Page 1: Biography
Catholic nun, teacher
This biography, written by Elizabeth Isichei, was first published in the Dictionary of New Zealand Biography in 1993.
Bridget Howley was born on 17 June 1848 at Corofin, County Clare, Ireland, the eighth of nine children of Timothy Howley, an agricultural labourer, and his wife, Catherine Meehan. The family emigrated to South Australia in 1852. Bridget entered religious life on 16 July 1869, the same day as her sister Anne, taking Calasanctius as her name in religion. She joined the Sisters of St Joseph of the Sacred Heart (the 'Brown Josephites'), founded at Penola, South Australia, in March 1866, by Father Julian Tenison-Woods and Mary MacKillop (Mother Mary of the Cross). The order aimed to educate the children of the Catholic poor, and intended to live as much as possible without material possessions and to recruit sisters from among the poor. In 1871, after a crisis over the independence of the order from episcopal control, Mother Mary was excommunicated and many sisters, including Calasanctius, left. However, she soon returned.
When only in her 20s Sister Calasanctius held a number of responsible positions. Mother Mary considered her invaluable for her 'sincerity and straightforwardness'; she was in charge of the order's work in the diocese of Bathurst in 1873, and was sent to Queensland in 1876. While sailing there in early September her ship, the Dandenong, was wrecked off Jervis Bay, New South Wales. Many on board were drowned, but Sister Calasanctius and her companions were among the survivors. The experience scarred her deeply. In 1877 Mother Mary wrote, 'Poor S. Calasanctius is far from well. She has not recovered from the shock of the wreck'.
In 1881 Sister Calasanctius was elected assistant general. Her departure for New Zealand in 1883 was at the insistence of Bishop C. A. Reynolds, who was motivated by his awareness of her loyalty to Mother Mary (with whom he had had a serious difference), and her seniority as the latter's second in command. Although Mother Mary mentioned Sister Calasanctius's dread of the sea after her traumatic experience, the bishop still insisted that she go.
Sister Calasanctius sailed on the Hauroto to Port Chalmers, then the Wakatipu to Lyttelton. On her arrival by train at Temuka, the site of the Josephites' first New Zealand foundation, in November 1883, she wrote to Mother Mary: 'I felt like the poor man who was made Lord Mayor of Dublin.…When I tell you…that Sister Immaculata is hoping we will live to a good old age to enjoy all that is to be enjoyed here, it will give you an idea of how well off we are so far.' St Joseph's School opened on 12 November and on 12 May 1884 Sister Calasanctius opened a new school in Kerrytown, six miles from Temuka, which she ran with the assistance of two sisters.
Having carried out her mission, Sister Calasanctius returned to Australia in September 1884, and spent the rest of her long life there. She died at Kensington, South Australia, on 13 December 1933. One of the very strong characters of the founding years of the Josephites in New Zealand, Sister Calasanctius was a logical, clear-headed thinker with a compassionate concern for all. Her importance is also symbolic: she stands for scores of forgotten Josephites, who endured enormous privations to bring education to the poor.