Teresa A. Flaherty, RSM. Crossings in Mercy: The Story of the Sisters of Mercy Papua New Guinea, 1956-2006. St. Mary’s, S.A.: Openbook Howden Design & Print, 2008; i—339; pp. illustrations, maps, notes, appendices.
Reviewed by: Mary Beth Fraser Connolly, Purdue University North Central, October 2008.
Teresa A. Flaherty, RSM provides an extensive look at the history of the Sisters of Mercy of Australia in Papua New Guinea in Crossings in Mercy: The Story o f the Sisters of Mercy Papua New Guinea 1956-2006. In this study, Flaherty traces the first presence of Sisters of Mercy in Papua and New Guinea up through the establishment of the Autonomous Regions of the Sisters of Mercy Papua New Guinea within the Institute of Sisters of Mercy Australia in 2006.
The strength of Flaherty’s work lies in its depth of information in the volume. The author, a member of the Sisters of Mercy and one of the sisters who worked in Papua New Guinea, recounts the details of the establishment of the community in these areas, and the growth and development of the various regions. As one who worked in these regions, the author has a personal knowledge of the enormity and at times dangerous nature of the sisters’ work. While the history of the growth of these foundations is the central focus of this study, the author also discusses the developments within the Catholic Church, which affected women religious. Flaherty structures her work both chronologically and regionally as she chronicles the development of individual Mercy missions as they evolved throughout this fifty-year period.
Flaherty begins her history with an account of the founding of the Sisters of Mercy in Ireland and the spread of this community to Australia and finally the mission to New Guinea. By beginning with Catherine McAuley and the foundation of the Mercys, Flaherty roots the spirit of her study in her community’s foundress and pioneer ‘crossings’ from Ireland to Australia and to missions in Papua New Guinea. From here, Flaherty provides a brief background of Papua and New Guinea and the cultural, religious, and political history of the traditional Melanesian people. In this section, the author also includes a broad overview of the growth of Christianity, the changes within the Catholic Church from the 1950s onward, and the history Sisters of Mercy along side the political history of Papua New Guinea.
The bulk of Flaherty’s study details the Sisters of Mercy’s work in throughout Papua New Guinea from 1956 through 2006. At each foundation, the sisters provided education or health care or both and attempted to spread the Catholic faith. As Flaherty progresses through this history, the later periods reflect the changes within the Catholic Church and the developments with in the Mercys. They also reflect the political development within Papua New Guinea itself. Here, the reader would benefit from knowledge of this history. Flaherty does not dwell upon the political changes of this region from Australian control to independence. Her account deals rather with the sisters themselves and their efforts, even when her subjects encountered violence.
For anyone looking to learn more about the details of the sisters’ missionary activity and the perspective of the sisters as they worked, Flaherty’s Crossings in Mercyis an excellent source to consult. The volume contains reprinted primary documents and transcripts of oral interviews with many of the sisters and Melanesians. Flaherty also includes numerous pictures from the early days of the foundations up through the early twenty-first century. This study, however, lacks a deeper analysis of the relationship between the sisters as missionaries and part of the colonial power of the region and the cultural and racial differences that divided them from the Melanesian people. She also does not discuss in detail the larger colonialism of Papua New Guinea, the nationalistic struggles of independence, and the ultimate localization of schools and health care facilities. While the Sisters of Mercy eventually welcomed Melanesian novices, Flaherty does not dwell on the process by which this was possible. She, however, does discuss the positive impact these women had on the community. Crossings in Mercyis an extensive community history, which ultimately adds to field of the history of women religious. It provides a beginning point for other scholars eager to study this rich field of missionary history.