The Sisters of Mercy have been an integral part of the Epsom parish since its very beginning, something which the Superior of the Order touched on when she said in a speech made during the 50 years’ Jubilee in 1972 that “the founding of the Holy Cross Convent went hand in hand with the establishment of the Church of “Our Lady of the Sacred Heart”. Indeed, it was the convent that was to be the initial manifestation of a Catholic presence in the area, when in 1921 a property in The Drive was purchased by the Sisters on 3 May of that year, the Feast of the Holy Cross, the first community was established under the leadership of Mother Benignus, taking as its title the feast of that day.
The property consisted of a large, imposing, two-storey building, situated on three acres of land, large enough to function as both a convent and a school, the latter accommodating boarders as well as day pupils. One of the upstairs rooms was converted to a chapel where the recently appointed Parish Priest, Father O’Byrne, and, on accessions, Bishop Liston, then co-adjustor, would say Mass. Local Catholics were invited to use this facility, which they did in increasing numbers to the point where the building was overflowing. Within weeks of opening, the chapel was the venue for the marriage of Mr. Tom Murphy to his newly arrived Irish bride, Miss Mary Ruth McAndrew. The bridesmaid was Miss Madge Fairweather, one of the boarders. Afterwards a small wedding breakfast was provided downstairs by the sisters. Tom Murphy, a tramway worker and then a very successful local carrier, remained as a parishioner for well over 40 years, living in Lurline Avenue, only a few doors from the church.
The founding community consisted of five sisters. Apart from Mother Benignus, there was a school teachers, Sister Mary Borromeo; a music teacher, Sister Mary Teresa; a boarding mistress, Sister Mary Assisi; and a cook/housekeeper, Sister Mary Cordelia. There must have been duties additional to the designated ones, for it is said that the school teacher was also the “milkmaid” responsible for milking the convent cow! With the opening of the three-room school building in 1922 there arose a need for more teachers, with a corresponding increase in community size. This reached a peak in the 1950’s and 60’s, by which time the school and had further increased in both size and roll (the infant room was added in 1951 and what is now the community room was used as a classroom during the 1960’s following the church extension).
A severe blow to the fledging parish and to the Sisters in particular occurred on 5 September 1928 when the convent was destroyed by fire. It happened during the daytime when the building was unoccupied, and the two nuns who had gone out to make a few quick purchases at Greenwood’s Corner were met by the unwelcome sight on their return. The story is told of the bravery of a certain Mr Quigley who, when he saw what was happening, entered the burning building to remove the Blessed Sacrament from the chapel. Fortunately there was no injury or loss of life. After the fire, Father O’Byrne generously placed his presbytery, which at that time was situated in Atherton Road, at the disposal of the Sisters while he returned to board with the family who had housed him when he was first appointed to the parish. The school boarders were taken in by St. Mary’s College. The replacement convent was the single-story structure that is still in use (Cecilia Mahar House) and during renovations carried out this year, the discovery was made of some charred demolition timber that had been reused, no doubt in the interest of economy. How frugal those good Sisters must have been!
The Sisters were much more than teachers in the early years. They were active in the bazaars that contributed funds to the building programme and they cared for the sanctuary and cleaned the church.
The Holy Cross Community was further adversely affected by the decline in vocations to religious life that has been taking place since the 1960’s. There had earlier been as many as six Sisters on the staff on the school, by 1974 this number had been reduced to two. This, together with the burden of upkeep and the increasing cost of rates, was therefore presented by the Mother General of the Mercy Order at that Year’s Chapter for consideration by the members. The result was that the decision was taken to vacate the building, with the resident Sisters transferring to Onehunga from where they commuted each day to the Epsom school. Some thought was even given to selling the property, and the parish was interested in purchasing it, with several possibilities in mind, but the sale never eventuated, probably because the Order was never a really serious seller. Subsequent events the following decade, however, would show that this was the right decision.
Nevertheless, at the time, the loss of the Sisters was seen as a very sad episode in the history of the parish and was keenly felt by everyone. But at the farewell garden party that was held to mark the occasion, all feeling of sadness were stifled, for it proved to be a most enjoyable function. The sight of an empty convent building was hard enough to accept’ but when it was rented to a family, to most people, this seemed quite unreal. However, it was well looked after and the tenants stayed for a number of years, carrying out some interior decorations during their stay.
In 1981 the convent property took on a new lease of life with the return of the Sisters, only a couple a first and in a totally new capacity. Whereas, Holy Cross Convent throughout its history had been affiliated to the school, this time it was quite independent of it. Sister Patricia Hook, who was in charge, set up a base for a spiritual direction service conducted initially by herself, and the name was changed to Cecilia Maher House, after the Irish Reverend Mother who had brought the first band of Mercy Sisters to Auckland to assist Bishop Pompallier in his mission here.
Within a few years however, it became obvious to a group within the Mercy Order that there was a need in Auckland for a spirituality centre and in 1986 the concept of the present unit was born, based on the model of a similar one in Melbourne. After considerable study on the feasibility of such a project, the go-ahead was given in 1987 and the present Mercy Spiritual life Centre was opened, with Sister Patricia as its head, in December 1988. Since then it has undergone rapid growth in staff and the variety of services offered, which currently include spiritual direction, retreats, counselling services, facilities for conferences and seminars or personal reflections, as well as other programmes in response to expressed needs. It is also the centre for the Mercy Associates, a group of about 200 lay people who meet regularly in their own districts and convene for prayer and reflection under the guidance of Sr Fay Johnson RSM and a committee. The undoubted success of the centre makes it a valuable asset to the parish and it is yet another manifestation of the outstanding contributions made by the sisters in Epsom. Sister Aileen Martin RsM is its present co-ordinator.