In 1865 the Sisters of Mercy, guided by the spirit of their founder Catherine McAuley, arrived in Sydney, from Liverpool England, and took up residence in the Rocks area at St Patrick's Church Hill. Ten years later, under the guidance of Mother Mary Ignatius McQuoin, they opened a convent at Monte Sant' Angelo, North Sydney, and established this as the head house of the congregation.
With establishment of the Sisters of Mercy, North Sydney, the objectives of the new order were stated as "charitable nursing of the indigent, sick and tuition of the young."
In response to a request from Cardinal Moran, Mother Aloysius purchased the vacated Royal North Shore district hospital. In the same year, 1906, the Sisters of Mercy established the Mater Misericordiae Hospital for Women and Children on Sydney’s North Shore. The 12-bed, 12-cot cottage hospital was located on Willoughby Road, stretching between Albany and Holterman Streets.
The Mater’s first ten years were characterized by rapid growth. Between 1906 and 1909, about 400 new patients per year were treated, and from 1910 that number rose to 650.
The Sisters extend their services
By 1910 the desperate need amongst Sydney’s north shore population, now over 55,000 was quite evident. The work of the Sisters in the local community had revealed that living conditions for working class families were often bleak. Since 1897 the Sisters of Mercy had already cared for 162 women and 685 babies in their non-subsidised foundling home at Waitara.
Their care, infused with a gentle spirituality, continued to extend beyond the hospital confines. Although discreet and unpublicised, it was well recognised, and the support of the community who they served was always guaranteed.
In 1910, as a result of that support, the Sisters extended their services and influence. They purchased and renovated ‘Wenona’, the large residence on Mr A.P. Stewart, a local bank manager, on Lane Cove Road (now Pacific Highway). By 1911 it functioned as a fully operational hospital.
The Mater Public Hospital, also known as the Mater General Hospital, was then erected and opened in 1914, adjacent to ‘Wenona’. The ‘Cottage Hospital’ was closed and ‘Wenona’ then became the Mater Private Hospital. By 1920 1,700 new patients were being treated annually.
By 1929 and with the approach of the Depression, the inability of the poor to pay for health care was evident, and the Public Hospital experienced lower numbers of operations and admissions, generally. Undaunted the Sisters commitment to the community remained constant.
In spite of the threat of a worldwide economic downturn, the Sisters kept building projects on the agenda, and in 1929 opened a major extension to the Mater Private Hospital. Facing Sinclair Street, the extension was designed to take advantage of the view to Sydney’s west, the same one still enjoyed today. The now upgraded Hospital attracted patients able to pay and bed numbers were increased from 25 to 70. The room fee varied from 3-15 guineas.
Expanding their Private Hospital enabled the Public Hospital to function during the difficult economic times. The loyalty of the same community the Sisters served was reciprocated and the new facility was furnished by donations from their supporters.
A magnificent tribute to motherhood
Despite the deprivations incurred by the Second World War the Sisters responded to a call to establish a Maternity Hospital, and amid much fanfare, the foundation stone for the Mater Maternity Hospital was laid in 1940. In preparation for their Maternity Hospital two Sisters were dispatched to study Midwifery at St Margaret’s Hospital, Darlinghurst.
The Sisters courage to embark upon this project in these challenging times was described in the press as “… a magnificent tribute to motherhood and an example to those in whom respect and reverence for mothers is sadly lacking.”
1942 was the first full year of operation for the Mater Maternity Hospital. Like our current facility, Mater Maternity was an instant success on the North Shore. In spite of potential fathers being absent due to war, demand for accommodation was overwhelming. In the period 1942-43 the Mater Maternity delivered 1,242 babies and treated 1,318 mothers.
An army of local general practitioners ably supported the Sisters and their Hospital. In a ‘cradle to grave’ atmosphere, these untiring medicos delivered the babies and, via their busy practices and the Mater’s well developed services, cared for the whole family.
Often shunned at this time, unwed mothers were also sheltered by the Sisters. In cooperation with their Foundling Home at Waitara, the Sisters cared for these women before and after their confinements. Babies for adoption were carefully placed with suitable parents.
Staffed by qualified midwives and trainees, the Maternity Hospital established an Obstetrics Training School, and the first five ‘Mater Midwives’ graduated in 1942. The Mater became a prestigious training ground attracting graduates from other institutions.
Sisters Margaret Mary and Anslem fostered a family environment taking a personal interest and maintaining contact with many families long after the birth of their children.
