sun and kept their feet dry from the flooding rain during the wet season. There was a hotel and a grocer’s, a shoemaker and a draper’s, and a large hardware shop that had everything from a needle to an anchor, as the proprietor had informed them when Mr McGrath took them on a tour of the town before the ceremony began.
Beside her, Sister Mary seemed enraptured with the band. Anything musical delighted her, and Claire knew she couldn’t wait to get her instruments unpacked and her music classes set up. Claire didn’t get to choose the sisters who accompanied her on this mission, but if she’d had a choice, she would have chosen Mary. Mary was a sweet girl from Skibbereen in West Cork who missed her mother desperately when she first came to the Ursuline convent in Cork City, but she’d soon settled and realised her vocation was real. Claire and Mary had taught together at St Catherine’s. Mary was slight and short, with the sweetest smile and a tinkling laugh. A natural musician, she loved children and music in equal measure, and the grating noise of early days in violin lessons, or the endless plonk, plonk, plonk of a piano, didn’t seem to bother her in the slightest, though Claire admitted she herself often had to suppress a wince.
Claire wished she could say the same of Sister Gerard, who bristled at the end of the row. The fact that she was so overweight didn’t help her in coping with the heat. She was as sour as Mary was sweet. The Reverend Mother had confided to Claire that the order had proposed the taciturn nun for the move to Australia because she’d slapped the wrong child with the leather rather too severely, drawing the little girl’s blood, and the parents were threatening all sorts. Claire had never met her before that day on the quayside, but throughout the journey she’d been most disagreeable.
Gerard, now in her fifties, was too old for the missions, but the child she attacked had powerful parents and so she had to be removed. She’d complained ceaselessly since the day they left Cobh: It was too hot, she was seasick, the food was horrible, nothing was right. Claire knew she would be the most difficult to manage. Already she was refusing to accept that Claire was the school principal, as appointed by her uncle, the archbishop, and was making executive decisions without consulting anyone.
Sister Helen, who sat beside Gerard, was a mystery. She had come from a convent in East Cork and seemed serene, but she said very little and watched everything. She had pale skin and thoughtful hazel eyes, and there was a serenity to her, a kind of stillness that should be restful but wasn’t for some reason. She was devout, as they all were, and she prayed constantly the entire journey.
Sister Teresita was full of fun. She was from near Claire’s home of Macroom, but about seven miles outside the town, and her accent was so thick it was hard to imagine how the Australian children would have the faintest idea what she was saying. Claire could understand her – she used to hear her father talking to people with that accent at the fair in Macroom every month – but even to the townspeople they were hard to understand. So far, Teresita’s hilarity had been met with blank stares. Claire felt so sorry for her. She was so kindhearted, but it was going to be a struggle.
One of many.
Mr McGrath stood to the side of the stage, awaiting his introduction by a member of the town council. He was tall and handsome, and Claire noted with amusement his charismatic influence on her fellow sisters. Mary blushed when he spoke to her, and even Gerard lost her dour expression and smiled at him. He was very good-looking, she supposed; she was not a great judge of these things, but his dark wavy hair creamed back from his high forehead and twinkling blue eyes were pleasant. She’d been surprised at his accent. She’d assumed he was of Irish extraction by his name, but he wasn’t the son or grandson of immigrants or even convicts – he had been born and raised in Cork. His accent was odd, not city or county but very cultured. His perfect blonde Australian wife, Assumpta, was dressed impeccably, with a powdered face and pink lipstick. She was pretty but seemed cold somehow. She looked as if something unpleasant was directly below her nose at all times. They had three children, a toddler and twin babies.
‘Ladies and gentlemen, Reverend Father, Sisters, boys and girls.’ The short bald councillor addressed the gathered crowd. ‘It is my great pleasure to introduce to you all a man who needs no introduction in Jumaaroo. As we all know, our town, this school and indeed everything that makes Jumaaroo the envy of the state is down to this man. So without further ado, I invite Mayor Joseph McGrath to the stage to officially welcome our community of Irish nuns.’
This was greeted by enthusiastic applause.
Joseph McGrath took the stage, and the spectators instantly hushed.
‘Ladies and gentlemen, Reverend Father.’ He nodded and smiled at Father Bruno, the priest from Strathland, the nearest town over forty miles away. ‘And of course, the Ursuline Sisters, for whom this special occasion is a warm welcome to our town.’ He smiled at them. ‘As you all know, it has long been an ambition of mine to build a school for the children of Jumaaroo. For too long, we have had to send out little ones to board at the very wonderful – but very far away – Saint Xavier’s, and broken several mamas’ hearts here in Jumaaroo.’
This last comment produced indulgent smiles and a ripple of laughter from the crowd.
