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Margaret Walsh. The Good Sams--Sisters of the Good Samaritan 1857-1964.

MARGARET WALSH. The Good Sams--Sisters of the Good Samaritan 1857-1964. John Garratt Publishing, Melbourne, 2001, ISBN 1 875938 52 4; 432 pages.

The title says a lot: The Good Sams. To Australian Catholics of the twentieth century they were an order of nuns loved for their charitable work among the most needy of women, and respected as exacting teachers. Like that other order of religious women founded in Australia, the Sisters of St Joseph or 'Joeys', the Good Sams carry a nickname that signifies both respect and a folksy affection from the people they served.

Author Margaret Walsh knows the Good Samaritan order well and has researched the order's foundation and life story meticulously. The result is a comprehensive and readable account of a Catholic religious order that, as part of the wider work of religious personnel in Australia over 150 years, made a difference to the educational and social fabric of a nation. By present day standards, the work of such religious in teaching alone over those years saved the governments of the day tens of billions of dollars in educational funding.

But such crude economics had nothing whatsoever to do with the reasons orders like the Good Samaritans, at first known as the Sisters of the Good Shepherd, began. In an era of nineteenth century laissez faire and great poverty for those caught in social traps--penury, prostitution, unmarried mothers--with little help from the state, charity was left to mop up. Churches, religious orders and benevolent groups stepped in where government social workers would nowadays.

The Sisters of Charity began work in the struggling infant colony of New South Wales in 1838--visiting prisoners awaiting execution, supporting women prisoners and other "fallen' women, taking classes in Catholic schools. As the Sisters of Charity concentrated on their hospital, St Vincents, their Pitt Street refuge attracted Archbishop Polding's interest.

Never happy with the independent ways of the Charity order, by 1856 Polding had gathered a small group of women to begin a new order under Benedictine influence. These eventually became the 'Good Sams'. To head the group, Polding secured Sister Scholastica Gibbons, a Charity sister in charge of the Pitt Street refuge. Scholastica would spend the rest of her life living between the two orders, a tale of grit and grieving, but also of great achievement.

Margaret Walsh takes her reader through a unique phenomenon. The work of a religious order, its territorial struggles, its power plays, its achievements with handfuls of women--some with only modest skills and education--who by focus and training emerged as leaders and effective teachers. It's the story of developing social consciousness as both church and government tackle the problems of poverty and degeneracy.

The book covers the years of sectarianism which targeted nuns. For the Catholic reader today this is a reminder that Australian Irish Catholics once represented the 'other' in respectable society. Taking a stand on Aboriginal reconciliation, refugees or asylum seekers would be very familiar to older Good Sams.

Anne Henderson
COPYRIGHT 2002 Australian Catholic Historical Society
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Copyright 2002, Gale Group. All rights reserved. Gale Group is a Thomson Corporation Company.

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Author:Henderson, Anne
Publication:Journal of the Australian Catholic Historical Society
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Jan 1, 2002
Previous Article:Jeff Kildea. Tearing the Fabric: Sectarianism in Australia 1910-1925.
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