Mary Ryllis Clark, Loreto in Australia, University of New South Wales Press, Sydney, 2009.

Mary Ryllis Clark, Loreto in Australia, University of New South Wales Press, Sydney, 2009. AUD$ 49.95, ISBN 1742230318 (paperback), pp. xii-332.

Reviewed by: Claude Auger, Dominican University College (Ottawa, Canada), December 2010.


The English Ladies, as they were originally known, have a long and eventful history. This community, founded in 1609 by Yorkshire-born Mary Ward (1585-1645), developed in Europe, went through Mary’s condemnation as a heretic and a papal suppression, survived in German-speaking countries, spread to Ireland and Canada, giving birth to many branches which, through unions, were reduced to two, the Institute of the Blessed Virgin Mary (IBVM), since 2004 renamed the Congregation of Jesus (CJ) and the Irish branch known as the Loreto Sisters. The memory of Mary Ward, practically erased after the difficult events of the 1630s, was gradually rediscovered starting at the end of the nineteenth century, and has proved ever since to be a source of strength and inspiration for her followers.

In 1821, the Loreto Sisters was established in Dublin by Frances Ball (1794-1861), a young Irish woman educated at the York Bar Convent. The Loreto Sisters rapidly spread to other countries and continents, starting with India (1841). Nine sisters left for Australia in 1875; in 1894, the Australian houses formed a province of the institute. As part of the activities celebrating the 400thanniversary of the foundation of Mary Ward’s institute, the Australian province of the Loretos commissioned Mary Ryllis Clark to write their history. The result is a meticulously researched, beautifully presented, thought-provoking book.

The first part (6 chapters) is devoted in large part to an individual, Mother Gonzaga Barry, Australian founder of the Loreto Institute. Since Mother Barry was influential in the rediscovery of the role of Mary Ward, in the early twentieth century, the author includes a chapter on the history of the founder’s life and work, and another one on the ‘complex legacy’ of the CJ and the IBVM. These two chapters, useful as historical background, also help to put Mother Barry’s international role in its proper perspective, since she was the author of the version of the constitutions that was adopted in 1913 by the IBVM, and promoted without success the reunion of the diverse branches of Mary Ward’s institute.

The next two chapters, adopting a thematic approach, cover the community’s life at the beginning of the twentieth century by presenting some institutions of higher learning (chapter 7) and the formation and convent life typical of this period (chapter 8). The next three chapters are again more chronological while presenting a succession of difficult periods: chapter 9 details the crisis in the institute in Australia (1924 to the 1940s) caused by Irish nationalism and resistance to union and Mary Ward; chapter 10 discusses the 1950s and the changes brought by Pius XII’s document Sponsa Christi; chapter 11 deals with the 1960s, the 1970s and the changes brought by Vatican II.

The final chapters return to a more thematic presentation, dealing with education including the passing of schools to lay management (chapters 12 and 13), and other ministries from the 1980s to the 2000s: new ventures, re-composition of communities, international mobility working both ways, with Sr Noni Mitchell becoming the first non-Ireland born superior general (chapter 14). A good portion of the book is devoted to the post-Vatican II period (chapters 11 to 14, p. 196-293), providing a good balance and a careful treatment of a period often sketchily described. In each chapter, text box inserts offer a complement of information on different topics or present a testimony linked to the current discussion. In each chapter, the author gives enough context so that the sisters’ lives are linked with Australian general and Catholic history, as well as what was happening in the Catholic Church in the rest of the world.

Special attention has been given to the visual presentation. Under a full-colour cover (more on this later), readable typography enhanced by an aerated layout makes for an agreeable read. The book is beautifully illustrated throughout, and includes a colour section of 8 pages.

Mary Ryllis Clark’s book is part of a growing corpus of scholarly studies of the religious life in Australia. The bibliography included by Mary Rosa MacGinley’s A Dynamic of Hope: Institutes of Women Religious in Australia(Crossing Press, 2002, 2ndedition) remains the best starting point, although there have been many other books published since then, including Dr MacGinley’s own on the Poor Clares (2005), the Dominican Sisters in East Australia (2009) and the Sisters of Our Lady Help of Christians (2010). The recent canonisation of Mary MacKillop has spurred a renewal of interest in Catholic Australian history, that will probably bring even more offerings.

The author’s stated intention was to focus more on the persons forming the community than on the sponsored institutions, and she succeeded. Of course, she could not talk about every member of the community. But there seems to be an ongoing project to document the lives of the Australian Loreto sisters, as stated in their website: Here’s hoping that, as Mary Ryllis Clark has done, the sisters who left the community will not be forgotten. For those who would like a complement of information on the schools, colleges and other significant houses, a good summary can be found at (It would have made a great complement to the book, as would have the list of deceased sisters, accessible through the biographical project link).

As befits a book published by a University press, there are very few typos or mistakes that survived the editing. There are still a few inaccuracies concerning the history of religious life: p. 21, only the Benedictine rule is purely monastic, and there’s no such thing as the Dominican rule (Dominicans follow the rule of St. Augustine, with particular constitutions); p. 151, the Normaeof 1901 started the uniformity of constitutions before the 1917 Code of Canon law. There are also two anachronisms: p. 114, a petition could not have been presented to pope Pius X in 1891; p. 152, there was no North-American IBVM province before the 2003 reunification, some 50 years after the elements discussed in this passage. Finally, a small typo (the only one that caught the eye of this francophone reviewer): p. 192, there is no é in ressourcement.

A final remark concerns the cover: I bet I will not be the only one, after admiring the vibrant front cover, to discover on p. 197 that poor Sr Jocelyn Dunphy was “photoshopped-out”! On the one hand, it’s quite inconsequential; on the other hand, it seems to go against Mary Ward’s precept ‘to be such as we appear and appear such as we are’ (p. 263).

This book deserves to be read not only by scholars of the religious life in Australia, but by any person interested in the Catholic Church, education, women and gender studies, or any combination of the above. Researched with serious scholarship, eminently readable, it’s a fitting tribute to the Loreto Sisters, past and present, who have ministered in Australia.