‘Well, that is no more, as Sister Claire, along with Sister Mary, Sister Gerard, Sister Helen and Sister Teresita, will provide quality Catholic education, not just for the townspeople of Jumaaroo but for the many families in the hinterland. Archbishop McAuliffe has taken a personal interest in our little town, and we are very grateful to him for that. Between us, we have made this school a reality. St Finbarr is the patron saint of Cork, the home not just of Sister Claire and her sister nuns but also of my own family, so it is a source of tremendous pride to me personally that Finbarr, himself a scholar, should have his name remembered here, as far from his home as it is possible to be.
‘And so all that remains is for me to welcome the sisters, to thank them for making the arduous journey and to pledge our support and dedication to their mission.’
The band struck up again as Joseph McGrath cut the ribbon in front of the brand new school building, and the crowd cheered even louder.
They walked in procession to the McGraths’ house, Claire almost fainting from hunger and heat. Everyone wanted to say hello, to welcome them. It was lovely, but Claire longed to get inside and drink something cold.
Her sister Eileen had suggested that she would lose weight in Australia, something that had eluded her thus far, and something she cared not a jot about. Her sisters were forever trying to be thinner, but she loved her food and had enjoyed years of her mother’s cooking followed by many more at the hands of wonderful sisters whose life’s purpose was feeding the nuns in the convent.
Eventually they reached the large house at the opposite end of the town to the school. It sat on a hill and seemed to watch over Jumaaroo. The McGrath house was so luxurious, and the nuns were lavish in their praise as they were led into the drawing room. Assumpta had a nurse and a governess to help with the children, as well as a cook, two maids, a housekeeper and a selection of groundkeepers and gardeners. The kitchen and laundry were in a separate building, for fear of fire, she explained, since everything was made of wood. The house was like nothing they’d seen in Ireland. It had a green copper roof and was built on stilts, which allowed air to flow around it and keep it cool. Inside, there were paintings and fine carpets and all manner of ornaments and antiques. There was a pianoforte, a full baby grand, which Claire could see Mary was itching to get her fingers on, and the walls were adorned with photographs of several generations of McGraths, she assumed, all glowering aggressively from their frames. Though none of them seemed to bear a resemblance to the mayor in any way.
The mayor had been charming and funny on the walk over, but once they arrived at the house, he took his leave – allowing the ladies time to chat, he explained – and withdrew to his study.
Claire’s heart sank when she saw the meagre spread laid out on a beautifully ornate marble table. There were tiny fancies, beautifully iced and presented, but she knew that they would be like a daisy in a bull’s mouth to her. And there was one plate of delicate cucumber sandwiches with the crusts cut off. To add to her disappointment, they were serving hot tea in tiny china cups; she so longed for a long drink of something cold.
Several other ladies had arrived as well and were all sitting expectantly but respectfully silent as Assumpta explained to the new arrivals various aspects of the town, from the weather to dealing with the creepy-crawlies. At the mention of funnel-web, redback and huntsman spiders, the gathered ladies dutifully shuddered. Every time Assumpta stopped speaking, the air in the room seemed charged with the musty anticipation of her next pronouncement.
In one of those pauses that seemed interminable, Claire couldn’t help herself. She gushed about how fabulous the scenery was, how they’d seen kangaroos and a huge snake on the way up from Cooktown. She could tell that the audience were humouring her.
It was one of her many failings, the inability to endure social awkwardness. Her Reverend Mother had pointed out that her need to fill silence with chatter when she was nervous was a most un-nun-like trait. Sisters were supposed to be serene and contemplative, but Claire was impulsive and chatty and often ended up saying too much and cringing afterwards.
‘We even saw an Aboriginal man throwing a boomerang! He was too far away to see his face, but it was so fascinating to watch. It really is a remarkable place – I’m so excited to explore it. Do you know any Aboriginal people, Mrs McGrath? I’d love to meet one.’
Before Assumpta could answer, Gerard interjected. ‘I don’t think any of these ladies would mix with the natives, Sister Claire.’ She turned to the others and gave a saccharin smile. ‘Forgive my sister. She’s never been abroad before and doesn’t know the correct way of dealing with, well…those people.’
‘Quite, Sister Gerard, but I’m sure you’ll be a help,’ Assumpta agreed. ‘To answer your question, Sister Claire, I don’t. My husband employs some of them, caretakers and odd-job men, that sort of thing, but to be entirely honest with you, they are generally unreliable and often untrustworthy. He has employed one to care for the grounds at the convent and the school, and he would have handpicked him. They are not like us – they can’t settle to anything, they wander off mid-task, and following even the simplest instructions is entirely beyond them.’
During another awkward silence, Teresita shot Claire a glance of friendly solidarity. ‘So there are enough Catholic families in the area to fill a school, are there?’ she asked, changing the subject.
Claire exhaled slowly.
‘Oh, yes, indeed. At one stage, when Joseph first came up with the idea, he thought there might not be, that we would have to admit the Italians.’ This elicited a slight eye-roll and a titter from the ladies. ‘But thankfully, it won’t come to that.’
Claire sipped her tea and bit her tongue. Rev Bill might think Mrs McGrath was a pillar of the community from a well-got family, but Claire was finding her hard to warm to.
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