Celebrating Women’s History Month

Robed women’s choir from St Paul’s Parish Church, which existed on the site of the Cathedral until 1885

On Wednesday 8th March 2023 we marked United Nations International Women’s Day when we celebrate the social, economic, cultural, and political achievements of women throughout the world.

It is a day to also give thanks to God for the gifts, ministry, and leadership of women in the Church throughout the generations, both ordained and lay. Here at St Paul’s Cathedral, we have been blessed by the gifts of many women.

March is also Women’s History Month. Throughout the Cathedral there are a number of memorials and plaques commemorating significant women throughout history, and over the next few weeks, we’ll be sharing some of their stories.

Edith Cavell  (1865-1915)

First World War nurse Edith Cavell’s story of self-sacrifice has inspired people around the world. Born in Norfolk in 1865, Edith Cavell went on to become a pioneer of professional nursing training in Brussels and she nursed soldiers from both sides during the war in occupied Belgium. For nine months she worked with the Belgian underground resistance to shelter over 200 Allied soldiers, helping them escape to neutral Holland. For this she was shot by German soldiers on 12 October 1915.

The night before her execution, she famously said: “Standing as I do in view of God and eternity, I realise that patriotism is not enough. I must have no hatred or bitterness for anyone.”

Edith Cavell has almost no formal connection to the Cathedral, having never visited Australia. A memorial plaque honouring her can be found in the Cathedral’s North Asile. It was created in 1915 by Margaret Baskerville, who is regarded as Victoria’s first professional sculptor, and was gifted by ‘The Austral Salon’ a group of professional women interested in the arts.

You can read more about the plaque here.

Mother Emily Ayckbowm CSC (1836-1900)

Mother Emily founded the Community of the Sisters of the Church (CSC) in 1870 with the central mission to proclaim the Love of God to the People of God. She was a pioneer and challenged the status quo of Victorian society for the sake of all who were seen as marginal, becoming a controversial figure for doing so. She was independent in mind and was determined to run the Order without interference from Bishops and clergy – an Archbishop of Canterbury once described her as “the most comically audacious Mother in the Universe”. 

The Community of the Sisters of the Church continues to this day, with a presence in Australia, England, Canada, and the Solomon Islands. In the Rule of the Order, which Mother Emily wrote, she emphasized the centrality of prayer with a balance sought between prayer and active work. The Community pioneered work in Christian education, child care, social welfare, and mission work including founding St Michael’s Grammar School in St Kilda, as well as a number of schools throughout Australia.

Her plaque, which is located in the South Aisle, was given by the Community of Sisters of the Church in 2001.

Mary Sumner (1828-1921)

Plaque dedicated to Mary Sumner located in the Cathedral’s Ascension Chapel.

Mary Sumner was the wife of a clergyman, and through her own experience of motherhood became aware of how little preparation and support women received for parenting. So, in 1876 she invited 30 or so local mothers to begin meeting regularly for help and encouragement.

Prayer and practical action were at the heart of this group: its purpose was to enable the mothers to fulfill their responsibility for the material and spiritual well-being of their children. And so began the Mothers’ Union, which quickly expanded across England and then throughout the world. 

The Mothers’ Union now has more than four million members in 84 countries and has grown especially in developing countries. As well as its foundational values, the recent work of the Mothers’ Union has focused on the prevention of gender-based violence, increased awareness of acute poverty in the developing world, and our global responsibilities to address the inequalities within both developed and developing world societies.

Importantly, prayer continues to be at the heart of the Mothers’ Union just as it began, with its many global members maintaining a constant chain of intercession.

All this day, O Lord,
let me touch as many lives as possible for thee;
and every life I touch, do thou by thy spirit quicken,
whether through the word I speak,
the prayer I breathe,
or the life I live.

Mary Sumner’s Personal Prayer

Robed Women’s Choir of St Paul’s Parish Church

Robed women’s choir from St Paul’s Parish Church, which existed on the site of the Cathedral until 1885

While Anglican women’s choirs were not unusual in the nineteenth century, St Paul’s Parish Church (which once stood on the site of the Cathedral) caused quite a stir when women choristers wore surplices, scarves and mortarboards. At the time, it was only expect men would ‘robe’ when singing services. 

The then priest of St Paul’s, the Revd John Bromby, was responsible: he consistently used his influence to champion the rights of women, including in the education community for the right to study for degrees at the University of Melbourne – an effort that was successful in 1871.