Celebrating 15 years of support for over 13,000 women and children

Today we are celebrating 15 years since the establishment of McAuley Community Services for Women. This was the official day when two organisations, each with its own proud history of supporting women, came together. Regina Coeli had provided support and longer-term accommodation to women who were homeless, while Mercy Care had been a pioneering service for women and children facing family violence. 

Our history, though, stretches back even further. It begins with our founder Catherine McAuley in the 1830s, opening her doors to the poorest of Dublin.  Some of the terminology might be different but our modern-day focus is still recognisable in her initial call-out to: ‘Servant girls who have not yet sufficient means to provide safe lodging are invited to this house at night as their home’. 

It was a legacy carried forward in Melbourne 35 years ago, when in 1988 70-yr-old former school principal and Sister of Mercy Sheila Heywood—appalled by the lack of options for women and children in violent relationships—made a passionate plea to the Mercy leadership: ‘We need a place!’ Her vision, together with that of her equally determined colleague Sr Wilma Geary, created the original Mercy Care, where phone calls came at all hours of day and night;  sometimes 10 people slept on the lounge room floor. It operated on a shoestring, with no government funding, and dependent mainly on the two Sisters’ pensions. It was the first 24/7 service to operate in Victoria. 

Our newly created McAuley organisation also drew from the tradition of Regina Coeli, a former orphanage converted in the 1930s as a home for women who were leaving prison and needed a place to stay. It had been taken over by Sisters of Mercy in 1985. They lived in community with women who were homeless. One of those women later recalled: A conversation with a Mercy nun was like a spider web that would sparkle in the sunlight, catching our words and giving us cause for reflection. Their love was more than a Band-Aid, they gathered the crumbs of our souls and you could eat their smiles like slices of fresh watermelon on the table. They had dogs and wore boots and drove utes.’ 

All these trail-blazing women might be astonished to look ahead to 2023 and see where their vision has led. The present-day McAuley continues their focus on women and children and the closely-linked issues of family violence and homelessness. In our 15 years so far, we have established a track record of advocacy and innovative approaches. New, state-of-the-art buildings provide not just women-only accommodation but also chances for rest, healing and recovery. The legacies of Wilma and Sheila are recognised in properties opened just in the last year: ‘Wilma’s Place’ and ‘Heywood House’.  

All of these women who forged the path that McAuley now follows would no doubt be proud of where we are today. But we can be equally sure they would be dismayed and even angry to know that family violence has certainly not vanished, and that more women and children than ever find themselves homeless when they leave. They set us a high standard but their commitment to challenging the status quo, and vision for a safer world for women and their children, is one that our current-day staff are equally driven and determined to achieve.