Sister Laura Francis | State Library of New South Wales

Laura Francis – Sister of the People

Although women have only recently been admitted to positions of authority within many religions, they have always played an important role within the church.
From the late 19th century, most of the labour undertaken within the Australian Christian traditions has been done by women. Nuns, missionaries and lay sisters all contributed their time, skills and passion to their church and communities.

Sisters of the People was founded in Sydney in 1890 by Methodist minister Reverend William George Taylor (1845-1934). The Sisters were part of an innovative plan to revitalise the Central Methodist Mission (now known as Wesley Mission).  Taylor had already set up a seamen’s mission, and evangelist’s training home and would go on to found Dalmar Children’s Home. Taylor’s form of Methodism viewed all forms of community service as an opportunity to gain converts through preaching. Rev. Taylor had seen and admired the work done by women in the West London and wanted to replicate the scheme in Sydney. To this end, a six-bedroom home was set up in Woolloomooloo and five women entered to become Sisters of the People in 1890. This scheme was controversial within Taylor’s church, as some people thought that it was too similar to the Catholic tradition of nuns and convents.

Laura Francis was instrumental in establishing the Sisters of the People. As soon as Rev. Taylor had announced his intention to set up a home for lay sisters, Francis wrote from her home in Grafton, saying ‘Is that Home ready? I want to come in as one of the Sisters.’ In a second letter, six months later, Francis pleaded, ‘If my own Church cannot open its door to me, I must go to the Salvation Army.’ Taylor was moved to action and managed to gather enough donations of money, furniture and the Woolloomooloo house itself to open the home. Laura Francis was the first to sign up, but by the time of the 1890 opening, several other women had also been found. The opening was announced on the front page of the Methodist Central Mission gazette on July 5th 1890.

Methodist Central Mission gazette, July 5, 1890, Sydney: Printed for the Proprietors by Pepperday & Vider, General Printers, 26 Hunter Street, Sydney, 1890-. 
Printed periodical Q287/M

The main daily tasks of the Sisters were visits to the poor in the slum areas of Sydney, providing physical and mental support alongside spiritual evangelism. The Sisters also visited gaols, courthouses, opium dens, factories and hospitals, promoting their religious message and gathering converts to the Methodist tradition. Interestingly, they also preached at open air services and ran prayer meetings. The missions, such as the Central Methodist Mission and the Salvation Army, were much more willing than the local churches to give women the opportunity to take an active part in evangelism. These female lay preachers paved the way for the deaconess system within the Protestant church.

Sister Francis kept a diary of her first year at the Mission, which has survived in the Mitchell Library collection. She worked as a Sister of the People for six years before travelling to New Zealand, New York and England as a preacher. Francis returned to Sydney in around 1905 where she worked as a travelling evangelist for the Home Mission Department. Laura Francis died in Ashfield in 1946 at the age of 81.

 > Read selections from Laura Francis’ diary documenting her city mission work in 1890

Read Laura Francis' diary