Recognising the history and contribution of women in Catholic healthcare

By Brigid Meney, 8 March 2023
Image: Catholic Health Australia/Supplied


As International Women’s Day approaches on March 8, it is timely to reflect on the contribution of women to the Catholic Church, particularly in Australia.

Catholic Health Australia Director of Mission and Strategy Brigid Meney. Image: Catholic Health Australia/Supplied

As Mission Director at Catholic Health Australia, I often hear the personal faith journeys of people within this important ministry and more broadly within the Church. This includes the joys, the meaning, and the purpose they find in their faith and ultimately their commitment and struggles to love Christ and do his will more and more each day.

In an overwhelming number of these personal stories, individuals cite the strong and profound faith of their mothers and grandmothers as the most formative part of their early beliefs. When I ask about their faith journey, or even speak of my own, so many are quick to cite the stubborn habits fostered by their mothers through regular Church attendance, family prayer, and a commitment to Catholic education beyond that even provided by the local Catholic School.

This foundation built in Catholic homes throughout the world, and daily witness by women, has played a significant, if not determining role in preserving our Church across many generations of men and women, often in an increasingly secular if not hostile environment.

The Census of 1828 showed 6,135 male and 2,091 female Catholics in Australia but now, over 60 percent of parishioners identify as female, according to a recent National Church Life Survey. This shows the enduring faith of women within the Church at a grassroots level.

And this prominent female impact extends to our ministries, like Catholic Health.

Much has changed since the five Sisters of Charity endured months at sea to travel to Australia and founded St Vincent’s Hospital in 1857. Or since Venerable Mary Potter responded to Cardinal Moran’s request for help and sent 6 Little Company of Mary Sisters to Australia, who began caring for the frail within a day of arriving. Or since the Sisters of St John of God followed their calling from Ireland, all the way to the Goldfields of WA to tend to the poor in 1896.

For one, Catholic Health providers now operate over 80 hospitals, as well as 12 percent of Australia’s residential aged care facilities.

But the work of Catholic Health, grounded in the same Mission that inspired the courage and action of these religious pioneers, is still administered predominantly by women today, something that needs recognition on International Women’s Day.

There are similarities in Catholic education and social services.

The women of our Church and its ministries were not superhumans, or angels, and maybe they weren’t even particularly saintly at times. But their stories, struggles and endurance provide an extraordinarily human story of the history and preservation of our Church and its mission, and the fostering of the faith.

Sisters of Charity founder Mary Aitkenhead said: “May our good God teach us to value our holy institute, and do our very best to transmit its holy spirit from age to age”. This commitment from the women who founded our healthcare system is upheld by those working in it today and also reflected in the faith fostered by so many women on the home front as well. In various ways, women have been providing a daily witness through their work to the love of Christ that has passed on through generations.

In recent weeks, I have welcomed my second child into the world, my first daughter. On International Women’s Day, I am thankful for the faith that so many women across generations before me have fostered, sometimes deep in the trenches of difficulty, for my own children to experience in various ways. May we always work to elevate and value that contribution.

Brigid Meney is the Director of Strategy & Mission for Catholic Health Australia.


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