The Sisterhood of St Vincent’s is testament to the power of women networking and getting together to support one another and to raise money and awareness for an important cause: the life-saving work of St Vincent’s Hospital in Melbourne. In its 10th year now, the Sisterhood, together with St Vincent’s Foundation, has raised over $380,000 in total for research and programs related to heart health, mental health, palliative care and, more recently, addiction medicine.

At its most recent gala luncheon, about 350 women (and some men) gathered at Zinc in Federation Square to help raise $50,000, funds that have gone directly towards St Vincent’s Addiction Medicine Centre in Fitzroy. According to St Vincent’s Foundation CEO Sue Parkes, this funding is invaluable for providing immediate, tangible, on-site assistance to the vulnerable women who come through its doors.

‘Our addiction medicine centre is a beautiful, brand-new building, with fantastic staff, who are focussed on identifying addiction, particularly in young people, and working to provide a wraparound service for those that come in,’ Sue explains. ‘We’re really looking to address what addiction is, how it progresses and the impact on the family.

‘Given its location in Fitzroy, it has a lot of interaction with our homelessness services and our Aboriginal healthcare services. Bringing all of the services together on one site is absolutely critical to the care we provide.’

The Sisterhood hosted its first fundraising event for the work of St Vincent’s in 2010 at the Yarra Yarra Rowing Club in Melbourne. Co-founders Sarah Kennedy and Kate McGrath (who were on the St Vincent’s Foundation board at the time), rallied friends and colleagues from their large network to join the organising committee, donate goods and services, and attend the fundraiser event.

‘In those early days, we did a lot of the groundwork and organising, and deciding where the funds would go,’ says Kate. ‘We were sourcing the cutlery and glassware, the alcohol, catering and raffle prizes, and whatever else we could find for the event—every detail was done by the committee. In that first year, we raised over $50,000 with 80 people in the room, and since then it’s just grown.’ To this day, there are a large number of women who’ve been to every fundraising event hosted by the Sisterhood since its inception.

‘I think the work of St Vincent’s has captured the hearts and minds of many women in the network,’ says Kate. ‘It’s not so much a hospital as it’s a whole health system really. It caters to every facet of life and budget, from the birthing experience to a dignified death in palliative care. Those within the prison system go through St Vincent’s, the vulnerable and homeless—they’re all looked after really well.’

Sarah explained that the ‘Sisterhood’ name was intentional and drew upon the ‘inspiring founders’ of St Vincent’s Hospital network, the Sisters of Charity (whose missionary work continues through Mary Aikenhead Ministries). ‘The sisters are incredible businesswomen with a phenomenal history,’ says Sarah. ‘They came out on a boat from Ireland, and they’ve created a billion-dollar enterprise, underpinned by an ethos to care for and include people. It really is an inspiring pioneering story.

‘I think as a female, it’s something you’re really proud to be a part of because it was started for women by women. And the Sisters continue to do a fantastic job in that aspect of community care through their Mary Aikenhead Ministries. It’s really on the cutting edge of medical research and innovation.’

Sister of Charity Maryanne Confoy has attended the Sisterhood luncheon every year and always says grace for the guests. ‘Sr Marianne is the absolute hit of lunch,’ says Kate. ‘This year I think she had everybody in tears when she said, “You are all grace.” She’s the only person who can shut the room up.’

Also grabbing the attention of guests this year was Associate Professor Yvonne Bonomo, the Director of Addiction Medicine at St Vincent’s Hospital Melbourne. Prof Bonomo, with some of her colleagues, shared stories (via pre-recorded video) about their roles at St Vincent’s and how the funds raised at the event would directly support patients. This year was the inaugural year of fundraising for the Sisterhood Support Fund, allocating funds for patients affected by addiction who need money to buy essential items such as warm clothing, sanitary items and the like.

‘It’s a fund that staff can draw on to show care for people who come into the service, and which breaks down the barriers of bureaucracy,’ explains Sue. ‘So, someone presents at the site, and you just want to get them a meal. That’s really hard when you’re using government funding. But if you have a bucket of funds (so that $50,000 raised at the lunch, for instance), you can pay for a night’s emergency accommodation without any fuss. You can get them some new clothes; you can buy some food or grab a coffee to have a chat. It shows genuine care without that “Wait a minute, I’ll check with my boss if I can do that.”

‘It really helps those workers, which includes youth workers, social workers, nurses, doctors and specialists in addiction medicine, to establish a rapport and trust with the people who come into the service straight away.’

In her presentation, Prof Bonomo shared that she speaks to people who come into the service about the Sisterhood, telling them,‘There is a group of women called the Sisterhood who are thinking of you, and who are out there raising money to support you and to help you get through this process. You are in their minds and hearts.’ This has a huge impact on the people who access the services, according to Sue.

‘And Yvonne talks to her team and tells them when the events are on, which elevates the significance and importance of the Sisterhood,’ says Sue. ‘It’s not just about the money. It’s about the values and the mindset behind it, and the heart and soul behind it. The more I’ve gotten involved with the Sisterhood, the more I think it is something quite special that we should be celebrating more and growing.’

Though Sarah and Kate are no longer ‘officially involved’ with the foundation, which has now taken over the annual Sisterhood fundraising luncheon, Sue and her team still liaise with them, relying on their leadership and vast networks to help draw the loyal women (and men) to the annual event. Both Sarah and Kate hope ‘fresh, young blood’ and innovative ideas that harness digital technology will help keep the work of the Sisterhood alive.

‘It’s a wonderful cause, and I’m really proud of how much it’s grown and what we’ve achieved over the years,’ says Sarah. ‘It’d be good to see it reinvigorate, and [to] really look at what’s going to work moving forward, to raise a lot of money and awareness. It’s also about fostering that sense of belonging, as it’s a wonderful network to be part of, and it’s something we look forward to every year, and all to raise much needed funds for women’s health, and health in general.’

For more information about the Sisterhood and upcoming events and opportunities to donate, visit the St Vincent’s Foundation website or contact Rebecca Martin, Events Manager for St Vincent’s Foundation.

All photos courtesy Mike Tarr.