The Order of the Little Sisters of the Poor was founded in 1846 at Rennes by French nun Jeanne Jugan, known as Sister Mary of the Cross. Her mission was to care for the elderly and the infirm and she became a pioneer in the field of gerontology. In 1875 Archbishop Goold invited the French Little Sisters to Australia. Jeanne Jugan died in 1879 but her followers carried on her work establishing homes for the elderly across the world. In 1880 Archbishop Goold made a second request to the Little Sisters and appointed Melbourne’s Dean of the Cathedral Father Donaghy to make arrangements for a suitable site on which to establish a home for the Order. A team of eight nuns (six French and two English) lead by Mother Marie Berchman undertook the six week sea voyage from Marseilles and arrived in Melbourne in 1884. A year later they opened Little Sisters of the Poor on the property known as Kinsella’s farm in St George’s Road, Northcote.
Farmer Brown, the Aird brothers and Mahon and Lyon sold a total of 17-acres along with a three-roomed cottage to the Little Sisters on which to build St Joseph’s Home for the care of the aged poor. A temporary building connected to the existing farm buildings was constructed for £950. The facility opened in 1885 and housed 40 frail and destitute older women who had previously been living under the sister’s charity in a dilapidated tenement house in Victoria Street, East Melbourne. The cab men of Fitzroy and Collingwood transported the group to their new Northcote residence free of charge.
The Sisters recorded what they saw when they first visited Northcote. “The property is situated on a hill on a beautiful position, not far from the sea which makes it doubly agreeable to feel the sea breezes. The property is surrounded by four streets, the pipe track (now St Georges Road), Plant Street (now Hawthorn Street), Hartington Street and Westbourne Grove. There are in the neighbourhood two villas and we are facing lovely fields with a view of Mount Macedon. The farm is in good order. The house is small and has only two rooms, but the outer buildings are adequate, a stable for horses, a dairy for cows, lofts for hay and straw, a good grape vine and a few fruit trees. Two sides of the property are fenced off in a rustic wall made of stone; the rest is a simple barricade of wood that does not go all the way around.”
As the number of elderly and infirm increased more trained nuns were needed. Two Little Sisters came out from France and the first Australian girl entered the congregation as a postulant. Six more Australians followed in 1886 and another three in 1887.
It was not long before the Home outgrew the wooden buildings. Leonard Flanagan, a Melbourne architect, drew up plans for a large three-storey French Medieval styled institution to be positioned at the top of the elevated site. Ornate fire-proof cast-iron verandas were heralded as innovatory as well as being a lovely architectural feature. Archbishop Carr laid the foundation stone in 1889 for a building to be completed in three stages. A wing and a chapel were finished by June 1890 at a cost of £28,000. The second section was completed by the end of 1896. The third stage was finally completed thirteen years later. By then the Sisters had a large debt but the Home could now accommodate two hundred. By 1892 this had risen to three hundred. The only qualification for a place at the Home was to be over 60 years of age and destitute.
In 1933 the Mother Superior was Sister Aldegone de St Stainlaus. She supervised twenty-four sisters and over 250 elderly residents. In 1962 the land was subdivided and sections were sold. Major extensions were added the following year to, for the first time accommodate, units for married couples. In 1973 the St Justin’s wing was built to house retired priests and on 19 March 1988 a further extension to St Joseph’s Home was opened by the Most Reverend T. F. Little and Brian Howe, Minister for Social Security.
The original farm cottage and first chapel built in 1890 were recognised as buildings of historical significance in the 1970s and preserved as such by the Catholic Church. Also on site is the “Sister’s Cemetery” dotted with plain white crosses marking graves that date back as far as the late 1800s.
Over the years the Home has been continually redeveloped with funds from the Centenary Building Appeal and with Government assistance. In 1988 the Home provided a 40-bed nursing home, a hostel with single-room accommodation for forty, two respite rooms, administrative facilities, a day centre with occupational and physiotherapy areas to cater for the residents for the Home and elderly people living in the area.
By 2001 the main building was in the ownership of the Greek Orthodox Church and known as the Axion Estin Greek Monastery. The church put forward a proposal to build a 36-townhouse development on the site but this was rejected by the Darebin Council. The Church group took the decision to VCAT but the National Trust and Heritage Victoria supported the council decision by classifying it as a historic property and recommending it for registration on the Victorian Heritage Register. The building was put on the Register in 2002.
In 2007 there were 19 Sisters and an additional staff of 90 caring for 30 high care and 41 low care residents.
WHO IS JEANNE JUGAN? SHE IS SISTER MARY OF THE CROSS FOUNDRESS OF THE LITTLE SISTERS OF THE POOR. A leaflet produced by the Little Sisters of the Poor, held in the Darebin Libraries Local History Archive (LHRN57).
LITTLE SISTERS OF THE POOR. (1933, May, 19), Northcote Leader (Jubilee Issue).
OLD HOME WITH NEW DELIGHTS. (1977, August 18). The Advocate (Melbourne, Vic.), p.13.
Lemon, Andrew. (1983). The Northcote Side of the River. North Melbourne: Hargreen.
Little Sisters of the Poor. (1988). Blessing and Official Opening of St Joseph’s Home, 19 May 1988. [pamphlet].
Northcote Historical & Conservation Society. (1988). Northcote: Glimpses of Our Past. Northcote, Vic: Author.