Our Story

We are a group of women who live in religious community within the Catholic Church. We seek to centre our lives on God through ‘living contemplatively in attitude and action’(Constitutions:53). In our various ministries, we aim to give concrete expression to God’s compassionate care for all people and the whole of creation.

We were founded in 1871 in Wexford, Ireland, by Bishop Thomas Furlong, Bishop of Ferns, and Sr. Visitation Clancy, to care for the people who were suffering extreme spiritual and material poverty following the Great Famine in 1847.

Bridget Clancy (Sr Visitation) and Bishop Thomas Furlong
Bridget Clancy (Sr Visitation) and Bishop Thomas Furlong

Early Days

The Great Famine in Ireland in 1847 caused extreme physical, emotional and psychological suffering for the people.

Bishop Thomas Furlong of Ferns, Wexford, was acutely aware of the plight of the sick and poor people in his diocese following the famine. He was particularly concerned about the faith of the people who were living in great poverty either in their homes or as residents of the Workhouses at that time. Apart from human concern for the sick, he had a strong sense that the faith of the people was in danger in the Workhouses because they were not treated with dignity, respect or compassion.

Sr. Visitation Clancy, a Sister of Bon Secours of Paris, was nursing a patient in Wexford when she met Bishop Furlong. He was impressed by the dedication of the Bon Secours Sisters to the sick and invited her and some of her companions into the diocese to care for those worst affected by the famine.

On October 7th, 1871, four Sisters of Bon Secours of Paris arrived in Wexford from Dublin. By October 1872 a further three Sisters had joined them. These Sisters became the founding members of the new Congregation, The Sisters of St John of God. The first leader of the group was Sr. Visitation, “a woman of prayer and vision, of great courage, kindness and dedication to the sick...” (P. Corish, The Sisters of St John of God 1871-1971). Bishop Furlong suggested that St. John of God would be an inspiring patron for the new Congregation.

Bishop Furlong’s pastoral vision resonated with Sr. Visitation and her companions who readily agreed to collaborate with him in addressing the urgent need to care for his people.  

In 1873 the Sisters took up appointments in the Infirmary of the Wexford Union Workhouse. Many of the early Sisters had trained as nurses with the Bon Secours Sisters in France. Workhouses were residential institutions, established by the British Government’s “Poor Relief (Ireland) Act” 1838. They provided accommodation for destitute adults and children.  

In 1875 the Sisters were nursing in a number of Workhouses in Wexford, New Ross, Enniscorthy and Castlecomer. That same year they commenced teaching in the Faythe School, Wexford. The seeds of the Congregation continued to grow and spread. Soon the Sisters were ministering in the dioceses of Ferns, Ossory, Waterford, Kildare & Leighlin, Dromore and Killaloe.

Over the ensuing years the Sisters responded to invitations to bring their ministry of Healthcare and Education to Australia, New Zealand, England, Wales, Rome, Nigeria, West Cameroon, South Africa and Pakistan


At the Congregational Chapter in 2019, this picture of a tree was used as a symbol of the membership of the Congregation since 1871.

Prior to the Congregational Chapter, we decided to create a ‘tree’ and each leaf of the tree would bear the name of a Sister of St. John of God. Every Sister who was a member of the Congregation since 1871 would have her name inscribed on a leaf. There are 1,263 leaves on the tree, representing the total number of Sisters since our foundation.

The tree was assembled and is displayed at our Retreat Centre at Safety Bay, 47 Gloucester Crescent, Shoalwater WA 6169, Australia.

An Invitation from Australia

In 1895, at the invitation of Bishop Gibney of Perth, Western Australia, a group of eight Sisters left Ireland for Australia to care for the miners who were dying of typhoid fever in the Goldfields of Coolgardie and Kalgoorlie.

In 1907 a small group of Sisters went to the remote Kimberley Region of the State, where they provided education and health care services, including a Leprosarium. They were particularly concerned for the predominantly Aboriginal population and the families of Japanese pearl fishers.

Through the years, the Sisters focused on Health Care and made a significant contribution in this field in many places across the continent of Australia.

A Call to the United Kingdom

In 1924 the Sisters responded to an invitation to establish a new foundation in Bristol, England with a specific focus on Catholic Education. Subsequently they accepted further invitations to work in parish schools in Trowbridge, Cardiff and London as well as running a Nursing Home in Torquay, Devon and parish ministry in Hartlepool Durham.

New Foundations

With the increasing numbers of Sisters many more foundations in the areas of Healthcare, Education and College ministry followed in Ireland, North and South, Australia, New Zealand, England, Wales and Rome.

A mission in Nigeria was opened in 1960 and the Sisters remained there until they were deported at the end of the Biafran War. The Sisters later went to West Cameroon in 1974, where again they were engaged in Health Care, Education and Community and Faith Development until 2004.

In October 1980, the Sisters began their mission in Pakistan in response to an appeal by Bishop Armando Trindade of Lahore, Pakistan. Their first ministry was in Bethania Hospital, Sialkot, caring for patients suffering predominantly from tuberculosis. Two years later the Sisters were invited to minister in the Maternity Hospital in Sargodha. As this new mission in Sargodha was being undertaken the first Pakistani Sister joined the Congregation.

The chief ministry of the Sisters in Pakistan today is Education in villages on the edge of the city of Lahore where they have three schools. There are almost a thousand students in these schools and the majority of these students would receive no education were it not for the commitment of the Sisters and their lay colleagues and the generosity of many friends and donors.

The most recent overseas mission was to the diocese of Tzaneen in South Africa. There the Sisters provided support for people suffering from HIV/Aids, as well as their families and Home-based Carers. The Sisters were involved in this work from 2004-2013.

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