Between 1946 and 1968 the Mater established community projects including the Home Care Service and Meals on Wheels. Due to government funding increases, the Mater also changed from a Catholic community hospital to a public institution.
In response to increased demand for certified nursing staff the Mater, now affiliated with the University of Sydney, was established as a teaching hospital in 1968. With this change in status, the Mater was now able to develop some areas of special expertise.
First Renal Unit on the North Shore
In 1968 the first renal unit on the North Shore was established at the Mater Hospital by nephrologist Dr James Johnson and Sr Mary Barbara initiating treatments. The first patient was a Mr Harry Kember, an employee of the Sydney Morning Herald (Fairfax group).
From humble beginnings, the unit grew to include a Home Dialysis Training Centre in 1974, including a state wide service for dialysing patients with hepatitis B. Then in 1977 the renal transplant program highlighted the clinical sophistication at the Mater. Dr Tom Nash performed approximately ninety transplants before the closure of the public hospital. The outcomes for the transplant patients were better than in many other Australian units at that time.
The end of an era
1982 was a significant and eventful year. After 68 years and in spite of numerous improvements, the Mater Public Hospital required major renovation. Until this time it had mostly functioned as a community concern. However, to maintain the hospital’s standard of care, increased government help was sought. The Government’s response was cool. Providing more north shore beds was incompatible with the pressing health needs of the expanding western suburbs. The government offer fell well short of the Mater’s need, and it was suggested that bed numbers be reduced; a trend unheard of in the hospital’s history.
Opening communication with the government in 1976 led to a series of complex propositions, and by 1981 the now formidable hospital administration was confident of success. However, the state government’s health budget was ailing, and negotiations deteriorated into a battle to simply retain the hospital. The government’s decision to close the hospital gained momentum, and despite a protracted struggle, amid howling opposition from the community, staff and all manner of supporters, the Public Hospital closed its doors.
In typical fashion the Sisters converted adversity to advantage. New strength fuelled new ventures, and the Sisters’ the Private Hospital, was upgraded and within eight years totally rebuilt.
New life for the Mater
In December 1990 the ‘new’ 185 bed Mater Private Hospital was opened in Rocklands Road. Support for the project was overwhelming, and the Mater high standards and attention to detail were, once again, to the fore.
The maternity unit now delivered a new generation of ‘Mater babies’. Many of the new parents were themselves born at the old Mater Maternity. The unit’s desirability was expressed in its waiting lists which were very quickly overflowing.
The hospital boasted eight operating theatres catering for all major specialties, including cardiac surgery. State of the art equipment now allowed teaching to take place using audiovisual technology to relay live images of operations to large audiences, both inside and away from the hospital.
Medical and nursing education was maintained in the Mater model. Retraining nurses who had been away from the profession was a high priority, and in 1994 eighteen medical students enhanced their learning within the Mater confines.
Providing an excellent example of the hospital’s talent, a Mater breast clinic was also established to aid in the early diagnosis and treatment of primary tumors.
Pastoral care and staff counseling continued to serve the patients and staff. Once again, together with a sensitive, caring patient support system, the Sisters made sure that both the facilities and their mission were current and relevant in their new hospital.
St Vincents & Mater Health Sydney
In January 2001 a new entity, St Vincents & Mater Health Sydney Limited was formed. This event witnessed the union of two of Sydney’s leading Catholic healthcare organisations, incorporating St Vincent’s Public Hospital, Sacred Heart Hospice, St Vincent’s Private Hospital and the Mater Hospital.
Through this initiative, the Congregations aimed to preserve the rich heritage of the Sisters of Mercy and Sisters of Charity, continuing their mission to serve the health needs of the sick, poor and disadvantaged through the viable operations of the respective hospitals.
From hospital to campus
A definitive year, in 2009 the Mater was transformed from a hospital to a campus. This transition culminated in the opening of the Mater Clinic – the attainment of a 28 year dream. The clinic, located on Gillies Street, includes orthopaedic, cardiology, obstetrics and gynaecology consulting suites, three surgical theatres, two research areas and pathology services. Equally monumental was the opening of the Poche Centre, which incorporates the Melanoma Institute Australia.
For more than 105 years the long standing tradition of excellent care, which has always been a hallmark of the Mater, has been reflected in the commitment of the Sisters and staff in maintaining a spirit of hospitality, friendliness and community which we believe is unsurpassed in hospital care.