The Sisters of Mercy Queensland’s response to the outbreak of war in 1914 was swift. News of the early effects of the war on their European counterparts spread quickly. On September 24, 1914, just weeks after Australia joined the war effort, the Darling Downs Gazette reported on the deaths of four Sisters of Mercy during the bombing of the Reims Cathedral in France. Pupils at Mercy schools began to enlist in the Australian Imperial Forces, and All Hallows’ School alumni joined the cause as nurses. It was the Sisters’ determination to bring about a return to peace and non-violence, core principles of the Mercy ethos, that motivated their war work.
The Sisters used one of their best resources—music—to support the Red Cross and other patriotic funds. They arranged and contributed to concerts in Brisbane and around the State, and used patriotic songs to rally donations from members of the public. The Sisters also used their favoured fundraising method of bazaars to assist Red Cross drives, selling handicrafts, embroidery and paintings at events they organised and ran themselves. The work of former Mercy pupils serving in Europe were tracked closely. The All Hallows’-educated Beatrice Cheesman, for example, was mentioned in Despatches in April 1916 for distinguished service in France.
The Mater Hospital faced a unique set of challenges during the war years. It lost many of its medical staff to war service and suspended its own fundraising campaigns for the sake of war drives. Among the doctors to leave the Mater temporarily was Dr Lilian Cooper, Queensland’s first female doctor. Unable to join the Australian Army Medical Corps because of her sex, Dr Cooper joined the Scottish Women’s Hospitals for Foreign Service in 1916 and served for 12 months in a Serbian field hospital.
At the Mater, Sisters of Mercy saw the horrors of war first-hand. The hospital dedicated 20 beds to returned, injured servicemen in a ward nicknamed ‘Dardanelles’. Forty veterans of the Gallipoli campaign were treated there in 1915.
In December 1915, the Sisters sought help from local department stores to decorate the hospital to raise the spirits of recovering soldiers. Finney Isles installed a tableau of a soldier standing with two Red Cross nurses in the Dardanelles ward, and drapers McDonnell and East decorated the Hospital’s main entrance with a statue of Christ, and the words ‘Peace on earth’. The local paper referred to ‘loving bands of Sisters of peace’, who used these decorations to ‘lift the shadow of bodily sickness and mental depression’. ‘The whole effect was beautiful,’ the paper reported. ‘There was a beautiful lingering sadness about it all, but it was a sadness that made one better for having felt it.’