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Story: Nowland, Mary Josepha

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Nowland, Mary Josepha


Catholic nun, teacher

This biography, written by Francine Power, was first published in the Dictionary of New Zealand Biography in 1996.

Catherine Elizabeth Nowland was born on 16 June 1863 at Gunnedah, New South Wales, Australia, the eldest daughter of Robert Nowland, a butcher, and his wife, Julia Leary. The family were devout Catholics and as a young woman Catherine decided to join the order of the Sisters of Mercy. She entered St Patrick's Convent at Singleton in September 1884, received the habit in April 1885 and was professed in April 1887. Her name in religion was Mary Josepha. Two of her sisters later entered St Patrick's: Beatrice (Sister Mary Aquin) and Julia (Sister Mary Clare).

In response to a request from Father Jean-Baptiste Rolland, the Catholic priest at Reefton, New Zealand, it was resolved to set up a Mercy foundation there in 1890. Mother Stanislaus Kenny, St Patrick's superior, chose from volunteers five sisters and one postulant. Mother Mary Regis Murray was selected superior and Sister Mary Josepha her assistant. The sisters arrived in New Zealand in early 1891 on the Tekapo and received an enthusiastic welcome from the strong Irish Catholic community at Reefton.

Mother Regis and Sister Josepha were zealous about Catholic education and this was the main focus of their work in early years. They also contributed to the cultural life of the local community, which lacked the amenities and refinements of larger urban centres. The sisters immediately took over the established boys' infant and girls' primary schools at Reefton, and opened a girls' high school offering in addition to the usual subjects religious training, languages, needlework and art. Music, speech training, painting and drawing were offered to the residents of Reefton through private tuition. As well as assisting Mother Regis to run these schools, Sister Josepha taught academic subjects and gave private violin lessons.

On 5 February 1894 a branch house of the order was opened in Westport by Mother Regis and some of the sisters. The Sisters of Mercy took over St Canice's convent school, and established St Mary's College, a high school for girls. By 1895 Sister Josepha was in charge of the convent. The sisters were hampered in their work by two problems: a shortage of staff and a lack of money. The first was solved by a vigorous policy of recruitment. Both Mother Regis and Sister Josepha made frequent trips to Australia to bring back postulants from the Singleton convent, as well as encouraging local women to join the order. The finance problem – a perennial one, as there was no state aid for Catholic schools – was overcome by ingenious fund-raising schemes. Donations were supplemented by money gained from giant bazaars and concerts organised by the sisters.

On 24 September 1903 a new convent opened in Westport, which was now regarded as the mother house of the order on the West Coast and centre for the novitiate. In the same year Mother Regis became seriously ill, and until 1908 Sister Josepha was head of the foundation, holding the elected position of superior. She had always carried a considerable administrative load as Mother Regis's assistant and her strength of character made her indispensable in a crisis. For instance, when one of the sisters was killed in an accident in 1893, Sister Josepha took charge and made the funeral arrangements. With the ill health of Mother Regis, Sister Josepha's leadership qualities were further tested.

Both Reefton and Westport primary schools were extended in 1909 and on 15 October 1911 St Mary's College reopened in a new brick building with facilities for 30 boarders. The Sisters of Mercy also endeavoured to meet the religious and educational needs of outlying districts. They visited the sick, poor and aged and prepared children for confirmation, opening catechism classes at Cape Foulwind in 1898, and Millerton and Denniston in 1907.

Sister Josepha was appointed reverend mother of the Westport convent in 1914 and oversaw the establishment of an out-school at Granity, later to be succeeded by a convent school. Then, on the death of Mother Regis in 1917, she was again elected superior of the foundation, a position she held until 1921. With the confident and authoritative demeanour apparent in photographs of her, Mother Josepha turned her attention to the establishment of O'Conor Home for the aged at Westport.

The home was unusual in that it was neither denominational nor owned by the Catholic church. It was funded by a bequest from Eugene O'Conor, a former member of the House of Representatives for Buller, and opened in February 1918. Initially it was run by four Sisters of Mercy and managed by three trustees, but after one of the trustees absconded with funds in 1920, direct management passed to Mother Josepha. During the epidemic of 1918 she opened a wing of the home to influenza patients and sent sisters into the community to nurse the sick. Later, she purchased land, which provided income, meat and milk for the home.

Between 1923 and 1926 Mother Josepha participated in discussions that resulted in the amalgamation of the West Coast and Wellington foundations of the Sisters of Mercy in 1927. At the first post-amalgamation elections in 1927 she was re-elected superior of Westport and Reefton holding the position until her death.

The period after 1927 was difficult for the Sisters of Mercy and for Mother Josepha. The 1929 Murchison earthquake caused considerable damage to the Westport convent and Mother Josepha herself narrowly escaped injury. Although an infant school, St Joseph's, was opened at Westport in 1931 and a new St Canice's school was erected in 1935, the depression of the 1930s brought financial problems as paying music pupils decreased. The St Mary's College boarding establishment closed in 1933. Regardless of their own troubles, Mother Josepha and her community responded generously to those in need.

Towards the end of her life Mother Josepha suffered from chronic nephritis. She died in Westport on 14 December 1935, 'mourned by thousands who were privileged to come within her ennobling influence and striking personality'. Energetic, with a playful sense of humour and a talent for organisation, Mother Josepha played a key role in the establishment of Catholic institutions on the West Coast.

How to cite this page:

Francine Power. 'Nowland, Mary Josepha', Dictionary of New Zealand Biography, first published in 1996. Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, https://teara.govt.nz/en/biographies/3n12/nowland-mary-josepha (accessed 28 May 2024)