M. R. MacGinley, Ancient Tradition-New World. Dominican Sisters in Eastern Australia 1867-1985, St. Pauls Publications, Strathfield, Australia, 2009.

  1. R. MacGinley, Ancient Tradition-New World. Dominican Sisters in Eastern Australia 1867-1985, St. Pauls Publications, Strathfield, Australia, 2009. $50 AUD, ISBN 978-1-921472-29-9 (hardback), pp. 318


Reviewed by: Rene M. Kollar, St Vincent College, August 2010



The nineteenth century witnessed a great rush to explore and colonize exotic and remote areas outside of Europe.  Africa, China, Latin America, and India stand out as examples of this attraction, and the motives for this imperialism were many:  wealth, prestige, adventure, and foreign policy.  Memoirs, reports in the newspaper and works of fiction related stories of heroism, clashes of culture, and the superiority of the white European male. Driven by an intense missionary impulse, Christian churches also began to look beyond their shores and traveled to distant lands to bring the Gospel to the native peoples and to minister to members of their faith who had settled there.  Until recently, religious history has failed to appreciate the contributions of the pioneering spirit of Roman Catholic nuns.  Bishops and clerics have tended to overshadow their work, but one only has to read the tales of the Sisters of Mercy, the Benedictine nuns, and others in the growth of nineteenth-century America to gain an appreciation of their significant contributions to the spiritual, pastoral and educational development of that country.  Their achievements, however, extended throughout the world.  Rosa MacGinley has written an interesting and insightful book which chronicles the noteworthy accomplishments of the Dominican Sisters in Eastern Australia from 1867-1958.

MacGinley is a founding member of the Brisbane Campus of the Australian Catholic University’s Golding Centre for Research in Women’s History, Theology and Spirituality.  The author of several books and articles, she points out that this history grew out of her research of the Dominican archives which began in 1986 and which later resulted in A Dynamic of Hope:  Institutes of Women Religious in Australia. The scope of this book is broad, beginning with a brief overview of early history and growth of the Dominicans, the development of communities of Dominican women, and the establishment of Dominican friars and nuns in Ireland.  An appreciation of the Irish background is essential for understanding the motives and tradition of the Dominican sisters, especially their commitment to education, which eventually contributed to their foundation and success in Eastern Australia.  This section captures the religious and political history of Ireland in the post-Reformation period and prepares the reader for the main part of the book, the missionary work of Dominican women in Australia.

By the middle of the nineteenth century, the Kingston community was firmly established with both a day and boarding school, and was in a good position to consider the invitation to establish an Australian mission. On 8 June 1867, a group of eight sisters departed from Dublin for Australia. MacGinley describes the voyage of these Dominicans and their arrival and first years at Maitland with a sense of admiration, but this does not detract from her objectivity.  The author makes excellent use of archival material to describe the early history of these pioneers, and she allows the evidence to guide her narrative.  Her description of the early years and the establishment of the Dominican community gives the reader an appreciation for the hardships the nuns endured, their successes, and the process of adopting to this foreign culture.  The educational apostolate, relations with the hierarchy, the spiritual life and structure of the community receive excellent treatment, and the author continues to develop these themes as the foundation stabilized and took on new commitments.  The ministry to the deaf  occupied an important part in the early work of these Dominicans, and MacGinley’s discussion of this undertaking is both insightful and informative.  By the last decade of the century, the foundation continued to consolidate and expand, and directed much of its energy toward education, especially for the deaf.

Chapter 6, ‘The “Status Controversy”; Canonical Questions’, serves as a transition into the twentieth century.  Questions concerning the Dominican tradition, the neo-monastic movement and dealings with prelates over issues of church law and the spiritual life of the community might seem arcane to some readers, but resolution of these matters was essential to continued stability. The remainder of this history is divided into three chronological periods: 1894-1924 deals with primarily education; 1929-1942 discusses the creation of a Dominican congregation and advances in the field of education, in particular to the deaf and blind; and the final chapter, 1942-1958, continues with the achievements in education and concludes with the formation of the Australian Union of Dominican Congregations in 1958. For the interested reader, an extensive bibliography is included and, since education played a significant role in the history of the Dominican sisters, a list of schools which they established.

This is a well written booked based on extensive archival research.  The approach of the author is chronological and thematic, and her use of numerous pictures and illustrations complement the text.  MacGinley is at her best when she describes the difficulties the Dominican sisters faced, their achievements in education, especially for the handicapped, their obvious successes in Australia and their association with the other religious orders of men and women in the country.  She does not neglect the relationship with members of the hierarchy as the sisters sought to establish themselves, and her knowledge of the inner workings of convent life and canonical procedures dealing with women religious is impressive.  Nor does she neglect to place her subject within the context of Dominican, Irish and Australian history. At times, the author’s narrative is too detailed, but her summaries and conclusions capture the main ideas of the topic. A large number of people played a part in this endeavor, and succinct biographies of the principal characters, both the sisters and clerics, are superb.  This book, however, ends too abruptly in 1958. Some additional comments on the Dominican presence in Australia prior to Vatican II and a brief overview of the Council’s effect on their life and mission would be, perhaps, a more fitting conclusion.

This important book will contribute to the history of women religious and their significance in Roman Catholic history.  This is no mere institutional history.  Rosa MacGinley has skillfully captured the Dominican spirit of these missionaries and their community life.