The Sisters of the Good Samaritan have warmly welcomed members of their community to a liturgy marking the Blessing and Opening of renovations to St Scholastica’s Congregational Centre in Glebe – a space they hope will be a place of gathering, learning, conversation and hospitality well into the future.
Housed in the historic Toxteth House, the renovations will bring fresh life to a building which has been home to many people and served many purposes since it was built in 1831.
The Blessing and Opening took place on February 2 this year, the Feast of the Presentation of Christ in the Temple, and the 166th anniversary of the foundation of the Sisters of the Good Samaritan.
Good Samaritan Sister Elizabeth Brennan said the liturgy of blessing followed a sacred tradition in the Church for the opening of new buildings and works.
“One of the things the Church does is bless new places of worship, learning and work; we honour them as sacred places” she said. “In this case, it is the Blessing of Renovations, and it is also our Foundation Day and a feast day in the Church, so the liturgy incorporated all those things in prayer, ritual and song.”
Guests included Sisters, the project architects, managers and builders, Oblates, partners in ministry, staff and friends.
Congregational Leader Sister Patty Fawkner told those gathered that the site on which Toxteth House stands had always been a sacred space, from the time when the traditional custodians, the Gadigal people, shared their Dreamtime stories.
“Toxteth House was designed by the famous colonial architect, John Verge, and built with the help of convict labour for the Allen family in 1831,” she said.
“In the 1890s, it was leased as a boarding house. We Good Samaritans purchased it in 1901 when we had to move from the original St Scholastica’s in Pitt Street to make way for Central Railway Station.
“Over time, Toxteth House has housed families, lawyers, parliamentarians, servants, boarders, and of course, Sisters – all sorts of Sisters – novices; newly professed Sisters preparing for ministry when our Teachers’ College was located here; eight Mothers General; staff of local schools – St Scholastica’s St James and St Ita’s; and elderly and infirm Sisters. Toxteth House ceased to be a community house in 2014.”
Patty said for nearly 200 years, Toxteth House had been primarily a place of hospitality.
“We wish to continue this tradition of hospitality, intrinsic to Benedictine life, to ‘Good Samaritans All’, my short-hand term for Sisters, our Oblate community, and our colleagues and partners in ministry, as well as to the local area and parish,” she said.
To that end, the dining room has been enlarged to offer hospitality to larger groups and ramps have been installed throughout the ground floor, making it fully accessible.
“For more than 120 years, this has been a house of education, study, learning and spiritual formation and we will continue that fine Benedictine tradition. Our relocated library is one of the Congregation’s treasures,” Patty said.
The library has been awaiting a permanent home since 2018 when it was relocated from the former Mount St Benedict Centre at Pennant Hills when the Sisters left the centre and ‘Regenbah’ convent.
Good Samaritan Sister Christine Manning said while a small space had been used at Glebe for the operation of the library, the renovation had provided a beautiful new space from which to share the library’s holdings.
“In the renovation, the Long Parlour was designated as space for the front of the library and we still have the main collection in the basement of the convent,” she said.
“The new space is really beautiful and it means people can continue to access the collection easily.”
Christine said the library collection was focused on the areas of Biblical, Liturgical and Benedictine spirituality.
“It’s mainly a Congregational library but our Oblates also use it a lot and others who have an interest in these areas are certainly welcome,” she said.
“Having a library is very much part of the Benedictine tradition of Lectio Divina, the love of learning nourishing the seeking of God and living the Gospel. We wanted to continue this tradition by bringing new life to the library and better enable it to enrich people’s lives.”
The new librarian, Judy Gillespie, is also focused on extending the library electronically, keeping pace with contemporary knowledge and library practice.
Meanwhile, the new-look Congregational Centre will also offer in-house and webinar formation sessions, thanks to its state-of-the-art audio-visual equipment.
Another highlight of the renovation was the opportunity to commission five etchings, entitled The Ministerial Women by artist Terry St Ledger.
The etchings depict Mary of Magdala – Apostle to the Apostles; Phoebe – Deacon, as named by St Paul; St Frances of Rome – Benedictine Oblate; Martha Sarahes – a Good Samaritan Sister and Pacifican; and St Josephine Bakhita – Seeker of Freedom.
“They are truly beautiful,” Patty said.
The renovation itself was designed by Wendy and Craig Taylor of Red Blue Architects, who said they embraced the challenge of bringing new life to a heritage building.
“It’s a beautiful space and we modernised it but with great care taken to fit into a nearly 200-year-old building,” Wendy said.
In the original concept, Wendy and Craig said they were hoping to achieve: “A sense of light, beauty, simplicity. A place that is multifunctional, welcoming, inviting and peaceful.”
“Our aim for the Congregational Centre for the Sisters of the Good Samaritan was to create a sense of connection and harmony through all the spaces,” Wendy said, an aim she felt they had achieved.
The design for the revitalised centre allows each room to retain its unique function, while also opening up the spaces to be a part of a bigger whole. The arcade connects spaces while the courtyard becomes the heart of the centre.
The Blessing and Opening of the Renovations liturgy contained an acknowledgement of the architects and builders, with Wendy and Craig handing over plans of the renovations to the archivists, while the builders and project managers handed over the key to the new building to Patty.
This was followed by intercessory prayers for each of the new spaces and all who will gather in them. Those present were then treated to an organ recital by Dominic Blake, while a smaller party proceeded around the building for the blessing with holy water.
“Toxteth House is a building that has always looked to the future, not the past,” Patty said.
“Our refurbishments are an investment in and a commitment to a Good Samaritan present and future for our Sisters and Oblates, for Good Samaritan Education and our neighbours of St Scholastica’s College.”
Images: Sisters of the Good Samaritan/photographer Lissa Brown.
This article was published in the February 2023 edition of The Good Oil.