Who are the Presentation Sisters?
The Presentation Sisters are called to encounter God in the heart of the world and to continue the mission of Jesus in the spirit of their eighteenth century founder, Nano Nagle. Today, they form an international organisation of some 1300 women working across 12 countries.
Honora (Nano) Nagle was born in Cork, Ireland, in 1718 during the time of the notorious penal laws that sought to subjugate the Catholic population. She was herself from a wealthy family, but had to be smuggled to Paris in order to receive a Catholic education.
As a young woman, she lived a glamorous life in Paris until the sight of extreme poverty led her to reassess her values. Returning to Ireland, she established a secret school in Cork to educate the children of the poor. She sought to educate them not only in the Catholic faith but also in practical skills to help them earn a living.
By 1757, she had opened seven secret schools, five for girls and two for boys. By the time of her death in 1784 she had set up a network of such schools with over 400 pupils in seven parishes. She also visited the sick and elderly after school, working long into the night and thus earning the nickname The Lady with the Lantern. For this reason, the lantern is the symbol for the Presentation Sisters worldwide.
At that time, religious sisters were expected to remain enclosed in convents, so Nano Nagle and her assistants performed their works of charity without becoming a religious congregation. This gave them the freedom to visit the poor in their homes. However, realising the need for a group to continue her work after her death, Nano founded the ‘Sisters of Charitable Instruction of the Sacred Heart of Jesus’ in 1775. Later, in 1794, Nagle’s group joined forces with a charity founded by former milliner Teresa Mulally, who had used money won in a state lottery to start a Catholic school for the poor girls of inner-city Dublin. This combined group became the congregation of the Sisters of the Presentation of the Blessed Virgin Mary.
Two years before Nano’s death, Catholics were once again allowed to open schools in Ireland, and so she lived to see her schools emerge from secrecy.
Nano’s work laid the foundation for a voluntary school system in Ireland and for the wide range of ministries to which Presentation Sisters around the world remain committed. In 2000, she was voted Irish Woman of the Millennium in recognition of her importance as a pioneer of female education in Ireland. In October 2013, she was declared Venerable by Pope Francis.
The Presentation Sisters in Australia
The Society of Australian Congregations of the Presentation of the Blessed Virgin Mary is a federation of six autonomous Presentation congregations in Australia and a group of Melanesian and Australian Presentation Sisters in Papua New Guinea.
The sisters arrived in Australia in 1866 in response to an urgent need to educate the children of poor Irish settlers. The first Presentation school was opened in Richmond, Tasmania, followed in 1873 by the first mainland school, which opened in St Kilda, Melbourne, and the first New South Wales school, which opened the following year in Wagga Wagga.
In 1899 the Wagga sisters answered a call from the newly appointed bishop of Rockhampton, Bishop Higgins, to staff a parish school and open a high school in the outback town of Longreach, a town so remote the sisters could not find it on any map. Thus began their Queensland ministries.
In 1958, Pope Pius XII approved the formation of the Society of the Australian Congregations of the Presentation of the Blessed Virgin Mary. In 1960, the Queensland congregation moved its centre of administration to Brisbane.
Since Vatican II, many sisters have moved into other ministries besides teaching, such as aged care, Indigenous care, mental health support, migrant/refugee support, and many others. In the spirit of Nano, they offer direct support and also challenge the social conditions that cause hardship and poverty.