NAZARETH, THE POOR SISTERS OF
Victoire Larmenier, Mother St. Basil, Foundress and first Mother General of the Poor Sisters of Nazareth, was born 21st July, 1827 at Liffre, Ille et Villaine, Brittany, France, the daughter of Pierre Larmenier, a timber merchant, and his wife, Euphemise Gandon.
She entered the group of "Pious Women" later known as the Little Sisters of the Poor, 20th February, 1851, received the religious habit on 25th March, 1851, and after only seven weeks in religion - five of these spent as a postulant - she was sent as one, the youngest, of a group of five Sisters to start a new foundation in London.
England at the time was very Protestant in outlook and Catholics there had suffered privation, hardship and even persecution for the sake of their faith. They were a small minority and for the most part extremely poor. When old age came they had no-one to care for them. Few people knew of their sad plight as vividly as a St. Vincent de Paul man, Mr. Pagliano, from his visits to the homes and hovels of the poor to relieve their distress. The needs of the poor was aggravated by the many poor forced to leave Ireland in the appalling famine inflicted on Ireland in 1845 - 1847. The needs of orphan or abandoned children who were liable to be victims of proselytism and lose their faith were also most urgent.
At Mr. Paglianoís suggestion, Cardinal Wiseman expressed his concern to the Little Sisters of the Poor for help. They shared his concern for souls but stated that they were restricted by their constitution which was directed to the care of the aged poor with no provision for care of children. They kindly agreed to release some Sisters and guided by the Holy Spirit and directed by Cardinal Wiseman, Victoire, two Professed Sisters and two other novices arrived in London on 10th April, 1851 to help with some of the trying problems of the day.
Two members of the St. Vincent de Paul Society - Mr. Pagliano and Mr. George Blount - had secured a small cottage for the Sisters in Brook Green, Hammersmith. However the Sisters had been in England only two months when owing to difficulties in the French convents, the two professed Sisters were recalled. As a result, Victoire, just past her 24th birthday, and still only a novice of 14 weeks standing, suddenly found herself superior of her community and charged with the care of a group of aged and sick people.
The work begun in such humble circumstances thrived though the Sisters encountered great difficulties and much opposition. Apart from the privations due to lack of money they experienced many others arising out of the hostile attitude of the people. Tales about Catholicity and convents circulating in England for three centuries caused the religious habit to be disliked and ridiculed. In spite of this the Sisters determined to make a trial of going out in it, well aware that they would be reviled - which they duly were. However they persevered and now they enjoy the remembrance of having been among the first to wear the religious habit openly in England after the Reformation.
Both the community and the number of people being cared for soon grew to such an extent that the building of a permanent home was imperative. Sister St. Basil purchased three and a half acres of land at Hammersmith and set to work on the erection of a convent and a home for the aged. In October 1857, the aged were moved into the newly completed building.
In that same year, the Sisters began a work which was to become a distinctive apostolate of their new congregation. Thirty sick children were accepted into the care of the Sisters.
When it became apparent that the difference between France and the British Isles in social, economic, ecclesiastical and religious conditions warranted changes in their apostolate, Cardinal Wiseman represented the matter to Paris and Rome. The Holy See authorised the establishment of the London community as a distinct religious institute with the official title of the Congregation of the Poor Sisters of Nazareth in 1864.
With enlightened understanding and remarkable foresight, the first Sisters wanted the Hammersmith building to be large enough and suitable enough to house not only themselves but also the aged and the children who would come seeking their help.
A significant name was wanted for such a place. Not convent or orphanage or home, but a family name was called for, so Mother St. Basil chose Nazareth House as it would include everyone without confusion or exclusion of anyone.
Mother St. Basil passed to her Eternal reward on 16th June 1878 and was succeeded by Mother Mary of the Nativity - Margaret Mary Owen; an Irishwoman from County Clare. Under her government the Congregation flourished greatly.
Dr. James Moore, Bishop of Ballarat was deeply concerned at the lack of proper care for the aged in his diocese and during a trip to Europe to recruit vocations he asked Mother Mary of the Nativity for help. As a result, on 28th September 1888, six Irish Sisters of Nazareth left Tilbury on the S.S. Ormuz. Bishop Moore joined the ship at Naples and accompanied the Sisters to Melbourne, where they arrived on 9th November, 1888.
The pioneer community stayed overnight with the Good Shepherd Sisters at Abbotsford Convent before going next day to Ballarat, where they took up residence at a property the Bishop had bought for them at Mill Street. The first resident moved in on 8th December and the first group of children was taken in January of the following year.
The Ballarat foundation was the beginning of a chain of Nazareth Houses which were eventually to be established around Australia and New Zealand. The next city to benefit from the arrival of Sisters from Hammersmith was Christchurch, New Zealand, founded in 1905.
Not many convents can boast they owe their establishment in part to the arrest of an Archbishop! But this unusual distinction is claimed by Nazareth House, Camberwell, Melbourne. In 1920, Melbourneís Archbishop, Most Rev. Daniel Mannix, was on his way from America to Ireland and his ship the S.S. Baltic was intercepted and he was presented with an order from the English Government prohibiting him from landing in Ireland. He was taken to London and was given residence, through the good offices of the Bishop of Plymouth, with the Sisters of Nazareth at Hammersmith, where he remained for six months a kind of house arrest. While in Hammersmith he developed a deep admiration for the Sistersí way of life and work and as a result invited the Sisters to come and work in his own Archdiocese of Melbourne. Nazareth House, Camberwell, Melbourne was established in 1929.
Other Nazareth Houses are located in Wynnum, Qld. (1925), Geraldton, WA (1940), Tamworth, NSW (1945), Launceston, Tas. (1952) and North Turramurra, NSW (1963). Attached to the Nazareth Houses in Geraldton and Launceston are primary schools through which the Sisters continue their care for children in the Australasian Region.
Suggested Further Reading.
Anonymous The Early History of the Congregation of the Poor Sisters of Nazareth. Taylor & Young Printers. Cheltenham, U.K. c1980ís.
If further information is required about individual sisters the following address is given:
PO Box 386
Camberwell Vic 3124
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