The compassion and support received by my family during a very difficult time has been passed down through the generations, and has never been forgotten, writes Monica Dutton.
BY Monica Dutton
A man was going down from Moruya to Bodalla, and fell into the hands of misadventure, leaving him half dead. A Good Samaritan story…
Moruya is a small town situated on the banks of the Moruya River, just inland from where it flows gently across the sandy shoals and into the Pacific Ocean, on the far south coast of New South Wales. Traditionally, the name is derived from the local indigenous word “mherroyah”, meaning “home of the black swan”. Black swans can still be seen in the lakes and rivers around the area today.
Moruya now has a population of 2,500 and the Princes Highway still winds its way slowly from the south, through the main street and across the bridge towards Bateman’s Bay. The town is best known for its fishing, oyster leases and as a relaxing destination for summer holidaymakers.
In the 1880s it was a service town for the surrounding rich farming country, timber industry, goldfields and granite quarry. Granite from the Moruya quarry has been used in the construction of St Mary’s Cathedral and the Sydney Harbour Bridge.
Moruya was then also a regular overnight stopping point for those travelling from the south on horseback on their way to Sydney. Life was hard, luxuries few, and a strong pioneering spirit prevailed. There were many Irish Catholic families among the 1,000 inhabitants in the local area.
The loss of government funding for denominational schools after the Public Instruction Act of 1880 prompted the parish priest of Moruya to write to Archbishop Vaughn requesting religious sisters to continue the work of Catholic education in Moruya – particularly the education of girls.
And so, it was to this quiet, pretty, little coastal town that the Sisters of the Good Samaritan came in 1883. They first lived in a converted church, and then moved to the convent in Queen Street, built by grateful local parishioners.
Directly across the road from the convent stood the Clubhouse Hotel – owned and run by Thomas and Mary Kilkelly. Thomas was a well-respected publican who had a reputation for refusing to serve intoxicated patrons. Mary was a devout, religious and charitable woman who was loved by all who knew her. Thomas and Mary are my great-grandparents.
Thomas and Mary had three sons and seven daughters. Their daughters were all educated by the Sisters of the Good Samaritan. Their eighth child Clare is my grandmother. Clare was extremely proud of her education and was very attached to the Sisters. She often spoke very fondly of them and at one time considered a religious vocation with them.
Each morning, the Kilkelly girls helped with the chores at the hotel and then crossed the road to school. As well as the basic subjects, they learnt French, elocution, painting and music. Clare was an accomplished pianist and an avid reader and letter writer. In her account of her childhood she described days out to Moruya Heads with the sisters:
“My brother Jack was home to drive the coach and four horses. Four coaches from other hotels also pulled up outside the presbytery, so the nuns, boarders, Fr Cassidy and the curate could be with us. We surfed, swam and picnicked, said the Litany and the Rosary and then sang all the way home”.
Clare and her family loved living in Moruya.
The road from Moruya to Bodalla in those days was little more than a winding bush track – hot and dusty in summer and rutted and muddy after the winter rains. While driving a team home along the road early in 1906, one of the horses reared suddenly and Thomas was thrown under the wheels of the sulky. He suffered a severe brain injury from which he would never recover. A plate was inserted into his head and he was transferred to the Lunatic Asylum at Rydalmere in Sydney, where he lived his remaining years unaware of his surroundings.
After this devastating accident, Mary struggled to keep the hotel and the family going in Moruya. In later years, Clare often spoke of the care, concern and compassion shown to them by the Sisters of the Good Samaritan during this time. They visited often to support the family and continued to provide an education for the girls.
With a large family to look after and mounting costs for Thomas’s care, Mary eventually could no longer manage financially. The Master in Lunacy’s Office then ordered the sale of the Clubhouse Hotel by auction. With the stroke of a pen 300 kilometres away, the family was forced to pack their possessions into a few trunks and move to Sydney in 1911.
With some of the family staying with relatives in Pyrmont and Annandale, some living in rented accommodation; hospital bills mounting and no income, the situation for Mary became quite desperate. She was sustained by her deep faith and again, the family was supported by the Sisters of the Good Samaritan. Clare recalls that at the age of 16:
“I taught with Mother Colman at the convent at Pyrmont in return for my continued piano lessons, also typing. I played The March while the pupils marched into their classes.”
The Sisters also taught the Kilkelly girls bookkeeping, shorthand and typing to assist them to gain employment to help support the family. Due to their excellent education by the Sisters of the Good Samaritan, the girls were all extremely accomplished and readily employed as governesses and in clerical positions by Grace Bros, David Jones, Angus & Coote, and the MLC in Sydney – one of them, well into the 1960s.
The Kilkellys were a proud, hard-working, Irish Catholic family and would have found it very difficult to accept charity. The kindness and sensitivity of the Sisters in enabling the family to maintain their independence and dignity is reflected in the words of Polding when first establishing the Congregation: “the religious will use all gentleness and compassion for the unhappy whom they are to tend”.
The story of the compassion and support received by my family from the Sisters of the Good Samaritan in answering the call to be ‘neighbour’ during this very difficult time has been passed down through the generations, and has never been forgotten. Clare would indeed be delighted to know that two of her granddaughters have worked in, and six of her great-granddaughters have attended, four Good Samaritan schools. The connections now span five generations!
Author’s note: Sourced from the writings of Clare Coman (my grandmother), and Barbara Sheehan (my mother). Bless them! The Sisters of the Good Samaritan closed the convent and left Moruya in 1996. The Clubhouse Hotel is now used as a women’s refuge.