People of Peel Island – 5 – The Sisters of Mercy

Sr Mercia Mary, Sr M Conrad, Sr M Agnese Mater Hospital Private Pharmacy c1962

My first contact with Sister Mercia Mary was in 1986 while I was writing “Peel Island – Paradise or Prison?” – my history of the Lazaret (Leprosarium) that had been in operation in Moreton Bay between 1907 and 1959. In a pleasant and informative afternoon with her and fellow Sisters of Mercy, Sister Mary Conrad and Sister Mary St. Rita I was to learn of the Nun’s great compassion for their fellow humans.

Hansen’s Disease (Leprosy) patients had been treated at the Mater Hospital and their blood smears had been processed in the Mater’s Pathology Department. It was through these contacts that the link to the patients at Peel Island was established. Not being content to treat these people as mere numbers in a waiting room or initials on a list of blood samples, the Sisters of Mercy led by Sister Mercia Mary made it their business to visit them on their island. This was a bold step because of the public neuroses that the stigma of Leprosy engendered.

The extent of such public neurosis can be gauged from Sister Mary St Rita’s account of a Hansen’s suspect in a crowded waiting room at Brisbane’s Mater Hospital in the late 1940s. The nodules had already become obvious on the man’s face when he entered the room, and one of the other patients thought he recognised the disease. Word quickly got around the waiting room, and the Sister was surprised to find when she called for the next patient that the crowded waiting room was suddenly empty – except for the Hansen’s patient who was then diagnosed and sent on to Peel Island.

For several years at Christmas, the Sisters of Mercy from the Mater Hospital visited the Lazaret on Peel Island and distributed presents. These included Sister Mercia Mary, and Sister Mary St Rita. Their main fear was not of contracting Hansen’s Disease but of getting their cloaks wet as they stepped off the boat.

I am told by one of the patients that they would often forsake lunch with the other staff on the verandah and spend the time talking with a patient, Bert Cobb, in his hut. Bert was a well educated man, an atheist, but always ready for a discussion. The Sisters of Mercy were always ready to oblige.

Most recently just before Christmas 2005, at a book-signing in the city for my re-release of “Peel Island – Paradise or Prison?” a former Mater Pathology Scientist told me more about Sister Mercia Mary’s devotion to the Hansen’s Disease patients. For the matter didn’t end in 1959 when the Peel Island Lazaret was closed down and the remaining dozen patients were transferred to Ward S12 at the South Brisbane Hospital (now the Princess Alexandra Hospital). It would have been easy to forget the patients now that they were no longer isolated, but each Christmas Sister Mercia Mary would still make up a Christmas Hamper for each of the Hansen’s patients and would personally deliver them to Ward S12. 

Another story about Sister Mercia Mary that I really like, and which illustrates her practical devotion to humanity through the philosophy of the Sisters of Mercy, is supplied by Ron Pope. In Mercia’s time before a Blood Bank had been set up, doctors were not nearly as readily available around any hospital as they are today. In order to fill a small part of that vacuum, Mercia trained in venipuncture and then could always be called upon to take blood from a donor. One of her early nursing associates recalls, with some humour, accompanying Mercia to Boggo Road jail with her trusty sterile flask, stirring rod and other paraphernalia, relieving a jail warder of the required amount of blood and bringing it back for a Mater patient!  

Pro Deo et Humanitate!

Peter Ludlow

March 2006

(Extract from Mater Scripts by Peter Ludlow)

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