It wasn’t something you’d see every day — not on a summer’s day, at any rate.
Great black umbrellas together over us, like a Roman legion’s turtle formation, with the rain pelting down. Schoolgirls in their blazered, pleated best, some of them in tears, ushering the coffin along the tessellated tiles leading from the chapel to the grotto car park.
Buoyed by a godly Irish dram or two against the unusual January deluge, our pall-bearing company guided its charge — our blessed sister Leonie — down the black stone steps and out into the elements, curious about our destination.
Not a lot of graveyards to be found in deepest, darkest Newtown, you know.
We were curious also, and a bit concerned, about one of the elderly cousins as she slipped on the wet steps behind us. Found her own hip flask, it appeared.
Our black-suited brigade plodded on, the skies bleeding unrelentingly on the small cortege.
We didn’t have far to trudge. The little Newtown Convent cemetery at Sacred Heart College, backing onto George St, is only a stone’s throw from the exquisite chapel, a popular match and despatch point for the school’s troupe.
It was christened God’s Acre and sited high on the Newtown hill for the best view across the slopes down to Corio Bay on land — the Sunville Homestead — bought for 3000 quid from the pioneering Belcher family way back when.
All very proper. Hardly the kind of place you might expect eerie, outlaw, candle-lit burials in the dead of night. Especially not burials conducted by the pious Sisters of Mercy themselves.
Not this particular funeral, of course. Mind you, we had our problems, what with all the rain gushing about and the plumbing not up to the task.
There we all were, about to lower our poor sister — in my case, aunt — when the side of the grave collapsed, depositing a great muddy clod of clay and sodden soil into the hole and offering a 30-degree to the flat resting place. Feet up. Not exactly requiescat in pace.
We did what we could only do, and repaired to teapots and cucumber sandwiches. As instructed. The graveside gazebos were struggling dangerously under the tempest. No-one stuck around.
The undertakers assured us they’d sort the rest. Maybe by hurricane lantern later that night, I like to think.That might have made the college’s founding Mercy sisters smile. They’re all in there by the way — along with many others who lived and worked in the convent, orphanage and school of Sacred Heart.
But it’s been a close thing.
You see, about a century ago, as more families started building homes in Newtown, a certain disdain arose about the idea of a cemetery in their midst.
Conveyed to the aldermen of Newtown council, this brought about a by-law banning the burials.
Naturally, the good sisters were mortified. But they complied and, for many years, they buried their dearly departed sisters way out at East Geelong. It was a sad state of affairs but the nuns bucked up when the last of the founding sisters died.
They couldn’t bear the idea of her being buried ‘out there’, I’m reliably informed by the college’s Kath Walsh, who was reliably informed on these matters by the late principal Sister Philomene Carroll, who, incidentally, is in the cemetery too.
“They decided that they would hold a secret funeral and bury her at night,” Kath says.
“So after a requiem Mass in the Chapel, she was buried by candlelight.”
Brilliant! But it didn’t go down well with the neighbouring parvenu population, who bellyached to the council, which in its wisdom fined the nuns a shilling. They paid up but refused to re-inter the late sister to East Geelong.
“A few years later, the brother of one of the sisters — who was a bishop — went in to bat for the nuns and had the by-law overturned and from that day on sisters could be buried in the convent grounds,” says Walsh.
And God bless them, and Sr Leonie too, who boarded, taught and lived at the college. She’s been buried at home, with her sisters. And it was a great privilege to place her there.
I just wonder if the hip flask I lost that rainy day might not be there, somewhere, too.