02 Jun 2022

A stitch in time

Cope embroidary p14 Scan.jpg

The Southern Cross  |  June 2022

A stitch in time

A country teacher with a love for detective work has written the fascinating history of how English nuns came to establish one of Adelaide’s leading needlework studios.

Jo Vandepeer’s sleuthing in two countries has brought together all the details of how Dominican Sisters arriving from England first set up a Catholic needlework atelier in South Australia, which went on to become a thriving and diverse business.

It’s a story that has been somewhat neglected Jo says in a comprehensive essay, for which has been awarded the annual MacGinley Award by the Australian Catholic Historical Society.

The nuns were remarkable women, resilient and persistent under duress, and their skills in needlework and illumination were outstanding, even by the high standards set by the city’s two existing Anglican guilds.

‘Of all the ecclesiastical embroidery made by South Australian women, the work held in the St Dominic’s Priory Museum is arguably the finest,’ Jo writes. ‘This is because the founding Community arrived with the skills to create such celestial beauty.’

Now both Jo and Sr Jill Havey, who was principal of St Dominic’s for nearly five decades, hope the essay and award will help spread the word about the most spectacular production of the atelier – St Dominic’s Cope (often incorrectly called the Lundberry Cope).

The cope was designed by Mother Rose Columba Adams, leader of the eight nuns and postulates from Stone in England who arrived in Adelaide in 1883 to a warm welcome – and then bad news.

All were volunteers, having been enticed down under by two newly converted female members of the Baker family of Morialta to establish what would become Calvary Hospital. To prepare, some had undertaken a few weeks of basic training at a hospital in Ireland.

Catholic authorities in England then had a change of heart, however, deciding it was not appropriate for nuns to work in a general hospital treating both men and women. In short, the deal was off

The new arrivals were entitled to a free ticket home, but they decided to stay and make their own way. It was no small ask, given that they suddenly had no income.

Fortunately, they were able to fall back on their creative skills.

‘In the context of Victorian societal mores, an income derived from decorative needlework, especially that connected to the church, was particularly acceptable as a form of employment for gentlewomen,’ Jo writes.

Acceptable and, in Adelaide, very much in demand. The rapid growth of both Catholic and Anglican churches at the time ensured there was plenty of ecclesiastical work around, while the mothers of North Adelaide were very keen for their daughters to learn from the best.

Click here to read more.

Picture:  Five of the early Sisters who created the beautiful embroidery and needlework.

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